Pass the syrup and enjoy a slice of history for National Waffle Day
Americans eat a lot of waffles. According to the restaurant chain Waffle House, approximately 145 waffles are sold at the eatery throughout the United States every minute. Served sweet or savory, topped with fried chicken, syrup, or fruit, the waffle eaten today has a long and mouthwatering history.
The National Museum of American History's Domestic Life collection includes waffle irons that date from the early 18th century through the mid-20th century. They provide a glimpse into American eating habits as well as innovations that shaped the domestic sphere. What better way to take advantage of National Waffle Day than to explore the tasty history of one of our most beloved breakfast treats?
Today's date is significant because it is the date of the first patent issued for a waffle iron. On August 24, 1869, the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent to Cornelius Swartwout of Troy, New York, for his design for an "Improvement in Waffle-Irons." (More than one spelling can be found for the inventor's name, including Swartwout and Swarthout. I'll use "Swartwout" in this post as it's the one I've come across most often in my research.)
As you can see from Swartwout's patent drawing, his design looks quite similar to waffle irons used today. The major difference is that unlike modern electric waffle irons, Swartwout's design—and the earliest irons produced—required a fire for heat. American manufacturers produced waffle irons similar to Swartwout's design by the late 19th century. An example in the museum's collection dates to around 1890. A family in Winchester, Virginia, used the waffle iron pictured over a wood-fired stove between 1890 and 1940 before donating the iron to the Smithsonian.
Waffle-making made its way to America with Dutch colonists in the 1620s. It was one hundred years later, in Robert Smith's Court Cookery, that the English language saw the appearance of the word "waffle" for the first time. Waffles were enjoyed sweet, with butter, syrup, or fruit, or savory, with kidney stew.
While the waffle iron can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, the earliest irons in the museum's Domestic Life collection date to the early 18th century and take the form of two hinged plates at the end of long handles called reins. The waffle iron below was used by a family in Morgantown, West Virginia, between 1810 and 1850 and features a ring of squares surrounding a central rosette. With the introduction of the wood stove, the handles of waffle irons were shortened to be used over the cooktop rather than in an open hearth.
About 1906, the Simplex Electrical Company of Boston, Massachusetts, manufactured what is likely the first electric waffle iron. The early model had a rectangular form standing on four stout feet topped with two lines of three circular plates. Each plate was cast with the now familiar grid pattern, with the heating elements embedded into the grid. The front row of plates flipped onto the back row, allowing for the waffle to cook on both sides. The iron included exposed electrical contacts, as it pre-dated any appliance safety regulations. It was not until well into the second decade of the 20th century that appliance manufacturers such as General Electric and Landers, Frary & Clark produced commercially successful electric waffle irons suitable for use in the home.
By the 1920s, it was common practice to use waffle irons at the breakfast table, leading some manufacturers to include waffle irons as part of breakfast sets, such as the chrome-plated iron pictured. Model E6473 featured the "Golden Pheasant" porcelain pattern, one of six patterns offered on the set. The breakfast set included a coffee percolator, batter and sugar bowls, syrup and cream pitchers, and even a ladle, all of which were available for purchase as a set or as separate pieces. The Robeson Rochester Corporation of Rochester, New York, introduced the set in the late 1920s and continued to produce the product through the 1930s.
By the mid-20th century, convenience items increased in popularity, and were used in households throughout the United States. These included packaged waffle and pancake mixes as well as frozen foods, such as the "froffle" now known to many consumers as the Eggo Waffle.
Whether you prefer your waffles made from scratch, fresh from the freezer, or served at your favorite diner, we wish you a Happy Waffle Day, and happy eating!
Yve Colby is a museum technician at the National Museum of American History. She recommends this blog post on the Smithsonian Libraries blog for those who want additional waffle history.