You may be surprised to know that we owe our fitted kitchens to a Viennese communist who, during the course of her career, designed kindergartens and council housing in Austria and later, worker’s towns in Russia, for Stalin. During World War II, she was a resistance fighter in her native Austria, was captured, then sentenced to 15 years hard labor for treasonous acts by Hitler’s Gestapo, and eventually was rescued by the American liberation of her Bavarian prison in 1945.
Her name was Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, and she was Austria’s first female architect. In 1926, she designed the “Frankfurt Kitchen”, the great-grandmother of today’s prefabricated, cabinets-and-countertops-surrounding-matching-appliances kitchens. But let’s back up a bit….
In Brooklyn, at the turn of the 20th century, for the upper middle-class and above, the kitchen was the domain of servants. The cook and her helpers usually worked in the back room of the house, on the ground floor level, an a room lit by gas and then electric light, where food was prepared on a large cast iron stove, powered by coal and/or wood.
Foodstuffs, dishes and pots and pans were stored in adjacent pantries, or in built-in cabinets that were either in the kitchen itself, or in a pantry space. A large worktable stood in the middle of the room, which doubled as an eating table for the staff. Food was chilled in a built-in ice box, or kept in a cold room in the back. A large sink on legs stood in a corner. Some sinks had a built in shelf for drying dishes, and it had running water, both hot and cold.
If a household was more modest, and there were no servants, the kitchen looked very similar, just with less and smaller. Even tenements had kitchens of sorts, a stove and maybe a sink, which were in a corner of the main living space. If one had one, the sink was the apartment’s only running water, and the stove the only source of heat. Dishes, pots, and food were stored on small shelves near the stove.
As the 20th century rolled forward, the needs of homeowners underwent a radical change. Three factors contributed to this change: the mechanization of modern life, the popularity of the apartment, and the growing disappearance of the servant class.
The three are so intertwined. The popularity of the apartment meant a more compact space which needed less staff to keep running and clean. Modern conveniences such as the vacuum cleaner, the electric iron, and other appliances, made large numbers of staff unnecessary.
A woman could take care of an apartment herself. And servants themselves, mostly from immigrant stock, as well as African-Americans, were finding better jobs in the new industries and occupations opening up to women in the 20th century.
Social reformers began looking at the kitchen, looking for ways to streamline the cooking process, making it less time consuming. The ideas of Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 70 years before, were once again resonating with modern planners. Poggenpohl, a German kitchen brand, founded in 1892 by Friedemir Poggenpohl, introduced their first ergonomic work-top tables and storage chutes in the 1910’s.
By this time, the Hoosier Cabinets, introduced at the beginning of the 1900’s, were reaching their peak of popularity. Based on a baker’s cabinet, the Hoosier was a free-standing, all-in-one cabinet with a metal or wooden work table surface, with storage space in cabinets, shelves, cubbyholes, bins, and hooks.
Most of the Hoosiers had galvanized tin hoppers in an upper cabinet for flour and sugar, often with built in sifters, allowing ingredients to be sifted right into measuring cups or bowls. There were special glass containers for various ingredients, and specialized tools that fit into special compartments.
All in all, the Hoosier cabinet was a model of cooking efficiency, enabling one to have everything right at hand, with a place for everything, and everything in its place. Early Hoosiers were wood, usually oak, and most had metal table tops, for ease in rolling out dough.
By the end of their popularity, many of the styles were being made with steel bodies. Today, authentic Hoosier cabinets are very popular for those seeking to recreate a period kitchen. Plus they are just so fun, and practical. You can buy replacement parts, glass jars, etc, from specialized dealers.
This brings us to Ms. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. In 1926, she designed her “Frankfort Kitchen”, based on the galley kitchens of railroad cars and boats. Her research, and that of others in the United States, showed her that what she termed a “housewife’s laboratory” could be efficient, fit into a small space, yet be comfortable and attractive.
The Frankfort City Council would authorize the building of 10,000 of her mass-produced pre-fab kitchens, which were put in new apartment housing for the working class. Her ideas resonated, and the Victorian kitchen was well on its way out.
This idea of a standardized kitchen took hold on both sides of the Atlantic. Poggenpohl introduced the first “reform kitchen” in 1928, which included interconnecting cabinets. By the 1930’s the standardized kitchen had been established, with a sink, with hot and cold taps, a gas or electric stove and oven, a refrigerator, and upper and lower cabinet units with countertop work and storage space.
The appliances and sinks at this time were still all on tall legs, and were separate units. The legs were there to make cleaning under them easier, and the material of choice for cabinets was steel.
Steel was popular for several reasons. First and foremost, it was seen as sanitary, especially during the years before vaccinations. The influenza pandemic of 1914-1918 killed close to half a million people in the United States alone.
Steel cabinets, countertops, even ceiling tiles, and especially containers and bins, could be scrubbed and were natural repellents to germ spreading vermin. Steel was also versatile. Different sizes could be easily molded and cast, or cut. They could also easily be painted. Countertops were often covered in linoleum, also the most popular flooring of the time.
The Great Depression saw most people put off their kitchen aspirations, but that didn’t mean manufacturers didn’t come out with ambitious designs. There were many steel cabinet manufacturers, all with their lines of fitted cabinetry, helping to make a homemaker’s life a dream.
Appliances were changing and improving the way people cooked and cleaned. The war effort during World War II used both kitchen factories and their steel for weapons production, and the wake of the Depression left most families doing with what they had, but ads for fancy kitchens gave the hope that someday, soon, things would be even better than ever, and every kitchen would have its remake. The Post War years were coming.
Next time: From the 1950’s to the present day. From classic fitted kitchens, the incomprehensible avocado and harvest gold appliances, to the standard wooden cabinet kitchen, back to reproduction period kitchens, the industrial kitchen craze, and finally, to the open kitchen/living rooms of today’s apartments. We’re back to the hearth in the main room again. Kitchen design comes full circle.