Walkabout: Meals in the Attic

(Photo: kitchenclarity.com. Large 19th century kitchen)

In the course of looking for topics for this column, I come across some interesting little snippets that give us an insight into what life was like in Brooklyn and New York City, a hundred years ago. I recently came across this short article called Architecture and Servants, in the Real Estate Record and Guide, January 28, 1893:

The importance of the servant girl as a factor in our modern life is illustrated in no better way than in the effect she has on the planning and construction of the modern dwelling house. It is not enough that the quarters allotted to the domestics have been immeasurably improved in the last ten years; nobody begrudges them that, but their demands extend to the other parts of the house and must be complied with or they will leave, and this last threat has been enough to assure the fulfillment of their demands. Possibly the most startling of the dominance of the servant girl is to be found in the entire abandonment of the idea introduced a few years ago of having the kitchen on the top floor.

This idea had many advantages and it found a quick acceptance. The culinary odors which penetrated even the houses of the best construction under the old plan of a basement kitchen were entirely done away with, and the kitchen was completely cut off from the rest of the house. Doubtless the roof kitchen would have been very generously adapted had not the cook objected. It necessitated climbing too many stairs, she said, notwithstanding the fact that a dumb-waiter always communicated with the kitchen, and it cut her off from company. She demanded the establishment of the old basement kitchen, and the owners and builders of private houses quickly succumbed. Architects say they are not allowed to plan dwellings with kitchens on the top floors anymore.

OK, wha?? This is the first I have ever heard of this trend, to have kitchens on the top floors. In all my travels, and in all the upper class and upper middle class houses I’ve been in, I have yet to see an original kitchen on the top floor of a single family house. We are all familiar with the brownstone and row house kitchens. The original kitchen is always found on the basement, ground floor level, in the back of the building. If the house is large enough, there may be a butler’s pantry, or built-ins built into a middle room or passageway, and a dumb-waiter to bring food up to the formal dining room on the parlor floor level. The front room downstairs was traditionally a less formal breakfast/dining room. Free standing houses, especially large mansions, also usually had the kitchen in the basement, with dumb-waiters to carry food to the parlor level. Depending on the climate, there could also be a summer kitchen, totally separate from the house, housed in a small building attached to the house. Guests never saw the kitchen, or anyone in it, except serving staff.

I would imagine if any of Brooklyn’s homes had kitchens on the top floor, they would have been moved back downstairs, long ago, which is why we haven’t seen any. I’m curious to find out if any of the readers in the Brownstowner community have ever seen an original top floor kitchen, or if you have one now, or if you have them in your original blueprints.

About time the servants of yesteryear won one.

(Photo:ourwardfamily.com. 19th century maids)

What's Happening