UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, we focus on a historical feature that is often a room unto itself, but can also be as small as a closet or cupboard. Its popularity has fluctuated, and its name has changed many times over the centuries. It was once the space for domestic servants, but now is regarded as both comforting and elegant by modern homeowners. This month’s feature is: THE BUTLER’S PANTRY. 

Silver sauce boat, as might be seen and prepared in a butler’s pantry. Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash.

 

What is a butler’s pantry?

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, a butler’s pantry is:

“A service room between kitchen and dining room.” 

 

Pantries have existed in some form for quite some time. Pantries and their predecessors have been labeled or referred to with terms indicative of what they housed – etymonline.com notes the Latin (Medieval Latin “panateria – office or room of a servant who has charge of food” and Latin panis – bread” and “pa – to feed”) and French (Anglo-French “panetrie or paneterie – bread room”) origins of the word. Catherine Seiberling Pond also wrote a book specifically devoted to pantries (The Pantry—Its History and Modern Uses), and provides a wonderful overview of their history on her website.  Notably, the butler’s pantry emerged in the 19th Century England and America and saw the greatest popularity in the latter half of the century. This special pantry acted as a food prep and storage area for silver and china. In wealthier homes, it was the domain of butlers or other staff, hence it’s name. A separate pantry enjoyed popularity in many wealthy and middle-class homes for most of the 19th century, although new ideas and kitchen evolution appeared throughout. Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were the first to suggest combining the pantry with the kitchen in their instructional guide The American Woman’s Home from 1869, and around 1900 the Indiana-born Hoosier cabinet was advertised as a kitchen and pantry all-in-one. But, it was not until the 1920s when breakfast nooks and other design changes replaced separate pantries in many homes. Pond also reports that increased innovation in kitchen technology including refrigeration and other things rendered separate pantry spaces unnecessary. Finally, in the 1990s a renewed nostalgia for classic living instigated more separate pantry designs, and many people still desire them today.

Butler’s pantries were typically used by butlers or other household staff as a transition space between the kitchen and the dining area. This allowed kitchen smells to be separate from the dining area. Some contained warming ovens and iceboxes to keep foods at the ideal temperature between preparation and serving. There were also cabinets to store china, glasses, silverware, and linens, and often included locked cabinets to protect the most valuable items. Some included desks and other materials for the butler to manage things, and in Europe some butlers even slept in the pantry to prevent theft. Very lavish homes had the most state-of-the-art technology in their butler’s pantries, including bell or call systems to order specific food from the butler, with a servant call bell system connecting their rooms to the pantry. Pond also wrote an article with more on the history of pantries, as well as pantry herms for Old House Online, here. Here is more information on the history of pantries, especially during the Victorian era, and here is a fine example of a high-end historic butler’s pantry. Pantries, no matter how lavish or simple, are the epitome of organization, as conveyed by this quote by Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet in her guidebook The Practical Housekeeper (1857):

“Let there be a place for every article, and when not in use let every article be in its place.”

 

Examples of American Butler’s Pantries:

 

Butler’s pantry in Homewood, on the property of The Johns Hopkins University in Batlimore, MD, built in the Federal period in the Palladian architectural style between 1801 and 1803

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Palatial butler’s pantry in The Breakers, one of the grand “cottages” in Newport, RI, built in the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural style between 1893 and 1895

 

 

 


The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Butler’s pantry in The Perry Belmont House in Washington, D.C., built in the Beaux Arts architectural style, completed in 1909

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Butler’s pantry in a Company Officers’ Quarters (Type A) in Novato, CA, built as a project under The New Deal at Hamilton Army Air Field, in the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style, completed in the early 1930’s

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Butler’s Pantries Today

Where to see them. 

  • (Virtual) museum tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Check out some of the museums listed above with the historical photos to start. You should also visit the Pierce-duPont House at Longwood Gardens in-peron when able, or virtually view these magnificent butler’s pantries (here and here). 
  • Photo gallery – View butler’s pantry images on wikimedia commons and flickr

Where to get them (aka how to design or create one). 

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a butler’s pantry, consult resources in this article to create one if you have the space. Try to find salvaged or antique materials to be most accurate (and sustainable) – here is some inspiration. 
  • Design tips – If unsure of design, check out resources – especially historically-styled ones – here, here, and here.

 

For further resources and reading:

  • For the most thorough book about pantries in general – including butler’s pantries – check out Catherine Seiberling Pond’s book, here. Also connect with more of her pantry resources through her various blogs, here
  • Read more about the lives and roles of servants (and butler’s pantries) in great homes here, here, here, and here

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Boot Scrapers.

 

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