How Kitchens Have Transformed Over the Past 100 Years, According to Experts
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When I think of kitchens, I think of my grandmas.
Grandma Ruby had a small kitchen with a window over the sink. The dogs would sit outside, waiting for scraps. (They always got them.) She lived in her house on our home farm until she died at age 96, at which point she was mostly blind but still able to cook roasts and her irreplaceable French onion soup solely because she knew exactly where everything was in her space. I think about grandma Louann’s bustling trailer house kitchen in our small town, filled to the brim with Tupperwares of her famous baked goods — so many she had to put an extra freezer in the spare room as dedicated storage space.
The kitchen has long been considered the center of activity in the home; family meetings, holiday dinners, get-togethers of all kinds happen within its walls. In the Midwest, we joke that all parties start and end up in the kitchen. Some find peace and relaxation in the kitchen, while others are still finding their footing. Whether the kitchen is your happy place or just a spot to unbox takeout, there’s a lot of history behind this beloved room; economical and societal changes have played a major role in shaping the kitchens of 2021.
The next time you open your refrigerator or place a pot of water on the stove to boil, consider how far the kitchen has come — and think about how your family will be making dinner 50 years from now!
From the Heart of the Home to the Basement — and Back Again
“I think the kitchen has been the heart of the home since the 1700s,” says architectural writer John Ota, whose book “The Kitchen” is an insightful account of traveling across the United States to discover the kitchens and cooking habits of everyone from the Pilgrims to Louis Armstrong, Georgia O’Keeffe, and people living in tenements in New York City’s Lower East Side. What Ota found was that, despite the differences between Elvis’s kitchen and Julia Child’s, the space is about more than just making meals — it’s about comfort, creativity, and nourishing your body and your spirit.
“People lived in one-room houses and the only place where there was light at night and warmth was in the kitchen — everybody had to be in the kitchen and they were together,” Ota explains. “The term ‘heart of the home’ would come from the fact that it’s a place where people cook, people eat, they get nurtured and nourished.”
However, as times changed and people began to move from rural areas and small villages to more modern cities, the kitchen often moved to the back of the home. This was in part because of the heat, noise, and smells associated with its tasks; the kitchen was placed as far away from living areas as possible. “At the top of the 20th century, the kitchen was almost an afterthought,” at the top of the 20th century, explains Rasheeda Gray, the CEO and principal designer at Gray Space Interiors. In the older homes she works on in her home base of Philadelphia, Gray and her team often find that the kitchen is “likely the smallest room in the house,” she notes.
This is also due in part to building trends such as mail-order houses, of which an estimated 100,000 were built in the United States between 1908 and 1940, Livabl notes. “The typical houses that the typical US citizen lived in in the 1900s were framed houses that were designed and built by builders or from kits like Sears-Roebuck or plans you could buy,” explains Becky Yust, Professor of Housing Studies at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. “Ceilings were tall so you could keep the house cooler without air conditioning. It still was a messy, hot task to do.” Some homes even had “summer kitchens,” or lean-to buildings next to the main house that were built for the purpose of keeping the main house as cool as possible while people cooked in the warmer months.
The kitchen was a bustling space, but it wasn’t necessarily the most efficient or spacious. Many homes used wood for fuel, which meant heat, smoke, and storage for the wood supply. Before electricity, refrigeration was done with ice blocks. “Each of these different functional areas occurred in isolation, not in a separate room — the stove had to be close to chimney to exhaust smoke, there might be a pump in the sink with a well or plumbed water,” Yust explains of the typical “flow” of a kitchen in the 1900s. “Where you stored cold food was another place, then there was the food prep; sometimes it might be a table in the middle of the room, as you didn’t have counters next to a wood stove.” Because of all these different requirements, the kitchen could feel more like a hodgepodge of furniture and less like a room you might want to show off to guests. But that was all about to change.
The Scientific History of Kitchen Efficiency
The kitchen as we know it today began to take shape beginning in the 1920s, in part via studies done by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who designed the “Frankfurt kitchen” to optimize efficiency; the small kitchen also had bins of cooking and baking essentials on the countertop for easy access. Her work was groundbreaking in part because she was informed by interviews and studies done with other women in the kitchen space, effectively bringing them into the design process. Stateside, a 1948 study done by the United States Department of Agriculture brought several efficient kitchen design plans to the masses, including the “U-shaped kitchen,” which was designed to reduce the number of steps required to get from the stove to the sink to the work space with the sink in the center — all in part to maximize time spent in the space.
“[The study took into account] how many steps does the woman of the home have to take to prepare a meal? Or even just a cup of tea?” Yust explains. “They looked at ‘What are the relationships between these stations, how can we bring them together to make life more convenient?’ They had people prepare meals and tracked the lines on the plan, [watched] where were they going. That’s when we started getting into more integrated appliances with countertops.”
Post-World War II, people began to move out to the suburbs and the growing demand for new homes helped standardize proportions for things like cabinets, appliances, and countertops. “After World War II … we got into standardization [based on the Beltsville research],” shares Yust. “[Countertop height] came down to about three inches below the elbow of the person using the kitchen; the standard height of a woman at that time was 5’4,” so that’s how that was established.” Appliance sales boomed too, all promising to make life easier for the woman of the house.
Women in the Kitchen, Over the Years
The kitchen was primarily considered a woman’s domain, though the role of the space changed as more and more women entered the workforce. “In the mid-19th century, the kitchen was moved to the basement, it was a place where the lady of the house rarely went,” Ota says. “The family never went to the kitchen, it was a place of servants.”
That changed when women began to find jobs outside of domestic work, and this shift greatly impacted homekeeping overall. “In the 20th century … women started getting other jobs, and there was a decline in availability of domestic servants,” Ota notes. “The lady of the house had to start cooking, and she became a professional housewife.” The kitchen also became a popular feature in home design and women’s magazines; where the parlor and living room had been the most important room in the house, now the kitchen took precedence.
By the 1950s, the “classic” nostalgic kitchen featured in shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and depicted by artists like Norman Rockwell had taken shape. “The kitchen became the heart of the home again, where people ate and cooked, but it was still isolated at the back of the house,” Ota says.
When women began entering the white-collar workforce in droves in the ‘60s and ‘70s, consumers began seeking out appliances that made cooking easier and faster. Enter the microwave, as well as the advent of frozen meals. “The freezer became more important because of TV dinners, [as well as] appliances that can facilitate meal preparation in a shorter amount of time,” Yust explains. “Every new item creates its own little world.”
Thanks to both technological innovations and changing social mores, the kitchen has shifted from the domain of women to a gathering place for everyone; kids are more likely to help prep food and household chores are often split between partners. “The big change happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the equalization of gender and family roles,” Ota says, adding that such advancements also changed the kitchen’s typical design and placement in the home. “Architecturally, the kitchen moved to the center of the house.” The kitchen became a place of togetherness, whether you were whipping up appetizers for a dinner party or doing homework at the table.
Accessibility Efforts Have Helped People Reconsider How to Make Kitchens Work for the People in Them
Traditional gender roles aren’t the only thing that has changed the way we use and design kitchens; in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, prohibiting discrimination against disabled people. The ADA set standards for accessibility in public spaces, but it also impacted kitchen design in apartments and private homes, including reach ranges, work spaces, wider walkways, and cabinetry design.
“The ADA [looked at] what requirements should be, and it opened up a lot of additional requirements,” says Yust. “You’ll see in kitchens that are designed for somebody using a wheelchair, the countertops may … have a pullout, the cabinet under the sink will open to wheel the chair in and plumbing is set back.”
“Accessibility means a lot of different things,” accessibility specialist Margot Imdieke Cross, who is a wheelchair user and was able to build her own kitchen, tells Apartment Therapy. “I always start with what’s required by code. Universal design touts that they are accessible for everyone, but I’ve been in kitchens that have claimed to be universally accessible and they failed to provide access for people in chairs.”
According to Imdieke Cross, what’s critically important is the height of the counters. “If you’re looking at accessible features in a kitchen and you want to make sure they’re wheelchair accessible, your max height in code is 34 inches, though the functional height might be a lot less.”
When designing an accessible kitchen, one may need to consider the reach range of oven control buttons, refrigerator varieties, and comfortable access to pantry items and storage space. Things like non-slip flooring, slide-out cabinetry, pushed-back plumbing to allow access to the sink, and overall width of the space may have to be addressed as well; for example, Imdieke Cross says a six-foot minimum width makes it much easier for wheelchair users to turn and maneuver around the kitchen as needed. These adaptations and additions can be life-changing for people looking to live and work in their homes independently, and the rise in popularity of custom cabinetry for all kitchen designs, not just those for people who require certain adaptations, has made the kitchen and pantry space much more accessible.
Kitchen gadgets of all kinds have made kitchens more accessible and adaptable, for tasks as small as peeling an apple. ”A woman farmer [who was paralyzed on one side] needed to start peeling apples and she found a device that will peel her apples, all one-handed,” Cross recounts. ”Those types of real basics seem to improve the quality of life for people who want to do things.” Cross adds that there are many more expensive and technologically-advanced gadgets and innovations that can be added to a kitchen, including sinks that can be raised or lowered depending on who’s using them, but sometimes simple items make the biggest difference. “Those really basic gadgets, like finding a one-handed apple peeler … those basic things make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
How can you make your kitchen more accessible to friends and family with mobility issues or disabilities? Imdieke Cross says a comfortable work space is key. ”If you’re inviting somebody into your home who has a mobility issue, make sure there’s a work surface that’s comfortable for them that’s the right height,” she explains. If you have a pull-out bread board in your kitchen, that’s a great place to start.
The Kitchens of 2021 and Beyond
Take a look around your personal kitchen. Whether you live in a small apartment or a mansion, you probably have the basics: a sink, a stove and oven, a refrigerator and freezer. Your space may also have an island for storage and prep, a dishwasher, a counter for eating with stools, and a certain amount of storage space for your food and cookware. These are all evidence of the innovations of the kitchen space, and while the basics may stay the same, they’re adapting to technology too.
Kitchens have also become something of a status symbol; think huge houses with marble countertops, massive islands, and tech-smart appliances that can send you a list of what’s in your refrigerator when you’re out at the store. Gray believes that the kitchen will only continue being an integral part of the home and cites current cabinetry trends as an example. “Cabinetry feels more like furniture as opposed to the … very utilitarian cabinetry from the ‘50s to the ‘90s,” she says. She’s also noticed a shift in cabinetry color from white to more unexpected kitchen colors like green, which could be an indicator of society’s current fixation on health and wellness. “We all want to be healthy and green signifies that in a way. It’s a way to feel fresh.”
Ota agrees that the kitchen will remain as pivotal to our daily life in the next few decades. “As family life works, everybody has their own individual bedrooms where they shut the door, their own TVs, cell phones, computers,” Ota says. “The place where we come together for a shared meal will become even more treasured because we’re all split up.”
Gray also believes that the COVID-19 pandemic and increased time spent at home may speed design changes in kitchens. While the room will remain the heart of the home, she thinks a shift from open-concept living to more closed-off spaces is on the horizon. ”If the kitchen is the center of the home, it’s noisy, it’s lively, that’s where life happens,” she explains. “If you’re on a conference call for work, you don’t want that noise in the background. This may impact kitchen trends depending on how long we’re in a pandemic. It’s accelerated the full circle.”
Regardless of what the kitchen space looks like, one thing is clear: Technology is making cooking, cleaning, and spending time in the kitchen easier than ever. “I think the perfect kitchen is the time we’re in right now,” Ota says. “I can’t think of an easier time to cook.” Ota believes that people will only become more and more passionate about food in the years to come, and that technology will continue to drive how we make our meals. “People are so knowledgeable now about food and spices, pantries will become more important. People will be able to [use the phone] as they’re driving home to preheat the oven, look up recipes on a screen right on the oven, the refrigerator can track your food and you can order more food, you can see the inside of your fridge on your phone while you’re shopping.”
“It’s all about technology,” agrees Gray. “The fridge … was an icebox at the beginning, now it’s like ‘Let’s have almost an iPad in the kitchen!’” Smart fridges and devices like Alexa or Google Home have changed the way we interact with our kitchens. “It plays to the idea of the center of the home,” says Gray. “You start your day and end your day there.”