Walkabout: Someone’s in the Kitchen, part 3

By the time the troops came back from World War II, the modern kitchen was one of the most identifiable indicators of American middle-class life. Inspired by a combination of functionality, smaller spaces, modern appliances and good old American salesmanship, the homemakers of the late 1940’s were barraged with choices galore, all inspired by European Bauhaus design. These kitchens were streamlined, like the new cars and new everything coming out of the post-war years.

A kitchen was no longer a collection of free standing pieces, but a unit, with space for appliances built into the cabinetry, which now covered the upper and lower walls of any sized kitchen. This wasn’t exactly new.

For a rundown of kitchen history, please check out part one and part two of the history of kitchens. Ever since the 1920’s, kitchens had been trending down in size, and growing more efficient in terms of space planning. In American cities and towns, a new way of life was being introduced. Most people no longer had servants. Women and girls were now being taught that tending the home was a job that they could do themselves, and that a new kind of kitchen, with space and time saving features could help them. The popularity of new kinds of homes across the country also aided in this, through the introduction of the bungalow, and other smaller houses, that necessitated smaller kitchens. Bungalows were very organized homes, with lots of space-saving built-ins, and kitchens modeled after the galleys of railroad cars and boats, like the Austrian designed “Frankfort Kitchens”, were a perfect match.

We now associate kitchen cabinets with wood, or sometimes “wood”, but many of the cabinets of the 1950’s and later were made of steel. Now that the war effort was over, steel could again be used in domestic production of goods, and the new kitchens of the new suburbs, like Levittown, were clad in steel. Steel was sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and could be manufactured quickly. Steel cabinets could be painted in any color, and would last forever. Even today, in many neighborhoods, an un-renovated brownstone, or pre-war apartment can still be found with a 1950’s or 60’s steel cabinet clad kitchen. A lot of people collect and restore these today. A vigorous marketing campaign accompanied this new rush to homeownership and family life, with well-dressed Moms in high heels preparing fabulous meals in gleaming kitchens, while Dads in fedoras popped in ready to eat after a long day at the office. Madison Avenue really believed in “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”. The modern woman now found herself trapped in the kitchen, albeit a gleaming one.

Aiding in this effort were the latest gadgets and appliances to help a woman get all of this work done. The stove/oven now fit snugly into surrounding cabinets and countertops, giving the cook a workspace close to the stove. Sinks also had their own units, with convenient drawers for storing utensils and pots and pans. Refrigerators, now minus the exposed motors on the top, could also be fitted into the cabinetry, creating a smooth and effortless work station. The dishwasher was invented and hailed as a great time saver. Separate “deep freezes”, or freezer units were available, although they often got shunted to a back room, or even a basement. The modern kitchen also had toasters, blenders, electric coffeepots and kettles, waffle irons and other gadgets designed to make cooking faster and easier. Modern food production also contributed, by introducing frozen foods, condensed soups, cake mixes and other canned and packaged foods. Cook books made a comeback, with every company from appliances to food products coming out with a recipe book. There was now no reason not to excel in your new kitchen!

The cabinets in the early 1950’s were white, but by the late ‘50’s to early ‘60’s, cabinets began to go Technicolor, appearing in pastels like cream, pink and lavender, but sometimes going for even stronger colors, like acid green or hunter green or dark brown, or even two-tone. The countertops were also topped in steel, but the new laminates were the most popular, Formica being the most popular of all. Countertops ranged from butcher block wood, to laminates to stone or tile.
Wood was not dead, of course, there were also wooden cabinets, hearkening back to the Hoosier cabinets and the old Victorian built-ins. By the 1960’s, they began to once again dominate kitchen cabinet manufacturing, relying on wood’s warmness and comfort to enhance the modern kitchen. Solid wood was always preferable, but manufacturers churned out stock units in specific sizes and shapes, making them not only in solid wood, but laminates over cheaper particleboard or plywood. Mass production techniques learned during the last wars enabled manufacturers to build stock units in pre-fabricated sizes and styles, making new kitchens possible for the average middle class buyer.

By the time the 1970’s rolled in, the American kitchen was now the most expensive room in the house, a status it still holds today. More and more “time-saving” innovations continued to be invented, improved on, or re-invented: the dishwasher, the refrigerator with on-the-door ice maker and/or cold water dispenser, wall mount ovens, convection cooking, and later, microwave ovens, not to mention countless smaller gadgets: coffee makers, ice cream makers, bread makers, electric crock pots, fondue pots, popcorn poppers, hand mixers, toaster ovens and more. Now, appliance makers were going for color as well, showing lines of avocado and harvest gold stoves and refrigerators, products that unfortunately, did not age as well as white, cream, or black.

The 1980’s arrived to introduce new kinds of kitchen to consumers: the open industrial kitchen, and the mega-kitchen. Several things happened to bring this about. In our cities, loft apartments began to become popular. Once the homes of poor artists and other non-traditional renters who needed plenty of space for their work, lofts in neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca suddenly became über-chic. Because these were often unfitted spaces, without traditional walls, kitchens were once again part of the living space. Cooking itself had also become chic. For upper-class people, the new “yuppie” class, cooking was seen as a creative outlet, and a social occasion. Food was no longer just eaten as nourishment, it became an art form. An appreciation of cuisine, the foods of the world, and their preparation, nutrition, natural ingredients, and renewed interest in good health, made cooking a new social skill, and a reason to gather. One did not just cook dinner, one created a culinary experience, and for that, you needed a REAL kitchen, a cook’s kitchen; a restaurant kitchen.

Suddenly, restaurant supply companies saw most of their orders coming not from the industry, but from interior designers, architects and consumers themselves. Professional stoves and refrigerators from brands like Wolf and Sub-Zero were suddenly flying out the doors. These companies didn’t take long to adapt to the consumer market, and are still going as strong as ever. Range hoods and extractors became de rigueur, to suck the cooking odors up before they went into the rest of the open apartment or loft. It became the height of chicness to have the largest, most restaurant-y huge, BTU sucking appliances you could get, even if the only thing you used them for was heating water for tea.

If you were not in the position to live in a loft, the ‘80’s and 90’s brought us the mega-mansion, complete with enormous kitchen “great rooms”, that could easily accommodate the staff once employed by Victorian ladies of wealth. These kitchens embraced the idea that more is more, with huge spaces, lots of cabinets, task and mood lighting, countertops, islands with bar stools, pantries, wine cellars, and breakfast rooms. And often a sofa, a couple of televisions and room for a home office, not to mention lots of oversized restaurant appliances, and the latest gadgets galore. Today, only 20 years later, much of this is now seen as rather embarrassing, as we try to downsize in these hard times.

Along with the restaurant appliances came a new love for all things stainless steel and granite. Again, restaurant supply companies saw their stock going into homes for everything from restaurant sinks, to rolling steel carts, to cabinetry. Viking, a major manufacturer of restaurant appliances, saw the trend, and bought St. Charles Kitchens, one of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s most popular steel cabinet makers, and re-introduced the line, this time in gleaming stainless steel. White and black appliances went from having a majority market share to single digits almost overnight, replaced by stainless steel. If you couldn’t afford a Sub-Zero, or other upscale brand, there were plenty of affordable stainless steel appliances from every manufacturer to choose from. The ideal kitchen now resembled a restaurant or institutional kitchen, or a laboratory. Stainless steel seems to be here to stay. Until the next trend emerges.

Stone surfaces have been in kitchens since the smooth rocks on the hearth. Soapstone has been a popular countertop surface for almost 200 years, followed by marble. But the late 20th century saw polished granite of all colorations and varieties become as necessary as stainless steel, in the eyes of many consumers. Granite comes in different gradations and rarity, different thicknesses and various kinds of edging and honing, so the cost can be all across the board. But for many, marble is still a viable choice for countertops, as are concrete, tile, re-cycled glass and plastics, wood, and composites such as Corian. Thank goodness we still have choice.

There is, of course, so much more one could say about modern kitchen design. I didn’t even mention floors or lighting or wall treatments. For many people today’s stainless steel and polished granite laboratories are seen as cold, and many are going back to warmer woods, or old fashioned country and Victorian unfitted kitchens, or are working these details into the modern design. Retro appliances, European styles, and reproduction pieces are still popular with many consumers. Open shelving is back, with dishes, utensils and food containers on display. Everyone now wants a pantry again, after eliminating them for more square footage for cabinetry, or appliances. Many people are also tired of the open kitchen, wanting a more traditional space not connected to their living room. Modern construction has not caught up with them, as open kitchens seem to be the only kinds of kitchens being built in new construction today.

Next: the kitchen remains the heart of the home. Wrapping it all up, past and present.

Classic 1980's kitchen (bull.renovations.com)

Mega-kitchen, with fishtank! (realestateresusitation.com)

14 Comment

  • ACKK!!! Mega kitchen! I think one huge problem with overly large kitchens- besides being overkill- is that efficiency was sacrificed for size and style. But more often than that- to ego. I’d love to know how many people actually are the culinary experts a kitchen like that really requires?

  • Good read MM. Thanks!
    Those 1950′s kitchens were really pretty modern. Do you remember when built-in blenders were a touch of class? Your formica countertop would feature a peculiar opening in which one placed the upper part of the blender. Too cool for school!
    For lovers of vintage 50′s kitchens I recommend a visit to the Louis Armstrong House in Corona. Satchmo had a “high-style” baby-blue kitchen, words fail me, check it out!

  • yeah, now the kitchen is a tiny part of the living room, where you get 3 stools to sit on….oh goodie……

    I forgot a lot of people here, (other than myself) do not put a table and four chairs in their kitchens

  • by the way, is she loading Fiestaware in the washer?
    She is multi-tasking, loading the dishwasher while waving to her
    landscaper with whom she is having a steamy affair while the kids and hubby are outta the house.

  • where is everybody today? This is Brownstoners’ favorite topic: show-off kitchens.

    • no it isnt, brownstoner’s seem to hate Kitchens

      To me, it seems as though anyone here doesn’t even use a kitchen…they certainly don’t understand how I have a table with 4 chairs around it….

      yet, at my age, I have never met anyone that didn’t have a table and 4 chairs.

  • gazer, so true, some folks don’t have a table and chairs in their apartment, which I find odd. To me, that would be like not having a front door, but to each their own.
    The NYC real estate take on kitchens is quite different from normal human perspective. Here, kitchens are works of art to be contemplated from the living room as one eats takeout Mexican on the sofa.

  • Minard, Just FYI…your comment about your Jetson’s-like childhood stove in the last Kitchen chapter has sent me on an obsessive hunt for the stove of my childhood. I blame you for my lack of productivity this past week. ; )

  • cobblehiller, I’m sorry about that. It really was a great looking range. It had a swank name like “the continental” or “the constellation”. The body was stainless but the edge piece that remained visible when the burners were recessed was blond wood like on a cutting board. above the range there were two separate ovens a small one and a large one. Beneath the range was storage with blond wood doors.

    • Minard, The stove my parents had, also had the drawer-type range that that would be pulled out when ready to use. And it had a cover that could slide over the range once it was pushed in/closed, which made it look even more “space age”. It had an upper small/less deep oven, and a larger/deeper lower oven. It was all chrome, except for the sides, which were that late-60s, early 70s dark brown with darker brown edges. And, of course, it was electric. Guessing/assuming it came from Sears. (Now I have to get back to work, I have NOT found the stove yet! ; ) )

  • Just no time….

    I have a decorating book from the era of avocado and harvest gold. It has another take on appliances. It shows a kitchen whose appliances are completely covered in floral wallpaper, to match the walls, of course. If you check carefully in the picture sources in the back, it says the source of the picture is the American Wallpaper Association.

    I think we’re going to copy the idea in our kitchen, as soon as we get the conversation pit built and the walls covered in shag rug.

  • This series has been great. Thank you. I am fascinated by the kitchen’s journey.

  • Loving these history of kitchens articles. Did you mention the toe kick? The lower cabinets in the1890s houses around here don’t have them, causing non-ergonomic torture. Was the toe kick a 20th century invention?
    Pet peeve, folks: plural, not possessive, for decades (i.e. 1950′s).
    Just s, no apostrophe.