Victorian Kitchens: Design Anatomy

Victorian Kitchens: Design Anatomy

Anna Hoffman
Sep 29, 2011

Yesterday we looked at a Victorian kitchen found preserved in a Welsh basement, and it made me think of Downton Abbey and the whole genre of the large domestic kitchen in 19th-century England. Much more technologically advanced than in the prior century, these kitchens were nevertheless on their way out, about to give way to new ideas about how households might not require a passel of servants, and how more space might make for less efficiency. Let's take a look at what defined a fancy-pants Victorian kitchen.

Kitchens were typically a series of rooms below-stairs or on the ground floor, whichever was the service floor, so located in order to minimize odors for the rest of the house and to maximize convenience to the garden and sources of water. Part of the kitchen complex was the scullery, which held basins and tubs filled with water for washing dishes and clothes, and for washing vegetables from the garden. There was also a larder, with marble shelves kept cool with water, where ingredients were kept and food was preserved. And there was a butler's pantry, where glassware and silverware were kept and cleaned by the butler. There would also be a salting room, where meats were prepared for preservation, and of course a wine cellar. Some fancy houses, like Harewood House (image 3), even had a pastry room.

The scullery and the main kitchen both tended to have great windows. This was primarily important as a source of natural light during the bulk of working hours, but it's interesting to note that servants worked there from before dawn to long after dark, preparing food and washing up. The scullery maid was the first one up in the morning, to put a pot of water on the stove for tea (it was, after all, Victorian England), and the servants had to have their tea and toast before the upstairs was ready to wake up. So, many important tasks had to be performed without any sunlight at all (have you been to England in winter?). The kitchen windows also provided ventilation and temperature control.

Victorian kitchens were organized around a long table that was used as a prep surface. For large dinners, there might be several servants preparing food, and the long table could accommodate whatever activity was needed. Many grand houses had around 40 indoor servants, some of whom could be pressed into auxiliary kitchen service during important events.

Of course, the heart of the kitchen was the stove. Victorian stoves were fueled by coal, which had to be added throughout the day and night in order to keep the fire going. The stove also had to be scraped and cleaned daily. Large kitchen stoves had several cabinets for baking. The flat stovetop would have areas that were more and less heated by the coal fire, so the cook could modulate the temperature for different recipes.

Many Victorian kitchens used tile on their walls, because it was so easy to clean grease and grime. Brick and stone were also favored for their water- and fire-resistance (though they certainly weren't fireproof, and kitchens were the most dangerous rooms in any house.)

You can see in many images of Victorian-era kitchens that there was an enormous range of cookery items: copper pots and pans, cast iron pots and kettles, jelly molds, etc. A typical upper-class family dinner was 5 or 6 courses. If company was over, it might be up to 12 or 13, with each course comprising a few different dishes. When the Prince of Wales stayed at Penrhyn Castle (image 1) in 1894, for example, the kitchen produced 89 dishes over the course of the four-day visit!

If you've been watching Downton Abbey (I know — we're obsessed), then you've seen some of this in action. That series takes place a little later, though, in Edwardian England on the cusp of World War I, really the beginning of the end of this kind of household. The 20th-century kitchen was vastly different, built around a female homemaker instead of a team of servants, and prizing efficiency over excess. Still, the Victorian aesthetic of copper, cast iron, tile and brick is always in style. Which aspects of the Victorian kitchen would you keep, and which are you glad are behind us?

Sources: Some great sources on Victorian kitchens and cooking include Jane Austen's World, The Victorian Era, Victoria's Past (includes links to recipes), and, my perennial favorite blog, the National Trust's Treasure Hunt.

Images: 1. Saltram House kitchen, via Panoramio; 2. Penrhyn Castle's kitchen, photo by Andreas von Einsiedel for the National Trust; 3. Harewood House Old Kitchen; 4. Early 20th-century kitchen at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris (one of my favorite museums), via; 5. The kitchen at Downton Abbey, aka Highclere Castle, via Jane Austen's World and Quite So Downton Abbey.

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