Category Archives: Documenting History

A Short History: Kitchens, Part III

1950s KitchenBy the end of World War I, most American households were equipped with “modern” conveniences, such as running water, gas stoves, and all the gadgets and tools that mail-order catalogs could fill their homes with. Though these time-saving tools were all designed to make the task of food preparation simpler and more efficient, what it really did was add more clutter and a bit of confusion. The inclusion of new gargantuan appliances – stoves, iceboxes, etc. – necessitated changes in the layout to make kitchen operations manageable. It seemed only natural that a realignment was necessary.

One of the better-known reimaginings was introduced during the 1920s in the form of the “Frankfurt Kitchen,” conceptualized and created by Margerete Schüte-Lihotzky, a Viennese architect. Inspired by Fredrick Taylor’s Scientific Management theory (“Taylorism”) that considered the efficiency of time and movement within a space, Lihotzky designed a compact kitchen space with specific placement of the sink, stove, cabinets, aluminum storage bins, and workspaces. Even a fold-down ironing board was incorporated into the design. The time-motion studies were carefully conducted to maximize the use of a small work environment, with most needed items within arms’ reach. If you take a look at the layout, you’ll see similarities to the galley kitchen we’re all familiar with. The problem with it, though was that it was maybe just a little too compact – it was designed to only accommodate one adult in the room, but even so it seemed a little cramped.

Flash forward to the 1940s. Not much had changed in the way of kitchen design during the previous decade (a little thing called the Great Depression hindered progress a bit). Further motion studies were conducted and the idea of the Kitchen Working Triangle was born. This model was based on the idea of creating three standard zones: cooking (range), preparation (sink/dishwasher), and food storage (refrigerator). Balancing the distance between each zone/workstation was key – each side of the triangle should be no less than 4 ft, or any more than about 9 ft, with minimal interference by obstacles and foot traffic intersecting. This idea is still in use today.

There was another emerging trend during the 1940s, though. Previously the kitchen was wholly set apart from dining and living areas, in its own separate room. Following World War II, new housing was quickly being built to accommodate the multitudes of couples hoping to become homeowners and start raising families. These homes were mainly ranch-style homes, with somewhat open floor plans ideal for entertaining guests. During this time the kitchen started breaking out of its shell and opening itself to other rooms, or at least offering an area in which to dine – the beginning of the “eat-in kitchen.” The kitchen was finally becoming a social space, joining the rest of the home.

Finally, the 1950s. I don’t think it’s any big secret that commercialism was a major driving force thru this decade and beyond. Do yourself a favor and check out some videos on YouTube of 1950s television commercials advertising everything you could ever want or need in a new, modern kitchen: cabinets, formica countertops, electric ranges, automatic dishwashers, water heaters…you name it. Who would want to keep their old, outdated kitchen, when they could upgrade and have the newest, top of the line products designed to make their kitchen work for them, in turn making more time to kick back and relax? At the same time, the introduction of more convenient pre-packaged and frozen dinners meant that less time was needed for preparation of meals, and as a result kitchens started becoming a little lax in their level of efficiency.

This, of course, continues today. We still pay attention to the placement of our appliances and obsess over new ways to make use of the space that we have. (I mean seriously, have you checked out Pinterest lately? You don’t have to look too far to see this.) It is now a centerpiece of our home, a warm and inviting space open to the rest of the home so we can entertain freely and not miss a moment of time with our families. What other differences do you see between “then” and now?

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

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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A Short History: Kitchens, Part II

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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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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What Can House Histories Really Tell Us?

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “There’s nothing historic about my house,” I would have…well, a lot of nickels. In the last three years or so that I’ve been digging into the history of houses, I have yet to come across one that lacks some kind of significance. Rarely has anyone famous resided in these houses; quite the contrary, most are ordinary individuals, but does that make them any less significant? Not at all.

So what exactly can a house really tell you, other than names and dates?

A house can tell you about the residents in particular, or people and society in general. They offer a glimpse of what a community valued, such as political leanings, religious culture, social norms, etc. In some instances you can see how these values evolved from one generation to the next. For instance, many older homes made room for extended family to live, whereas this idea shifted particularly after World War II when housing was geared toward the nuclear family.

This house (also pictured above c. 1920) has seen its fair share of changes in its 130 years of life.

This house (also pictured above c. 1920) has seen its fair share of changes in its 130 years of life.

The house itself makes a statement about the era it was built and the values held by its creators. The heritage of the first homeowners, their social status, and the way they made their living all affect the style and construction directly. The function of rooms evolved and reflected the changing role of spaces, too. Just in the last 125 years, parlors gave way to living rooms, bathrooms have been brought indoors, and kitchens have undergone numerous changes in how they were laid out. (Stay tuned for future blog posts on these!)

To some degree they can also provide a view of our local reactions to events and phenomenon of national importance. Many houses’ stories begin with the context of a shift in demographics, maybe to an urban or suburban setting, or people flying from one popular neighborhood to the next up-and-coming setting. When housing was in short supply, they tell a story about how we dealt with the problem by subdividing larger houses into apartments or building inexpensive homes to meet the demand for a growing working-class population.

Beyond that, you never know what kind of story your house is going to tell you that adds to the human element. There are always intriguing tales of triumph. Quirky eccentricities. Family struggles. Heartwarming stories as well as sorrowful ones. Unsolved mysteries. The variety of stories we have found will never cease to amaze and amuse me.

The most rewarding moment in what we do is when we bring your house’s history to life.  There’s so much that we can learn from the individual experiences of those who lived within your walls before you.  Revealing that significance to the homeowner is about as exciting for us as the homeowner themselves.  Every house really does have a story, just imagine what your house might have to reveal to you!

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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The Importance of Storytelling

I think one could easily make an argument that storytelling is an essential part of the human experience – after all, communication is one of those little things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, right? I’ve always imagined that the first story ever told was some kind of Big Fish story. (Or maybe Big Mammoth?) At any rate, my point is that swapping stories is linked directly to our historical accounts. They’re really the same thing, aren’t they? Generally they both have something to be learned – a moral to the story, a positive or negative experience with a takeaway. They’re teaching tools, like the myths of Ancient Greece that tell of the origins of why things are the way they are. We too, today, have origins to speak of that can give perspective.

This week I read an article in The Atlantic discussing the importance of telling stories to your children, and I have to agree that the benefits are astounding. We all know that reading to your children is paramount to building vocabulary and giving them a strong foundation to continue reading books throughout their lives. But what happens when you share about your own experiences through reminiscing, you are really teaching some extraordinary things. Not the least of these is how to critically think and share their own experiences in detail. There’s something else that connects:

“In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.”

My niece is learning in pre-school about family, and her mother – my sister – is constantly reinforcing the concept, asking about who she thinks her family is. And she’ll continue to learn about us and who we are as a family, as we continue to show her pictures and link them with stories. I can already sense that on the current trajectory she will have a strong understanding about where she came from.

I think this concept applies just as well to adults as it does to children and adolescences. Again, I was fortunate to have been born into a family of storytellers. My grandparents were always reminding us all about how things used to be back in their day, about how our ancestors came here, what hardships they faced, how they managed when facing adversity, and finding happiness among the simple things. The baton has been handed to my parents and their generation now, too, picking up the story where their parents have left off. Fortunately we’ve become more active in preserving their memories. Recently a relative began a family group on Facebook, the sole purpose of which was to recount our past and give new life to our ancestors that came here before us and shaped us into the people we are here and now. I’m amazed at how quickly even distant relatives have forged a bond with each other and found common ground, sharing photographs and old stories triggered by them. What we’ve found – and what you probably will as well – is that many of these tales seem like the stuff of fiction. All the drama. The comedy. Sometimes even mystery lingers in the stories of your experiences. And, just like the tales we read as children, there’s usually something we can learn from it all.

We at Past to Present take great pride in finding the story in every house and giving it a voice. It’s sometimes quaint, sometimes gritty, often a mixture of things. Your families have similar flavors to them. Our stories, as you see, are worth telling. And certainly worth preserving.

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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Piecing Together the Puzzle

Wood MoldingI used to live in a 1920s bungalow. In its early years, the house accommodated a single family. But sometime after the Second World War the house was split into four apartments to welcome in more residents. (SPOILER ALERT: We’ll cover this in a future blog post!) Being the old house/architecture nerd that I am, I would sometimes just sit and think about the house’s original layout, getting clues from details around my apartment and my recollection of the other units. The setup of the kitchen and dining area was pretty easy to determine, but mystery features such as the extra closet within my bedroom closet was pretty puzzling. (Yes, my closet had a closet. Go ahead, be jealous.)

One evening I was lounging on the couch in the neighboring apartment, enjoying conversation. All the while I was trying to hide the fact that my mind was drifting again, trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle. That’s when I noticed it, a large rectangular outline in the ceiling. Could it be…? YES! The original location of the staircase! One more question answered!

Our houses have this uncanny ability to give us clues – walls really can talk, if you listen closely. I’ve said before that homes are organic, living things, constantly growing and changing with our needs and values. Rooms can be added, expanded, remodeled, etc., and it’s all part of the story. Here’s a few things to look for:

  • Molding. If you find that the molding changes style (from decorative to plain), is not completely exposed, or of different materials, it may be an indication that there was an addition. Sometimes this may also give you an idea of when that change was made. In the case of my apartment, the design of the wood molding in the living room was the same on all four walls, but along one wall pine was used instead of oak. This can often indicate an era of economy, as well — oak, walnut, and other finer woods were usually preferred before softer woods such as pine. These details gave me clues that indicated that the wall was built to separate the two apartments on the main floor.
  • Building Materials. Perfect example of this is foundations, something we touched on a bit in the past. If you find multiple materials used as the foundation to your home – stone, brick, concrete block – it’s a good bet that an addition was made. You may also recognize that the bricks don’t match in color, size, or quality, another hint that construction was done in several stages. The same could be said for interior details, such as the wood floors throughout your home.
  • Outlines in the Walls. If walls are built or entrances closed, there’s usually a footprint left behind. Short of replacing the wall or strategically placing a large piece of furniture in front of it, it’s difficult to cover up this alteration. The same principle applies to the exterior, as well.
There once was a gracefully arched window here, now closed off and covered with brick.

There once was a gracefully arched window here, now closed off and covered with brick.

These little traces of evidence give us quite a bit of data about the house and its history, though it’s not always available. Homes that have been gutted and rehabbed lose much of this information, sometimes leaving us only with speculations about the house’s development.

Tracing the history of your home is what we do, and finding these details about the structure is part of the service we provide to our clients. We dig in to find these clues, and use documentation to find the proof to support them. Knowing these details are just as important about discovering the history of your home or property as the names and stories attached to them. For more information, or to get your own personal consultation, visit our website and contact us at

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on November 20, 2013 in Documenting History


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Five Minute Memoirs

SURFACE20 - WIN_20131104_131924Each year around the month of November we see a lot of buzz around the internet about NaNoWriMo – or, as we speak it in plain English, National Novel Writing Month. It’s a challenge that has rapidly grown with followers since its inception in 1998, encouraging amateur writers to put pens to paper or click away on their keyboard or typewriters and create a novel during the month of November. The goal, ultimately, is to write 50,000 words and tap into your creativity. At the time that I’m writing this, the number of writers registered through NaNoWriMO’s website was just shy of 250,000, and it will continue to climb. It’s kind of a big deal.

Since I heard about this a few years ago I have told myself I would participate in it…one of these days. And why not? There’s a multitude of writing groups at independent book stores, libraries, and schools in almost every community that are holding workshops and acting as support groups for each other as they press on through the month to hit that grueling word count goal at the end of the month. Bloggers go crazy this time of year sharing their enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo, and it’s nearly impossible to walk into a coffee shop without finding an aspiring novelist furiously pounding away at their laptop to write just one more chapter in their science-fiction thriller or . Still, I have put it off, thinking maybe next year…

I’m really no novelist, but what I do have a passion for is history. Particularly, people’s stories. I have the time to commit to this kind of pursuit, so I really have no reason not to give it a go…maybe with a different twist…

I’ve heard my colleague David Jackson say time and time again that there are very few written accounts of daily life and experiences from the twentieth century currently held in the archives of the Jackson County Historical Society. He would know, he’s the Director of Archives and Education with JCHS. Want to take a guess at how many personal recollections about life during the Great Depression they have? The answer: ONE. And this is from a major event in our nation’s history, from a generation that is quickly dwindling. I, personally, would hate to see our history, through our collective memory, slip away undocumented.

The thing is, we each have this notion that our experiences are non-historical, that we haven’t made an impact on history ourselves. Perhaps, but I can think of a multitude of ways in which – just in the last 10-15 years – we have each experienced how our way of life has changed and shaped our experiences. For example, communication. When I was in middle school, my family had dial-up internet (those tones echo in my mind), and each of us were allotted a certain amount of time to spend online each day. At the same time, long before I got my first cell phone, all of my phone calls were made from our landline, and those calls also had a time limit so that others could use the internet or keep our one phone line open. Just take a moment and think about how much has changed since this scenario. I’m sure you have a similar story to tell.

Which brings me to my point.

This November, I propose a different kind of challenge. I’m calling it Five Minute Memoirs.

What if we were to each take five minutes every day for the remainder of the month, and write about your memories? They could be from your childhood, from yesterday, from any stage in your life. Tell about your daily life. Reveal a long-kept secret or pent-up memory. Where you were when a major event happened. Talk about the economy, in good times and bad. Something strange. Something mundane. Products you’ve used. Family traditions. Company parties. The sky is the limit.

At the end of the month, bundle them all together like essays, and consider sharing them with your friends and family. If you feel generous, share them with us and we would like to share them with our readers (with your permission, of course). You can send us a message through our Facebook page or email us.

Most of all, please consider donating your Five Minute Memoirs to your local historical society. If you’re not sure who to contact, we will help you get in touch with the right people.

So what do you say? Are you up for the challenge?

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in Documenting History


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