KITCHENS – today, these rooms are so essential to what most people see in a desirable home, that they can be one of the main determinants of whether or not to buy a particular house. These rooms generally serve not only as showplaces, but also as a central socializing spot. However, this was not always the case. For most of history, kitchens were plain, utilitarian, and the domain of servants or homemakers, not something to be shown off to guests, or for the family to spend much time in. Similar to bathrooms, kitchens have evolved tremendously over time, particularly the last 200 years. Awareness of this evolution can help you with your historic home’s kitchen.
Kitchen work as trade and occupation – 1874 lithograph by Louis Prang. Image Source: Library of Congress.
Kitchens: History and Evolution
Kitchens have existed in some form since ancient times. Early complex societies utilized open fire pits or ovens made of natural materials such as clay or brick, and these usually were located in open spaces to allow smoke to escape. Most people had kitchen prep and storage space in communal spaces, while wealthier abodes had separate spaces just for those needs, and they also sometimes had enclosed kitchens with chimneys to release smoke. (Source).
Ancient kitchens and cooking spaces were considered work spaces as opposed to entertaining spaces (Source).
Medieval cooking areas showed little change from their predecessors, and in many cases were even less sophisticated. They also used open pits or spaces in buildings where fires could be used to cook food. Wealthier families had separate rooms for food prep and storage as well as cooking. The later stages of this period included more fireplaces with chimneys to diffuse smoke out of dwellings, and increased use of pots and pans. These innovations increased the comfort in the home due to decreased smoke and smells (Source).
The late Medieval period in Europe saw more class separation based on kitchen location; in wealthy homes, servants were relegated to these smokey, smelly areas and further removed from the main living space (Source).
Later in the Renaissance, other sources of heating were created, so kitchens could be even further removed from main living areas (Source).
Wealthy homeowners of the Renaissance period began to keep kitchens in separate buildings from the main home, creating even more social class separation from servants (Source).
Colonial kitchens in America were sometimes included as part of the main dwelling, although sometimes – particularly in hot southern areas – separate summer kitchens existed to prevent overheating homes in summer months, with the added benefit of decreasing risk of fire to the homes, and decreasing cooking smells in the homes. These kitchens were dominated by large fireplaces with hearths (Source).
Colonial cooks made efforts to maintain their fires overnight, covering the hot coals and stoking them again in the morning, easing their labor (Source).
The Federal period saw the invention of the Rumford stove in Britain in 1800, which was the first stove to heat multiple things from a single source of fire. Kitchens were still separate from main living areas – whether servants were present or not – as these spaces were still not considered appropriate for entertaining guests due to their less aesthetically-pleasing, utilitarian nature (Source).
In the 1830s, the Oberlin Cast-Iron Stove was created, and was more compact than stoves before it (Source).
The Victorian Period encompassed a significant uptick in technological advances. Stoves continued to evolve significantly, and eventually were powered by gas, resulting in cleaner kitchens and cities, (compared to their wood- and coal-burning predecessors). These stoves also allowed faster cook times. The addition of water pipes to homes (initially for waste removal) also allowed for easier access to water for cooking and cleaning purposes (Source).
Late 19th century, middle-class homes benefited from technological innovations to make kitchens cleaner, and did not have the same “class separation” as the wealthy did from servants; therefore, kitchens could be more closely placed to living spaces, and were presentable enough to entertain guests, resulting in tables and chairs being added to the kitchen (Source).
Increased innovations by the early twentieth century meant diverse cooking abilities. This increased the need for food and utensil storage (Source).
In 1899, the Hoosier Manufacturing Company met the need for increased kitchen storage with the invention of the state-of-the-art Hoosier Cabinet (Source).
Technological and industrial advancements encouraged more time-saving, including mass-production. This impacted kitchens, resulting in a focus on ergonomic efficiency: designing the environment to fit the person rather than the other way around (Source).
Austria’s first female architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, pioneered a fitted kitchen – the “Frankfurt Kitchen” – in the name of ergonomic efficiency in 1926. It included prefabricated cabinets and counter tops (Source).
Ergonomic design and fitted kitchens continued to be popular in the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s. Continued innovation led to increased technology in appliances and flooring – local Armstrong‘s linoleum floors became popular (Source).
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a renewed interest in and veneration for homecooking and cookware and utensils were upgraded and were popular items for the home – kitchens became more about entertaining guests and showing off culinary skills (Source).
The 1980s brought open kitchen spaces, and even more kitchen innovation. These continued innovations in technology and kitchen design, as well as kitchens’ use as entertainment and even living space and hubs only grow as we evolve into the 21st century.
Kitchens in Your Historic Home
As with bathrooms, it is a rare thing indeed to find an intact kitchen in a historic home. In fact, it might be rarer to find a kitchen than bathroom, as kitchens are often most subject to trends (it’s much less desirable to toil over a hearth when you can use an electric or gas stove and oven). Depending on the time period your historic kitchen dates from, the amount of work to be done varies. If, for instance, you are fortunate enough to have an unfitted kitchen, including some of its basic elements such as a sink, you may have an easier time updating it to your liking as there is less material to remove, and you can add modern updates as you like. However, if you have a fitted kitchen from later eras, and want to update it significantly or restore it to a much earlier time, this will create much more work for your or your contractor. Below are a combination of suggestions and solutions from various resources, including Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson.
Period kitchens should be approached with sensitivity to their or the home’s period of significance.
Restoring an old kitchen. In the rare case that you find an intact kitchen, the same general rules of restoration, preservation, and rehabilitation apply. Consider approaching the kitchen with sensitivity to its time period. Depending on the era, this may mean rehabilitating it as a utilitarian workspace (at least in form if not function). If extra space is needed, it is best to avoid expanding into a formal room of the house, so as to avoid significant alterations to the historic footprint, and consider expanding into an existing pantry or mudroom, or consider a sympathetic addition, as suggested by CJ Hurley Century Arts. If permanent features need to be replaced, remember to replace in-kind. Also, if you need to update plumbing and electric, refer to our post on bathrooms for similar information.
Creating a new kitchen (period appropriate or not). Given kitchens’ vulnerability to trends, there is a greater likelihood that if you want a period kitchen you will have to create – or recreate – one. As Hanson notes (p. 130), consider first the interior elements of the home that represent its general age and style; if the more formal rooms differ from the less formal rooms, consider that the kitchen should emulate the less formal rooms, as would have been the case in much older homes.
The next decision to make is whether you want to have a period appropriate kitchen or not. To achieve a period feel (with modern innovations), Hanson (p. 130-131) recommends a “hybrid approach” including modern pieces of furniture but excluding continuous built-in counter tops throughout the room, and also consider incorporating a period-appropriate pantry. it’s also beneficial to consider appliances and utensils that are period-appropriate and are either antique, reproduction, or modified (e.g., a historic-looking cabinet hiding a modern refrigerator). Reference quality resources to emulate a true period feel. It is essential to reference good resources for a period kitchen. Access to primary sources are more abundant today with the internet, and you can find thousands of period kitchen images on the Library of Congress site, as well as in copies of housekeeping books from bygone eras (which often include plans for kitchens and pantries). Historic house museums can also offer primary source inspiration. Quality secondary sources include books like Restoring Your Historic House, and websites like Old House Online and Period Homes.
Hanson (p. 133) adds that kitchens (and baths) are rooms where you may ignore the home’s “period of significance” and still evoke a period feel, simply due to the fact that what is historic to us in a kitchen (or bathroom) was a modern update in the history of the house. If the house was never updated with a modern kitchen, you may use an educated guess as to what might have been added, utilizing knowledge of the evolution of kitchens and choosing a time when one would likely have been incorporated.
Consideration of cabinetry used is also important. Custom-work tends to look more authentic, but is expensive. Hanson (p. 134) notes that a good design can make modular cabinets look custom. When installing these things, Hanson (p. 135) also recommends making sure measurement is accurate, as he states that corners are “often out of square” and floors may not be level. Having the store, kitchen center, or other professional do the measuring for you will decrease likelihood of incurred expenses if you measure incorrectly yourself.
Consider adjustments when marrying old with new. For example, old windows may be too low to accommodate the typical built-in cabinets and counter tops; a solution to this issue is to allow a window well behind a counter top to accommodate the window, or build custom cabinets below the window level. Hanson (p. 135) adds that modern cabinets and counter tops’ standard sizes may not match that of historical ones, and adjustments may need to be made to give them a period feel.
Kitchens have come a long way over the centuries, evolving from smokey, smelly, utilitarian spaces that also served to separate different classes of people, to clean, modern showpieces that are the hub of homes regardless of socioeconomic status. Even with modern sensibilities and trends, period kitchens deserve special consideration in period homes, and fortunately the old can be married with the new while maintaining an appropriate period feel.
For further resources and reading:
- For restoring or creating a period appropriate (or not) bathroom in your historic home, we recommend these books: Restoring Old Houses by Nigel Hutchins, and Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson.
- For buying reproduction appliances or restoring originals: this site, and these sites.
- For more information regarding historic foodways or to get involved with workshops in our region: this site and this site.
In case you missed it, check out our similar post on another vulnerable room in historic homes: THE BATHROOM.