Think You Have it Bad? Here's What Kitchens Were Like A Century Ago

Think You Have it Bad? Here's What Kitchens Were Like A Century Ago

Nancy Mitchell
Aug 15, 2017
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Imagine you're suddenly transported back in time by 100 years, to your great-great-grandmother's house. Most of the rooms are quite familiar: the styles are less modern, sure, but the basic setup is the same. The kitchen, however, is different. All the major players are in place — the sink, the stove, some rudimentary form of refrigeration — but they haven't quite evolved into their modern forms. And the rest of the kitchen, lacking the standardized cabinets and countertops we're used to seeing, is strange as well. This post is the first in a series of five where we'll examine the evolution of the kitchen, stylistically and technologically, over the past 100 years. Come with me, if you will, on a little journey through the history of design.

This image from Old House Living shows a woman working at a cast iron stove, c. 1900. This kind of stove looks quaint to us now, but must have been a hot, belching beast for women trapped in the kitchen, before air conditioning, at the turn of the 20th century.
(Image credit: Old House Living)

The kitchens of the 1900s - 1920s, although they might seem rudimentary to us now, were actually quite advanced compared to the kitchens that came before. The turn of the 20th century was a time of tremendous modernization in the home, and particularly the kitchen. Between 1900 and 1920, most houses in cities and towns were connected to the municipal water system, which made life in the kitchen a lot easier. And the advent of gas ranges meant that, at least for some homeowners, the days of slaving over fires in hot wood or coal stoves were over.

The 1910-1925 kitchen at the Maymont Mansion, in Richmond, Virginia, combines two different kinds of stoves. Image from Old House Online. The coal-burning stove, at right, takes up a tremendous amount of floor space and is vented via an enormous hood; the gas stove, at left, is much more compact (and doesn't require a hood at all).
(Image credit: Old House Online)
This sink by Crane Plumbing, spotted in a 1929 ad from Antique Home Style, reads almost as a piece of furniture.
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)

Early sinks were mounted to the wall, sometimes with attached drainboards, and often had two or four legs, like a piece of furniture. It was considered important to leave the space under the sink open, to allow air to circulate and prevent moisture and decay. Kitchen sinks as we know them, the kind that are integrated into the countertop, wouldn't come along until much later.

Many early kitchens had freestanding cabinets, such as this 'Kitchen Piano', seen in a 1901 ad from Antique Home Style.
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)
This kitchen cabinet, spotted on Antique Home Style, dates to 1923. It's made of enamel, which makes it easier to clean, and features conveniences like the Automatic Lowering Flour Bin and Porceliron Table Top. (Any guesses as to what that hand-crank thing on the side is?)
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)

The reason for this had a lot to do with the fact that kitchen cabinets, as we know them, didn't really exist yet. At the turn of the century, most kitchen furniture (which would've included at least a cabinet of some kind and a worktable) was freestanding, and even later on, when people starting adding built-in cabinets, they built the countertops at pretty much whatever height felt comfortable to them. Often the same kitchen would combine different countertop heights, for different applications.

In this 1920s kitchen from Old House Living, countertop heights vary widely. Note the 'modern' gas range at the left of the photo.
(Image credit: Old House Living)
In a 1929 kitchen spotted on Antique Home Style, countertop, work table, and sink are all at different heights.
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)

What about the refrigerator? The first refrigerator for home use was created by GE in 1911, but the first at-home refrigerator to truly catch on, GE's 'Monitor Top', didn't appear until 1927. Even then, the Monitor Top cost a spendy $525 (for comparison, the price of a Model T Ford was about $300). Most American households didn't have refrigerators until well into the 40s. Until then there was the icebox, basically a furniture-sized ice chest. The icebox was an insulated cabinet, lined with tin or zinc, with a slot for a giant block of ice, delivered weekly by the ice man. Even now, you'll occasionally meet people who refer to the refrigerator as 'the icebox'.

An ad for a hefty 1928 Frigidaire, spotted on Antique Home Style.
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)
This 1929 kitchen from Antique Home Style has an organizing cabinet with flour bins and a beautiful apple-green gas range — proof that people weren't always afraid of color in the kitchen.
(Image credit: Antique Home Style)

I hope you enjoyed this little stroll through history! Next week we'll be back with more, including the story of how countertop heights became standardized, paving the way for the modern kitchen. Stay tuned.

For further reading:

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