5 Vintage Appliances That Could've Killed You

iStock / iStock

While leaking gas, frayed power cords, and garbage disposal mishaps continue to plague users of appliances, automated domestic assistance used to be more dangerous—a lot more dangerous. Take a look at some products no one but a personal injury lawyer would still endorse.

1. Toxic Refrigerators

In use since the early 20th century, early consumer refrigerator designs relied heavily on ether, ammonia, and other toxic gases to help the cooling process. (Sulfur dioxide and methyl formate, flammable and corrosive to the eyes, were among the worst offenders.) So long as the material was encapsulated, there was no problem. But should the appliance fail due to eroding pipes—or if a repairman wasn’t careful—owners would get a lungful. When Albert Einstein read a newspaper story about an entire family dying in just such a mishap, he and Leo Szilard teamed up to design a better refrigerator. Before they could change the world, Freon gas became the standard for coolers; inventor Tom Midgley even demonstrated its safety by huffing it in front of an audience during an awards ceremony. (Eventually, modern fridge makers would ditch Freon, too, after the gas was found to be bad for the environment.)   

2. Toaster

Toasters actually pre-date sliced bread by upwards of 30 years, but early models look very little like the toasters of today: The bread wasn’t lowered in via a little mini-elevator, and users would have to manually turn the bread to toast the other side. The first electric toaster, the Eclipse, debuted in 1893. In addition to having to watch the toast carefully, the “coils” conducting heat were actually iron wires that melted easily, creating a fire hazard any Christmas tree would envy. Nickel-chromium alloy eventually became the standard heating element—though early 20th century models were often screwed into light sockets for power.

3. Hair Drying the Asbestos Way

The dangers of asbestos are well-documented: the tiny particles hang in the air, small enough to be inhaled but “prickly” enough for the lungs to have trouble expelling them, which can lead to a form of cancer, called mesothelioma, to develop. There is thought to be no safe level of exposure to the minerals, and use of new materials containing asbestos (insulation, kitchen tile, home siding) was outlawed in 1989 (but a lot of those laws were overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991). Prior to that, one unusual source of contamination was the hair dryer. Manufacturers—including Conair and General Electric—produced models that would literally blow the substance directly into the face of the user. A recall was initiated in 1979, though it was largely unsuccessful: Only an estimated three million of 18 million dryers were recovered.    

4. The Kenmore Indoor Garbage Burner

Little has been written about this unfortunate offering from Sears, which promised homeowners circa 1952 that they’d be spared the effort of burning their trash outdoors. With the smoke exhausting outside, garbage could be eliminated anywhere in the home. “Right in the kitchen,” the ad copy promised. “You save steps by on-the-spot disposal.” The price for residential incineration and the increased probability of burning your house down: $39.88.

5. The Mangler

Laundry appliances did not start out with stellar reputations. When Stephen King was a boy, his mother operated a speed-ironer that her co-workers had dubbed “the mangler,” a sinister piece of equipment that would later inspire a short story of the same name. Prior to the advent of the spin cycle, clothes washers squeezed out excess wash water using a wringer, a giant set of rolling pins exerting 800 pounds of pressure that ingested fabric—and anything else that happened to get in the way. Anyone trapped often had to try and pull the power cord out of the socket, as on/off switches weren’t yet commonplace. Fingers were lost to exposed gears; in one incident, a young girl’s braid became trapped, scalping her.      

Wringer washers remained inexplicably popular for years, surviving the introduction of automated machines. A 1964 report in the American Journal of Public Health estimated over 17 million households owned one and expressed concern over repeated “crushing injuries” [PDF]. One fatality was mentioned. Long the scourge of the appliance world, antique and newly-manufactured wringers are still in use today by those looking to conserve water.

All images courtesty of iStock