|Washtenaw County Historical Society|
|The Kitchen 1830 to 1950|
Here is a brief look at the history of the American kitchen!
A modern kitchen is generally equipped with a stovetop, microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher, sink and other amenities. All of these appliances are what help people to cook their meals effectively and in an orderly fashion. Kitchens also tend to have installations so that food can be stored and kept in a cool dry environment.
Before the age of electricity, running water and modern appliances, there was no kitchen, as we know it today. There was a hearth for cooking, perhaps a table or cutting board for preparation and a dining area in a central gathering place. In the pioneer home, that "gathering place" was the very same area that occupied the living and sleeping space.
Even in post-Revolutionary times, when separate bedrooms and kitchen wings were added, the hub of the house remained the hearth. Nearby sat a small table for food preparation and a simple array of iron pots, pans, and utensils. These were handed down from generation to generation.
It was not until the Victorian era (beginning in the 1840s) that technology began to ease the burden. The Victorians loved anything innovative - they wanted the latest, the newest, and the most modern. In 1842, Catherine Beecher published her "Treatise on Domestic Economy" which detailed techniques for household chores including cooking.
By 1850, the first cast-iron cook stove - small, portable and fired by coal or wood -- hit the market, followed by stoves on a grander scale. There is no overstating their impact. As Plante writes in her kitchen history, the stove "altered American cookery methods and meal planning, while at the same time relieving the housewife or cook of multiple backbreaking chores such as lifting and moving heavy iron cookware."
In 1869 Catherine Beecher, in collaboration with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, published another book, "The American Woman's Home." This book contained detailed diagrams of a modern kitchen, which included a counter with storage beneath and shelves above.
From here, the technological tide would not be stemmed. Even as post-Civil War kitchens were downsized to reflect the newly servantless household, every shelf and cupboard overflowed with gadgets - appliances large and small that increasingly savvy manufacturers were rushing to produce for these suddenly solo housewives. Depending on the course of electric service, a woman could, by the 1920s, buy any number of "helpmates" - an ice box, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine and an electric iron. There was linoleum on her floor, a hot- water tank near her sink and store-bought foods in her pantry.
And if she were really modern, as every housewife clamored to be, there was a Hoosier cabinet front and center. A descendant of the "baker's cupboard" (pie safe), this six foot pine workstation boasted pull- out bins, utensil drawers and a wooden preparation surface. The wildly popular design - the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. turned out 600 a day - was perhaps the first recognition that a kitchen was not just a batch of unrelated parts. "The kitchen started out as a great big room with a huge fireplace and minimal appliances," says Roslyn architect and preservationist Guy Ladd Frost, "but as appliances were invented, we started to build kitchens around them."
At the beginning of the 20th century, the kitchen became defined as a separate room for food preparation. Technological advancement introduced new appliances, which constantly expanded the square footage needed in an average kitchen. In urban areas, the kitchen, although larger, was hidden away to isolate the fumes and clutter caused by food preparation. There was nothing visually attractive about the kitchen, so home owners used it only for preparation. Dining was done in a separate space.
With the advancement of technology, the idea of standardized dimensions took the kitchen to a whole new level. Since the availability of electricity, the equipment used has remained a standard in all kitchens for many years. These include hot and cold tap water, a kitchen sink and an electric or gas stove and oven. Later, the refrigerator was added as a standard item, along with the addition of the microwave and the dishwasher.
Indeed, by the 1930s, with the electric stove and electric refrigerator in place, the kitchen became the "darling" of the house, planned and decorated as care- fully as any other room. Walls of new houses came equipped with built-in kitchen cabinets, the main storage components of a modern kitchen. The cabinets were generally made from a wood product with front panels to keep the contents inside and out of view from guest or daily kitchen use.
Gadgets were marketed in a variety of styles. And the appliances that were available only in white during the hypersanitized early 1900s were now, in the 1950s, colored splashy reds or greens or blues.
But if urban centers dominated American kitchen trends for generations, the suburbs took the lead after World War II. Some of the most radical ideas were played out in Levittown, where Abraham Levitt & Sons, in its zeal to build houses that were both different and cheap, applied assembly line technology and Frank Lloyd Wright form-follows- esthetics theory to the home. Alfred Levitt switched the kitchen from the back of the house to the front, boasting in an ad for the 1949 ranch that, "It's just a step for your wife to answer the door," and insisting that a front kitchen could better serve as domestic "control center." And what a center! William Levitt, the financial force behind Levittown, installed mass-produced state-of-the-art wares - white metal Tracy cabinets (even the White House had them), Bendix washer, General Electric refrigerator and stove.
And the Levitts weren't the only ones rethinking domestic life. "In the late '40s, people like dinnerware designer Russel Wright brought modernism into the kitchen," says Amy Kraker, expert in vintage American dinnerware. "Russel and Mary Wright also wrote a guide to 'easier living' that told housewives, step by step, how to entertain."
Things have come full circle as the kitchen is again the hub of the home. In our exhibition we look at the development of the kitchen and food preparation from 1830 through 1950.
This article by Alice Cerniglia appeared in the April 2008 issue of Impressions . Photos courtesy of Alice Cerniglia, Sue Kosky.
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