A Short History: Kitchens Part I

Beecher Kitchen ModelOn any given day across the United States, as Americans gather together in their homes, what is the one room they almost instinctively land? How much of your time is spent in a kitchen? Sitting down with a cup of coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then in the afternoons kids sprawl their homework all across the kitchen table while dinner is prepared. Our kitchens are a bit like Grand Central Station nowadays, the first place that everyone goes to connect with their friends and family. But that’s not how it’s always been.

For much of history, the task of cooking was relegated to the outdoors, where the smoke and odors from rotting scraps could be kept out of living spaces, improving the chances for a healthy household. Fireplaces with chimneys really didn’t appear in lower- to middle-class households in Britain until about the 16th and 17th centuries, an improvement that finally allowed households to begin baking in their homes. Further improvements came with the introduction of wood- and coal-burning stoves.

Though kitchens were steadily making their place within a home, there were environmental factors to consider, as well. An indoor kitchen was welcome in northern climates, where indoor food preparation also provided the added benefit of heat for the home; often this was located in a cellar beneath the house (especially true of wealthier homeowners), so that the household still benefited from the warmth without the odors infiltrating the living space. In warmer regions, however, the heat produced by indoor kitchens could be stifling during the sweltering summer months; a “summer kitchen” in an adjacent building was fairly common, particularly in the American South.

In 1843, Catherine Beecher wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy, and later published The American Woman’s Home with sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). With these two works the sisters emphasized efficiency within the household, and with the kitchen becoming the natural starting point for household chores it was of even greater importance that its organization and maintenance was thorough. To improve efficiency and to keep a “neat and cheerful kitchen,” the Beechers offered the following suggestions:

-Scald the sink with hot water once a day
-Always have water warming on the fire
-“A clock is a very important article in the kitchen, in order to secure regularity at meals.”
-Wash dishes and pans weekly with one of 3 dish rags hanging on nails above the sink: “one for dishes not greasy, one for greasy dishes, and one for washing pots and kettles.”

They even established rules for washing dishes, and suggested that they be written out legibly and posted above the sink as a subtle reminder of what works best. Further, they outlined what the ideal kitchen should look like, the layout showing the most effective placement for storage, utensils, cook/prep space, etc.  This model published in The American Woman’s Home in 1869 (shown in the photo at top) shows a step in the right direction for the modern kitchen, with plenty of storage, even surfaces, even a stove and deep basin sink.

But what elements do you notice are missing from this picture that you see as essential to a cozy and functional kitchen? Obviously no refrigerator or microwave, no blenders and toasters. And you would have noticed no kids sitting at the kitchen table with their homework, or even dining in the kitchen – “eat-in kitchens” were unheard of back then, too.  We’ve still got a long way to go before we see the kitchen as we see it today. Next week, we’ll talk about how industrialization, philosophies, and commercialization each altered the state of our kitchens.

Be sure to check out Part II and Part III of this series!

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC



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