I have a confession: My brother and I destroyed my Easy-Bake Oven. I had the 1981 Mini-Wave model, the boxy, yellow microwave style, which was, in my seven-year-old mind, the only kind of Easy-Bake there was. One day, my four-year-old brother had a brilliant idea — to "cook" a green plastic steak from our 1972 Mattel Tuff Stuff Play Food set. After all, we should be able to cook a steak, right?
It fit into the slot perfectly, and for some reason, I didn't try to stop him. The plastic steak, of course, gave off a noxious odor as it melted inside the machine. Goodbye, Easy-Bake Oven. Goodbye, little round chocolate cakes we loved to bake and eat.
Todd Coopee, who published a book called Light Bulb Baking in fall 2013 to honour the toy's 50th anniversary, says he's heard countless stories like mine as he's toured the country with his book. At his book-launch party, people filled out recipe cards with their anonymous Easy-Bake Oven memories.
"One person said that when he or she ran out of mixes," Coopee told me on the phone from New York, "he or she would substitute mud and still try to serve the results to his or her younger brother and sister."
The fact that the Easy-Bake Oven invokes so many stories is a testament to its staying power. It's been a hit since Day One, when it made its debut in November 1963. Eventually, adult TV characters started referencing Easy-Bake Ovens on shows like "Friends," "Fringe," and "Queer as Folk." In 2006, the Easy-Bake Oven was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY.
Above: Todd Coopee (left) and Donna Henhoeffer, events manager of the Art Is In Bakery in Ottawa, with his collection of Easy-Bake Ovens, just before the book-launch party for "Light Bulb Baking."
After seeing the Easy-Bake Oven in the hall of fame, Coopee, a toy collector who already had a dozen different Easy-Bakes, decided he would gather every model ever released for a 50-year retrospective book that offers a visual history of the toy. LightBulb Baking also delves into the history of the toy's creators at Kenner Products, the cooking technology of the toy, how it fit into pop culture, and the gender-politics battles it inspired.
"I don't think you can pinpoint one moment in time when the Easy-Bake Oven became an icon," Coopee says. "After it had been around so many decades, it started to surface in pop culture, such as sitcoms on TV using it as part of the story. There's just something satisfying about being able to mix and bake cakes on your own without your parents' help. I think that's why it's remained popular for so many years."
This cast-iron Charter Oak child-size stove, which measures about 24 inches across, could have been a toy or a store display. (Via Antiqbuyer.com)
Working mini ovens go back to Victorian times. Child-size ovens from the late 1800s — which could have been toys or store displays — were made of steel or cast iron and used wood pellets or solid fuel for heat. (These days, collectors have to beware of reproductions.) As electric ovens replaced wood-burning ovens in the 1920s, the toy world adapted, too; model-train maker Lionel, for example, produced a line of electric toy ovens in the 1930s. In the 1950s, little fibreglass-insulated ovens with brand names like Little Lady, Little Chef, and Suzy Homemaker were coveted by kids playing house.
"While the Easy-Bake Oven wasn't the first working toy oven, it was the first to use a light bulb as the heat source," Coopee says. "It was also first to become a wildly popular trend, to the point everybody had to have one."
Brothers Albert, Philip, and Joseph Steiner, who owned a Cincinnati company that made soap and other sundries, founded Kenner Products in 1947, when one of the brothers had an a-ha moment. The legend goes he saw a kid on the street playing with a standard bubble wand, and got a vision of a gun that shot bubbles, which turned into Kenner's first toy, the Bubble-Matic Gun.
Little Lady and Little Chef electric toy ovens, both from the 1950s.
By the early 1960s, Kenner had become a leading toy manufacturer, with salesmen all over the United States. The executives at Kenner "had an operating principal to make toys that allowed kids to do the same things they saw adults do," Coopee says. "For example, they made a lot of construction toys, like the Girder and Panel building sets. Mixing and baking a cake would be another example of that."
At that point, electric toy ovens didn't have the best track record for safety, so Kenner's creative team had to consider how to overcome parents' legitimate fears.
"Kenner's other stroke of genius was to use incandescent light bulbs as the heating source," Coopee says. "By using conventional light bulbs, something kids were around every day, they were able to convince parents the toy was safe — even though it got up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit inside the oven, which is a pretty standard baking temperature. Kenner wanted to call it the Safety-Bake Oven, but one of the regulatory bodies in charge of print and radio advertising told them, 'No, you can't do that, because it implies a safety track record you haven't achieved yet.'"
The original 1963 model of the Easy-Bake Oven. (Courtesy of Todd Coopee)
The Easy-Bake Oven debuted in November 1963, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. "The first Easy-Bake Oven didn't look like much of an oven," Coopee says. "It was this box that came in turquoise or pale yellow, and a handle on the top. It had a slot that you'd push the pan into, and then a window where you could watch the cake being baked. The cooling chamber on the side had this fake range built over it."
But its strange appearance didn't prevent it from becoming the must-have toy of the season. "They only had time to manufacture half a million of them before November, and they sold out immediately," he says. "It was one of those Christmas toys that people would fight over in the store."
Kenner made the Easy-Bake Oven its top advertising priority, placing ads with taglines like "just like Mum's — bake your cake and eat it, too!" in women's magazines and Archie comics. On television, Easy-Bake commercials appeared not only during Saturday morning cartoons, but also during prime-time programs like "I Love Lucy" and "Hogan's Heroes."
Just as quickly as it released the oven, Kenner put out 25 different mixes and mix sets that could be bought separately. Because they were packaged in aluminium foil laminated with polyethylene, the first cake mixes could last two years — a long time for a cake mix. But Coopee wouldn't recommend you try them now. "If you go on eBay, you can find not only vintage Easy-Bake Ovens, but also vintage mixes. But they always say don't try to use them."
Many people who remember making and eating Easy-Bake Oven's hockey-puck-shaped treats, about 3.5 inches in diameter, recall that they tasted bad. Coopee says that's not exactly fair.
"You know, kids are not very patient, so they tended to push the cake out before it was done cooking," he says. "If you hear stories of getting a gooey, goopy mess, that's probably why. 10 or 15 minutes is a long time to wait when you're a kid. But if you actually followed the instructions, the cakes would come out fine."
The Easy-Bake Oven came out in a time when America was in love with technology, particularly appliances and other innovations that made day-to-day chores faster and easier. Thanks to electric freezer-refrigerators, frozen dinners could be heated and served on a TV tray; thanks to developments in food processing, cakes could be whipped up in a jiff with boxed mixes.
Interestingly, Kenner did not discourage families from coming up with their own recipes for the oven. For the 40th anniversary of the Easy-Bake Oven in 2003, David Hoffman talked to top chefs, including Food TV's Bobby Flay. He compiled their memories of playing with the toy as well as recipes for their own Easy-Bake creations — including jalapeño corn cakes, wild mushroom flan, and ham-and-spinach quiche — in a book called Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet.
An Easy-Bake Oven from the late 1960s, featuring Betty Crocker branding, faux-wood paneling, and the kitchen colour du jour, avocado green. (Courtesy of Todd Coopee)
"In the early Kenner models, the instructions said you could use the mixes or recipes from your own kitchen," Coopee says. "Which was nice, if you're a kid, and you didn't have to beg or convince your parents to take you to the store and buy you another mix."
That said, Kenner did tempt children with every kind of mix under the sun. Aside from a wide variety of cakes and cookies, over the years, Easy-Bake mixes offered ways to make your own candy bars, fudge, pecan brittle, pretzels, pizza — and even bubble gum.
The look of the Easy-Bake oven changed quite drastically over the years. "At first, it was all about the colours that were trendy in the kitchen," Coopee says. "In the '70s, they had the burnt orange, the avocado green, and the harvest gold. My family's kitchen was done in harvest gold, so that's the Easy-Bake Oven we had. In the late '70s and '80s, microwaves were all the rage, so the Easy-Bake Oven came to look more like a microwave. More recent Easy-Bake Ovens have less to do with the kitchen and more to do with what colours and designs would kids like, which is how they came to be pink and purple in the 1990s."
An early 1970s Easy-Bake Oven featuring popular kitchen colours of the time. (Courtesy of Todd Coopee)
Engineers at Kenner were also constantly attempting to improve the light-bulb cooking technology. "Originally, the Easy-Bake Oven used two 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs, one on top and one on bottom, so it would heat the cake evenly on both sides," Coopee says. "An engineer there, Charles Cummings, figured out how to design the inside of the Easy-Bake Oven so it worked like a convection oven, and they only had to use one light bulb. Then, they could make the Easy-Bake Oven a lot smaller and it was easier to produce and ship. In the late '70s, they came out with the Super Easy-Bake Oven, a larger version of the toy that came with two pans, a regular-size Easy-Bake cake pan and a larger one."
The large, late 1970s Super Easy-Bake Oven, let kids use two different size pans. (Courtesy of Todd Coopee)
Another big change for the Easy-Bake Oven has been brought about by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which goes into effect this year. It requires all light bulbs on the market to be at least 25 per cent more energy efficient for the amount of light they produce. This will spell the end of the standard 100-Watt light bulb, the long-time heat source for Easy-Bake.
Even earlier in the decade, Hasbro engineers were experimenting with alternative heat sources for the ovens. In 2003, the light-bulb-free Real Meal Oven sold alongside the traditional light-bulb Easy-Bake Oven.
"In early 2006, I went to the American International Toy Fair in New York City, and Hasbro was making a big deal of declaring it the end of the light-bulb cooking era," Coopee says. "They were no longer going to use incandescent light bulbs. They debuted a smaller front-loading oven, with a heating element. It came with tongs that kids were supposed to use to pull the cakes out of the oven. But after the toy was released, Hasbro started to get reports of safety concerns."
This 2006 front-loading Easy-Bake Oven with a heating element was completely recalled after Hasbro received reports of kids getting their fingers caught in the opening. (Courtesy of Todd Coopee)
The new Easy-Bake Oven debuted in May 2006, and by February 2007, at least 29 parents had reported their children getting their fingers caught in the oven, and five of these incidents led to burns. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Hasbro announced a recall, which would allow parents who purchased the oven to receive a free retrofit safety kit.
Several months after the retrofit kits were issued, the reports of fingers getting caught numbered 249. Sixteen of those reports also documented second- and third-degree burns. One burn even led to a 5-year-old girl receiving a partial finger amputation. In April 2007, the CPSC and Hasbroasked customers to return all 985,000 units sold, just six months after the Easy-Bake Oven had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
"For the retrofit, they issued this pink grill cover to put over the opening," Coopee says. "I think if the oven had just come with a fixture like that already installed, that would have solved the problem. But when they sent that fix out it was already too late. After that, they went back to an early design that cooked with a light bulb.
"Finally, in 2011, Hasbro retired its last light-bulb cooking oven and issued a new Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven with a heating element," Coopee says. The new toy, however, is priced at $US49.99, $US20 more than the previous light-bulb-cooking version, which went for $US29.99. Still, Coopee says, "I would have been disappointed if the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs meant the end of this toy, so I'm glad Hasbro came up with a way to continue it."
It's good news for both little girls who want to make mud pies and little boys who want to become chefs. Just keep the fake plastic food away far, far away.
(To learn more about the history of the Easy-Bake Oven, read Todd Coopee's book, "Light Bulb Baking." To find unusual recipes for the toy, check out David Hoffman's cookbook, "The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet.")
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