Walkabout: Someone’s in the Kitchen, Part 4


    Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this story. An updated version of this series can be viewed here.

    The last three posts have been a basic history of the kitchen, from humble hearth to trophy kitchen. This final article is a wrap up of some of the styles and options available today, and where they came from historically. I’ll take a short peek at some of the topics not covered before: flooring, lighting, and walls. Let’s start with walls.

    By the time kitchens were placed in separate rooms, they were ideally the domain of servants, who were required to scrub all surfaces clean daily. Many kitchens had wooden plank walls that were whitewashed for a clean surface.

    Wallpapers, especially plain papers that could be either whitewashed or scrubbed would also have been in use. It really wasn’t until the late Victorian years, in the last decades of the 19th century, when a new obsession with cleanliness and germs swept the culture, that fired glazed ceramic tile starts to appear in the kitchens of the wealthier classes.

    For the average home, which had at least one servant, the kitchen was outfitted in the plainest way possible, because it was utilitarian, the domain of the help, and no outsider except tradesmen would ever have a reason to be in there. How different that was from today, when everyone wants to see your kitchen, and hang out there.

    A wainscoting of beadboard was quite common, and it was not uncommon for that beadboard to go from floor to ceiling in some parts of the kitchen. Above the beadboard, a painted plaster wall was the norm. In more expensive houses, what we now call “subway tile” began to cover the walls, often from floor to ceiling, if not on every wall, at least the stove wall and the walls nearby. The reasoning then the same as todays: it’s a lot easier to clean up grease and grime on glazed tile than on painted plaster or wallpaper.

    The introduction of the fitted kitchen in the 1920’s and 30’s meant that there was less surface to worry about. Upper and lower cabinets now took up a lot of wall space. The favored surface cover from this time until the 1980’s was paint or wallpaper, or a combination of the two.

    By the 1950’s, wallpaper had gone from being a subtle accent or background print, bursting forth in colorful and graphic prints, often featuring Sputnik inspired space age graphics, as well as more traditional flowers and plaids. The ideal kitchen had a breakfast nook or eating area, and these walls were always adorned in wallpaper.

    The prints and the colors change by the late ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s, but wallpaper was still the surface covering of choice. Someone can be blamed for the invention of vinyl stick-on wallpaper during this time, seen by many as quite convenient, as this plastic could easily be wiped off.

    Unfortunately it was also flammable, but that didn’t stop many people from covering their entire kitchen in it. My house came with the full vinyl kitchen treatment. Green ivy vines on a white background.

    You’re thinking, “Where is the backsplash?” They are so part of kitchen design now, it’s hard to believe that they really didn’t become a regular part of the kitchen vocabulary until the 1980’s. It’s not impossible to find a tiled backsplash in the ‘50’s, or before, but they were not all that common, wallpaper was the norm.

    By the 1980’s, kitchen cabinets had grown in height, taking up more of the space between the countertop and the ceiling. Countertops had gone from being mostly for display of dishes, fruit and prepared food to being the reason for the entire kitchen.

    We had many more small gadgets and appliances, too. The modern countertop, in stone, Corian or tile, was now a workspace for making coffee, waffles, ice cream and fondue. The space between the counter and the bottom of the cabinet needed more protection than what wallpaper could give.

    Early backsplashes are tiled in subway tiles, but more often 4×4 or smaller, ceramic tile squares in neutral, pastels, or earth tones.

    A new interest in all things kitchens led to a huge range of tiles over the next 20 years: glass tile, tumbled stone, ceramic, and various kinds of slates, marbles and granites, even metal and recycled products, all in every conceivable size, color and configuration.

    We channeled Victorian estate kitchens, rural cottage kitchens, Mediterranean and Turkish kitchens, Mexican haciendas and futuristic spaceship kitchens, just in our choices of backsplash materials, and that trend still continues today.

    The trends in tiles extend to the different kinds of flooring seen here as well. Early kitchens placed as extensions on the backs of houses may have had flagstone flooring, but that was much more popular in Europe than here.

    The floor of choice in our American cities was wood. Early brownstone and other period buildings often had heart pine floors that were usually left plain, or painted, enabling them to be scrubbed daily with a lye solution.

    Floors could also be covered in canvas painted floor cloths, although perhaps not in food prep areas, and later, linoleum. The late 19th century saw wealthier homes with at least some unglazed floor tile in use, often under and near the stove and sink. These tiles were similar to the hex and other shaped tiles now appearing on bathroom floors.

    Linoleum would be the material of choice for two-thirds of the 20th century. This versatile and natural product made of pressed sawdust and linseed oil on a jute backing, could be printed in any kind of pattern, and was available in wide room-length sheets, or as tiles.

    Elaborate patterns could be configured by using strips like a jigsaw puzzle, and colorful graphic prints were popular, some mimicking rug patterns or other kinds of surfaces. When the linoleum wore out, new linoleum was often just rolled out over the old. It is not uncommon to find 5 or 6 layers of linoleum on an unrenovated kitchen floor.

    The 1970’s and 80’s saw linoleum drop in popularity, replaced by vinyl tile and roll-out vinyl coverings which worked the much the same way as linoleum. Lately, however, linoleum, always a “green” product, has made a big comeback. Just in time, it seems, to compete with tile.

    Warmer climates such as those experienced in Mediterranean, Southern and Southwestern areas, have a long tradition of fired earth floor tiles. These were imported to our colder climate beginning in the 1930’s.

    More modern additions to tiled floors include porcelain, tough as nails, and now able to mimic almost every other kind of tile out there, and its competition, stone tiled floors, and stone wear tiles. Cork tile, laminate flooring, and industrial carpeting are modern choices, too, and hardwood floors have made a comeback, as well.

    Lastly, we come to lighting. For most of the 19th century, gas lighting, in addition to natural light, accompanied the servants making the meals. In large kitchens, several ceiling fixtures lit the room, aided by wall sconces.

    Kerosene table lamps were also used, but not near food or where they could be spilled over. When electricity came to the modern home in the late 1800’s, the kitchen was the last room to get it. Electricity was a new-fangled, modern wonder, not to be wasted on servants. When the kitchen was finally electrified, the old gas fixtures were often retrofitted for electricity.

    Task lighting is a 20th century invention. For example, there’s a reason the sink has been traditionally under a window. It’s so one can take advantage of natural light in order to see. The gas fixtures of the 19th century had fixed positions dictated by the gas lines in the ceilings and walls, so the work area was centered near the light coming in through windows, and the placement of the gas fixtures.

    This is also why countertops did not become hugely popular until electricity. You prepared food at the center table because it had the best placement with lighting sources above in order to see what you were doing.

    Electric fixtures could be placed almost anywhere, so by the 1920’s and ‘30’s, the new fitted kitchens could have more and better lighting available, although then as today, many kitchens would rely solely on the center ceiling light fixture, usually with a frosted cover over a high wattage bulb, with an occasional pendant near the sink or stove.

    By the 1950’s, fluorescent lighting had been invented, seen by many kitchen designers of the time as the perfect lighting, as the cooler burning bulbs could be placed underneath cabinetry. The growing use of plastics and spun metals made recessed lighting possible, so that by the dawn of the super-kitchens, throughout the 1980’s and beyond, the variety of task and ambient lighting available for kitchens is limitless.

    We can have pendants galore wherever needed, in-cabinet lighting, track lighting and recessed lighting targeting certain areas, as well as the classic ceiling fixtures, even chandeliers. Ironically, one of today’s more popular pendant lights is a plain single bulb hanging from a cloth covered cord, a la 1900.

    What goes around always comes around, and that is the real truth of our modern kitchens. We’ve gone from the central hearth, to the isolated kitchen (and cook), back to the central hearth, for what is more central to our living spaces than our open kitchen/living room?

    Unrestored and original 1890’s brownstone kitchen with tile wall, partial tile floor, and original sink.

    1950’s linoleum floor.

    We’ve gone from not enough light, to perhaps too much. (epicturs.com)

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