KITCHENS. Long before the European colonists arrived, Native Americans had cooked on open fires or hot stones. The colonists brought the idea of a more permanent hearth within a specific room—the kitchen. In New England, early colonists lived in small, landscape-hugging farmhouses. The kitchen was the hub of the house, with an eight-to ten-foot-wide medieval-style fireplace. While the husband and field hands worked democratically side by side taming the land, the housewife, usually with a servant who was treated as extended family, worked from dawn to dark. She lit fires using a tinder box; tended an orchard and kitchen garden; grew flax; carded wool; spun yarn; wove fabric; knitted stockings; dipped tallow candles; made soap for laundering; preserved food; baked bread from home-grown grain ground at a mill; and produced a large family to aid with chores.
Kitchens in the Eighteenth Century
Kitchen improvements were invented throughout the eighteenth century. Fireplaces were reduced in size and chimneys given more efficient flues. Forged iron swinging
cranes held heavy iron pots conveniently over the fire. Brick beehive-shaped baking ovens were equipped with iron doors. Adjuncts to the kitchen included a smokehouse (sometimes in the attic), a root cellar, an icehouse—which might double as a springhouse to chill milk—a dairy for cheese and butter-making, and a poultry yard. Pewter plates and mugs, and wood trenchers (bowls and spoons used by the earliest colonists) were gradually augmented by glass and earthenware vessels and by 1750, imported china. Prospering villages and towns attracted shopkeepers who began to offer ready-made cloth, foodstuffs, and other staple items, lessening the housewife's workload.
In the southern states, large plantations prospered from cash crops—rice, tobacco, and cotton—ideally suited to the warm, humid climate. Slaves from Africa worked the fields, and some were trained as house servants and cooks. To keep cooking smells, heat, and the threat of fire from the main house, kitchens became separate buildings with food carried into the main house through a covered breezeway. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, housewives on southern plantations were able to live a genteel life while servants took care of kitchen drudgery—although they kept a strict eye on everything and carried keys to all the storerooms.
As European settlers spread westward, they built houses from logs in Scandinavian style. Pioneer women bore much of the brunt of the hard labor, coaxing meals in primitive kitchens from alien meats such as bear, beaver tail, buffalo tongue, and snake.
The Nineteenth Century Brings Changes
The nineteenth-century kitchen had a large work table; a dresser or step-back cupboard with shelves for plates and cups and drawers for cutlery and kitchen linens; a pie safe with perforated tin doors that kept mice and insects away from freshly baked goods; a sink of iron, soapstone, or granite set in a wooden dry sink; and a kitchen clock, needed to time cookery now gleaned from published recipe books instead of handwritten family recipes. Water was carried in from exterior wells. As the century progressed, water was conveyed to interior sink pumps by pipes. By 1850, windmill power pumped water to roof cisterns and interior plumbing delivered water to faucets.
Two inventions, the range and the stove, revolutionized cooking methods; the former was a large iron structure with an oven and several top burners all set in brickwork engineered with flues, and the latter was a free-standing iron cookstove with built-in flues. Both included hot water reservoirs and could be fueled with wood or coal. By 1850, even in country areas, one or the other of these cooking devices was in use, and many of the old walk-in fireplaces were bricked up.
From the 1830s until the Civil War (1861–1865), immigrants became the "help," but were referred to as "domestic servants." Town house kitchens were relegated to the rear with back stairs to ensure that servants were un-seen, or to a half basement with a separate entrance. The hands-on housewife's role changed to that of supervisor with the parlor her realm, although she still prided herself on doing fancy cooking for company.
The Civil War and encroaching industrialization depleted the supply of domestic servants, but it created a need for portable food for troops and boosted canning companies who mechanized their industries, making canned goods widely accepted by housewives. Household tools patented in the mid-nineteenth century included the Boston Carpet Sweeper (1850) and several early washing machines (late 1850s), although mechanical washers were not in general use until after 1920. Advice on efficiency came from an increasing number of women's magazines. Help also came from influential books extolling economy, system, and scientific methods in cooking, organizing a kitchen, and house maintenance. By 1896, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fanny Farmer, was published.
With fewer servants, kitchens became smaller toward the end of the nineteenth century, but more attention was paid to their appearance. Efforts at "natural" colors, such as beige and soft green, replaced whitewashed walls. Tiles or washable oilcloth covered the floor—to be superseded by linoleum (invented in 1863 by Frederick Walton, founder of The American Linoleum Company). Many kitchens had "sanitary" tin ceilings, which could be wiped clean. With the growing awareness of hygiene, carbolic acid was used for cleaning, and "white vitriol" for disinfecting, both home-mixed. By the 1920s, cleaning supplies and soaps could be bought ready-made.
The first gas stove was made by Wm. W. Goodwin & Company in 1879 and became commonplace in many American towns by the 1890s. In the 1870s, enameled kitchenware (granite ware or agate ware) became available in speckled blue, black, brown, and gray designs. By the 1900s, aluminum ware was adopted. Pyrex cookware was in use by the 1920s.
Mail-order catalogs advertised furnishings and household appliances. Wooden iceboxes lined in metal—later porcelain—were filled by the iceman. The first hermetically sealed electric refrigerator was the GE Monitor-Top in 1927. By then, electric appliances—toasters, percolators, mixers, and vacuums—were used in towns, but many rural areas were without electricity until the mid-twentieth century.
The "work station" developed from a wooden baker's table with drawers and bins for flour in the 1830s to an all-purpose baker's cupboard in the 1890s, and to the klearfronts or hoosier cabinets of the 1920s and 1930s. Named after the Hoosier Mfg. Co., which was founded in 1899, these had enameled extensions for worktables and sliding or glass-fronted cupboards above, and came with many options in various sizes.
A Century of Convenience
The servant population shrank drastically after World War I (1914–1918). Housewives searched for laborsaving devices. Sinks were porcelain-lined with cupboards below to hold cleaning supplies and to hide pipes. Nearby were racks to dry plates. The Fuller Brush man sold cleaning products door-to-door. With no maid to carry and serve food, meals were often eaten in the kitchen on an enameled-top table, and dining rooms got less use. By the mid-twentieth century, many houses were built without them altogether. Household linens were no longer starched white damask but casual and colored. By the 1930s, smart new kitchens were "streamlined." Counters and shelves had curved edges, and white enameled refrigerators—now used as food cupboards—were given rounded corners. With continually changing technology, the average American kitchen was the most frequently renovated room in the house.
After World War II (1939–1945), women who had been working in munitions factories were encouraged to give up their jobs to returning GIs. They became full-time, dedicated mothers and housekeepers. Although much of the world was devastated, America was on a boom and the housewife became an important consumer. Manufacturers responded to their desire for perfect, modern kitchens. Appliances were made in standardized sizes, so counters, stovetop, and sink ran at an even 36-inch continual height around walls. Electric outlets at working level became essential for plug-in countertop appliances—mixers, blenders, and toaster ovens with rotisserie attachments. Inventive marketing trends included Tupperware parties run by local salespeople and held in private homes to sell plastic food containers. Essentials now included paper towels, clear plastic wrap (Saran wrap), and aluminum foil in appropriate containers.
Family habits by the 1960s were changing. Spurred by the women's liberation movement, college-educated women seized the chance to "have it all"—a career and a family. Meals were no longer as formal as in the first half of the twentieth century, with the whole family gathered around the table at set times, but casual and often help-yourself from the now head-height well-stocked fridge with its companion freezer. Husbands shared duties, often cooking meat—especially outdoors on a charcoal grill. The sink, sometimes double, had a nozzle spray in addition to a mixing valve that could regulate water from a hot and a cold tap to blend in one faucet. Some states permitted a sink garbage disposal unit. Next to the sink was a dishwasher—many baby boomers have never hand washed dishes! Appliances were offered in a variety of colors—gold, avocado, and brown.
By the last quarter of the twentieth century, kitchens were designed on an open plan, where not only cooking but also family activities—doing homework or crafts, watching television—took place. Glass-fronted wall ovens in addition to stoves became familiar. Broilers that had been confined to a bottom section of the oven in the 1950s were relocated to the top to lessen stooping. Electric stoves had timed, self-cleaning ovens; the tops of many were designed with completely flat surfaces for wipe-off cleaning. In the 1980s, high-tech kitchens filled with brushed steel appliances were fashionable. Convection ovens circulated heat evenly for greater efficiency. Workstations became islands centered in the room or bar/ counters dividing the kitchen from the living room. Both husband and wife cooked "gourmet" meals while entertaining guests. The versatile food processor took the place of gadgets for chopping, slicing, mixing, and grating. Microwave ovens, used for heating food more than for cooking, became universal. Kitchens had recycling bins for metal, glass, plastic, and paper. By 2000, a more traditional style of kitchen took hold, with expensive milled woodwork and granite counters.
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Franklin, Linda Campbell. 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles. Florence, Ala.: Books Americana, 1991.
Grey, Johnny. Kitchen Design Workbook. New York: DK Publishers, 1996.
Grow, Lawrence. The Old House Book of Kitchens and Dining Rooms. New York: Warner Books, 1981.
Harrison, Molly. The Kitchen in History. Reading, Pa.: Osprey Publishing, 1972.
Holt, Emily. The Complete Housekeeper. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904.
Krasner, Deborah. Kitchens for Cooks—Planning Your Perfect Kitchen. New York: Viking Studio Books, 1994.
Lifshey, Earl. The Housewares Story; A History of the American Housewares Industry. Chicago: National Housewares Manufacturers Association, 1973.
Miller, Judith. Period Kitchens: A Practical Guide to Period-Style Decorating. London; Mitchell Beazley, 1995.
Plante, Ellen M. The American Kitchen, 1700 to the Present: From Hearth to Highrise. New York: Facts On File, 1995.
Thompson, Frances. Antiques from the Country Kitchen. Lombard, Ill.: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1985.
"Kitchens." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kitchens
"Kitchens." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kitchens
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