Kitchens Through the Ages

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before and after of construction2style kitchen remodel

You know how much we love our kitchens and renovating them! We were recently contacted by Wayfair sharing a new article that they knew we of course would find interesting.  Kitchens have evolved, changed, and been renovated throughout history, from the age of sooty, wood burning kitchen hearths to the gleaming, granite counter top-equipped kitchens we know and love today. I knew kitchens didn’t always look the way they do today but reading this article really made me think about how different they actually were.

Before and After Kitchen Remodel on construction2style

Today Jamie and I renovate kitchens to bring them up to new trends and functionality. Some days I think I don’t have enough time to make dinner, I can’t imagine your entire day being consumed by it like it was in 1790! It definitely reminds me of how lucky we are!

Before and After Kitchen Remodel on construction2style

Check it out! Kitchen Through the Ages



Back when our country was first taking root, pancakes were a much more time-consuming meal. A simple mix of flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, butter, milk, and a pinch of salt would have been trickier to assemble without running water, electricity, gas, reliable refrigeration, or nearby grocery store. To add to the hardship, the most complex kitchen tools available were iron cookware, a few wooden mixing bowls, and no utensils more advanced than a mortar and pestle.
Ingredients: Most Americans were farmers during this time, so the supplies for pancakes would have come from their land—milk from the cows, eggs from the chickens, and hand-churned the butter. If any ingredients needed to be stored in a cold place for a period of time, they would go in the “icehouse,” an underground space lined with slabs of ice insulated by straw. This icehouse could be as sophisticated as a separate stone building with its own roof and foundation, or as rudimentary as a rough cave of rocks outside.

Cooking: Once the ingredients were gathered, you would take them to the kitchen, located at the very back of the house, if not in a separate building. The kitchen was often the largest room, about 18 by 20 feet. But it was separate from the rest of the house because the hearth, a massive brick fireplace used for cooking, needed to be kept constantly burning, since starting a fire from scratch without matches took too long. This meant that the kitchen was always very hot, and since there were no range hoods, it was also sooty and smelly.

Part of that smell would have come from the tallow candles lighting the kitchen. Since there was no electric lighting, a handful of narrow windows were the only natural light in a kitchen. If those didn’t provide enough light, candles made from rendered animal fat would light the kitchen. These tallow candles were pungent, fast melting, and not very bright.

Pancake batter would be mixed in a wooden bowl on the kitchen work table. (Granite countertops didn’t come around for another century or two!) Then the pancake would be cooked on an iron pan held over the flames of the hearth, and cross your fingers that the pancakes would cook evenly. If you wanted to bake anything extra for breakfast, there was a hole in the brick on the side of the hearth that served as an oven, heated by the same fire that cooked the pancakes.

Once cooked, you and your family would eat the pancakes either at a separate dining table within the kitchen, or, if you were lucky enough to have a larger house, in the separate dining room.

Between the time spent gathering ingredients, assembling them with the rudimentary kitchen tools of the day, and unreliable hearth cooking methods, making pancakes in this era would have taken a great deal of time.


victorian kitchen

By 1850, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and its effects were just reaching into the kitchen.Ingredients: As more and more factories popped up, farm living was less ubiquitous, so your ingredients may not have come straight out of the fields. Instead, you could buy and then store your milk, eggs, and butter in the cellar, and the dry ingredients from the pantry room.Cooking: When it came time to cook, you would have fetched all of your ingredients and brought them into the kitchen, where you could assemble the batter on whatever table you were using as a prep surface. Once the mixture was ready, you could cook it in an iron, tin, (or, if you were especially fancy) copper pan over not an unreliable hearth, but your shiny new Oberlin stove.The Oberlin stove still burned wood, but was made of iron, which made it more efficient and less of a fire hazard than the open flames of the hearth. This would have made the actual cooking of the pancakes much easier, more reliable, and safer. However, it would not have made the process any cooler for the cook. Oberlin stoves let out a tremendous amount of heat, which meant that kitchens were still hidden away in the back of the house for the comfort of everyone else.Like the old hearth, the Oberlin stove was often kept burning to prevent the hassle of restarting the fire. But how would you have kept the fire burning through the night without having to wake up and walk back to the kitchen every few hours? If you were lucky, and you had a servant who had resisted the lure of factory jobs, there was a simple solution: have your servant sleep in the kitchen to tend the fire. This meant that a feature of many 1850s kitchens was a cot in the corner of the room for the servant.Kitchen Updates: Kitchens in this era benefitted from the invention of “dry sinks,” (pictured above) meaning an iron or stone tub resting in a wooden kitchen cupboard that you could fill with a bucket of well water, or an attached pump if you were lucky. Much less awkward than sloshing the dirty dishes around in a bucket outside, dry sinks made washing up after breakfast much simpler.

This kitchen would have been easier to use and more city-friendly than a farm kitchen from the 1790s, but cooking pancakes would still have been inefficient, as well as a physically uncomfortable process in a sweltering kitchen.



turn of the century kitchen

As more and more Americans moved to the cities in the 1890s, gas, running water, and the immensely convenient icebox became available in urban areas, transforming the kitchen into a far more efficient workspace.​Ingredients: The popularization of the icebox made cold food storage much easier than tramping down to the cellar or icehouse every time you needed cold milk, butter, or eggs for pancakes. That said, the icebox was not as hassle-free as today’s refrigerators. The icebox was kept cool by a block of ice that inevitably melted a little bit each day despite the insulated walls of the box. This meant after you retrieved your ingredients, you’d want to empty the melt water out of the “drip pan” underneath the icebox, and make a note to grab some more ice from the local iceman later. The icebox was also usually the size of one of today’s mini fridges, so storage was limited.The dry pancake ingredients would have been much easier to grab. The first prepared foods were becoming available in stores, and though most were canned, you could pick up America’s first boxed pancake mix, Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour, at the corner store.
Cooking: Cooking these pancakes would have been a breeze with a new gas-powered stove that heated up quickly. This new stove didn’t need to be kept on all the time, either so the kitchen was no longer a sauna. Gas-powered lighting also made cooking an easier process.If you wanted to make other dishes with your newfound free time, cookbooks were all the rage, so making obscure dishes was much more within your reach.​Kitchen Updates: To add in another luxury, indoor plumbing had come to America, so you could now wash your dishes in a sink with both hot and cold running water. No longer was the sink a tub sunken into a counter, but a freestanding sink usually propped up on two elaborately decorated legs.The advent of utilities made the late Victorian era kitchen much more similar to the kitchens of today with the convenience of fast cooking and easily accessed water. Pancakes had become a simple breakfast meal, rather than an elaborate, time consuming dish.



1910 kitchen

Just after the turn of the century, more scientific eyes turned towards the kitchen, intent on making it a better, cleaner workspace. From this movement for a better designed kitchen came the immensely popular Hoosier Cabinet, as well as a more sanitary kitchen space.Ingredients: After grabbing your cold ingredients from the icebox, you would have mixed together your batter at the countertop of your Hoosier cabinet, an immensely popular piece of kitchen furniture at the time. (read more below) Then you would have cooked the pancakes over your gas or oil powered stove. Electric stoves weren’t around yet, but if you were ahead of the curve, you could have an electric waffle iron or coffee percolator for a few extra breakfast treats.​​Cooking: In a change from the old practice of cooking in the kitchen, then eating every meal in the dining room, your family at this time may have eaten breakfast in the kitchen, if it had space for a small table and chairs. While space for a breakfast table was no guarantee, as small bungalows with kitchens as small as 50 square feet became more common during this time, this development was still the first step toward today’s almost combination living room and dining rooms.
Once the meal was done, you would wash the dishes in the new porcelain sink. The porcelain was a result of a mounting interest in sanitation that was influencing American kitchen design at this time. Instead of old fashioned wood and brick, kitchen surfaces that were less likely to hold germs and damp became popular. As a responsible homeowner, your kitchen at this time would have had easily washable plaster walls and tile floors, as well as a porcelain sink.Kitchen Updates: Now what’s the deal with that Hoosier Cabinet? The Hoosier Cabinet (right) was designed to be a workspace where every tool or ingredient needed was no more than a step away from the preparation counter, thereby improving the efficiency of the cook, as well as the organization of the kitchen. They quickly became all the rage, and if you were even a little aware of trends, you would have invested the 20 to 50 dollars on this piece of furniture. At over six feet tall, with elaborately decorated cabinets surrounding a built in countertop, the Hoosier Cabinet was a step up from the lowly worktable that transformed the look of the American kitchen.




1930s kitchen

Photo: from the “Dream Kitchens” brochure
published by Armstrong Cork
Your trendy 1935 kitchen was a sanctuary of color and convenience in which to cook pancakes.Ingredients: Forget the old, leaky icebox, the maintenance-free electric refrigerator was the place to grab your milk, eggs, and butter now. And forget the Hoosier cabinet, your pancake mix now came out of cabinets installed on the wall and painted brightly in colors like red, yellow, blue, or green.Cooking: The pancakes could be easily cooked on your home’s electric stove, served at the breakfast table, and then it was a breeze to waltz across the brightly-patterned linoleum to wash the dishes in the porcelain sink, or, if you had expensive taste, your dishwasher.Kitchen Updates: This kitchen was shaped very much like today’s kitchens: continuous counters formed an L or U shape, were built around basic features like the sink, stove, and refrigerator. It also had wall-mounted cabinets above the counter filled with kitchen accessories meant to make cooking easy and convenient.Speaking of kitchen accessories, kitchen gadgets that cooks in years past never would have bothered with, like muffin pans, pie pans, ice cream freezers, vegetable presses, soap shakers, an automatic electric pop up toaster, and four different types of brushes for washing dishes were produced in droves and bought just as enthusiastically. Making do without specialized kitchen equipment simply wasn’t done anymore, not when there were products that could make cooking so much more easy and efficient.With all of these amenities, you could make pancakes, toast, bacon, and coffee in the time it would have taken a colonial kitchen to put together pancakes, and you would have done it in a kitchen with the same basic features as a kitchen today.


What’s Changed Since Then?

The rough shape of an American kitchen hasn’t changed much since 1937. We still have counters, cabinets, electric appliances and lighting, running water, and surfaces designed for easy cleaning. We still love our kitchen gadgets and store prepared food in refrigerators. We usually eat breakfast in the kitchen—when we aren’t running out the door with it in hand. Simply put: We make our pancakes the same way we did in 1937.

However, this isn’t to say we’ve been frozen in time; kitchens have evolved over the decades as technology, and the economy has changed.

For example, during World War II, American cooks had to work around food shortages. However, the economic boom after the war allowed for full cupboards and the proliferation of appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators that once were luxury goods.

The 1950s featured a landslide of brightly-painted appliances, colorful metal cupboards, and vivid plastic tableware.

In the 1960s, smoothie-making was revolutionized with the popularity of the blender, and dishwashing became a breeze thanks to Teflon cookware.


kitchens through history

Top left photo (1940s kitchen): published in American Home Magazine
Bottom left photo (1960s kitchen): from Ethan on Flickr
Right hand photo (1950s kitchen): from Todd Ehlers


With the 1970s came the grooviest new appliance of them all: the microwave. While we don’t recommend cooking pancakes in it, the microwave made melting butter for pancake batter a breeze, and sped up the cooking of other dishes considerably. We can also thank microwaves for the frozen meal section of the grocery store, and most importantly, convenient popcorn on movie nights.In the 1980s, homeowners started to look for “energy efficient” stickers on new appliances, and enjoyed new, more heat-resistant countertops in wood, tile, granite, and synthetic marble.The 1990s brought back kitchens in neutral colors and earth tones, a return to basics after the brightly colored kitchens of past decades.


kitchens through history

Left photo (1970s kitchen): Bill Bradford
Top right photo (1980s kitchen): Leif Swanson
Bottom right photo (1990s kitchen): Scott Rubin


And now, in the 21st century, our ideal kitchens carry the best features of kitchens in years past, but are often designed in an open plan style. The kitchen is centrally placed within the home and is as much of a common space as the living room.


kitchen island

Design: Trina Roberts
But if one thing has stayed the same, it’s that pancakes are still the most delicious breakfast choice. Now go on, grab your syrup and be thankful your kitchen has running water.
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5 thoughts on “Kitchens Through the Ages

  1. This was informative and very interesting. I love the Hoosier Cabinet, although we’ve become so accustomed to our larger kitchens, it wouldn’t be as efficient as it used to be. We’ve come so far! Great post!

  2. We’ve come so far! I’ll stop complaining about my small 1978 kitchen and be thankful I don’t have to schlep food in from the icehouse. Love seeing kitchens through the ages.

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