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A Short History: Kitchens, Part II

22 Jan

1909 Sears CatalogYou walk through your front door. Hang up your coat, throw the keys on the counter that serves as the “catch-all,” look through the pile of mail on the desk, then you instinctively look in the fridge. (It’s what we do when we walk into the kitchen, even if we’re not hungry, right?) Your son walks in and grabs a box of Easy Mac out of the pantry and zaps it in the microwave for a quick after-school snack, while your daughter has break-and-bake chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, emitting a heavenly aroma that fills the house. Ahhhhh…

Our experience now is such a staunch contrast to where we left off in last week’s post.

Up until the end of the 19th Century, the kitchen was about the last place in the house that you wanted to be. It was hot, it was smelly, and unless you were willing to pull up your sleeves and lend a hand doing house chores, you really had no business being in the kitchen. But things improved, thanks to some outside forces that allowed kitchens to advance.

Industrialization during the 19th century – especially the last quarter – was a huge instrument for change. Here’s a smattering of what advancements were brought about to better our lives:

  • Improvements in agricultural practices meant increased yield and lower food prices
  • Improvements in technology (such as coolers and canning goods) preserved food for longer and giving them more mobility
  • Improvements in transportation (roads, waterways, and especially railroads) meant more variety was able to be distributed across the continent

This was REVOLUTIONARY. Could you imagine being in the landlocked Midwest and finally having access to seafood?

As a result of all this, households of the Victorian era indulged in multiple course meals with foods and flavorings that they may have had limited access to previously. Of course, to prepare these grand meals on their fine dishes and utensils, many households employed servants to take care of preparation and clean-up. Running water inside the home would have made their jobs much easier, and so many homes arranged for water lines to be connected to their buildings – particularly at the rear, where the kitchen was typically located. Scullery maids were able to keep busy with their dishwashing with this convenience.  (Sometimes they were launderers as well; thus, the scullery kitchen is often considered the precursor to our laundry rooms, which are still usually located adjacent to the kitchen.)

While Victorian kitchen technology by no means brought waffle makers or smoothie-makers into our homes, there were some great advances to be noted: the ice box, the can opener (crude, but still technically a can opener), and a variety of more functional cooking ware. Gadgets and appliances weren’t the only parts of this kitchen revolution. Some Victorian homes were equipped with electricity that, in big ways as well as small, made the experience extraordinary.

One story from my experience comes to mind. I worked as a docent, giving tours of the Adams House in Deadwood, South Dakota, a charming Queen Anne with all the elegance and “modern conveniences” from its time still intact. One feature that I liked to point out to my guests was something unseen, but that made kitchen and dining service operations run seamlessly. As the kitchen staff prepared dishes back in the kitchen, the guests of the home sat eating and conversing in the dining room. It would be terribly rude to interrupt a course of the meal or cut conversation short with the arrival of the next round of dishes. To avert this problem, the homeowner had a button installed on the floor at the head of the table; one step on the buzzer alerted the kitchen staff that that was the appropriate time to enter the dining room with the next course.

Efficiency of the kitchen was first and foremost on the minds of the era’s homeowners. Kitchen operations were expected to operate like a well-oiled machine, and any kind of tool made available to make its operations run smoothly were welcomed and sought out in the home. Mail-order services such as Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck were especially adept at wooing consumers with time-saving products featured in their catalogs. Stoves, laundry sinks, and an endless list of gadgets were available to Americans in even the most remote locations. The inclusion of many of these items, too, made us realize that we needed to rethink how we design our kitchens to maximize their potential.

Next week we’ll continue with Part III of this series. Spoiler alert: TV Dinners are in our future!

In case you missed it, be sure to read Part I as well!

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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