Walkabout: Someone’s in the Kitchen, Part 1

Photo of 1899 kitchen from the Museum of the City of New York


    Photo of 1899 kitchen from the Museum of the City of New York

    Read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story. An updated version of this series can be viewed here.

    Kitchens: arguably the most important room of a house, or an apartment. When we shop for a place to live, the kitchen is the room that can often sell an entire house, or kill a deal for an apartment. We spend more money on kitchen renovations than in any other room in the house, and talking about the ideal kitchen can be as contentious as politics.

    Kitchens evolved from a fireplace hearth to a clinical laboratory of food preparation in the course of only a few hundred years. Some of Brooklyn’s oldest houses have seen that transition within their walls. Grab a cup of coffee, and let’s talk about kitchens.

    The dictionary tells us that the word “kitchen” is Middle English – kitchene, derived from Old English – cycene, from the Latin coqunus, of cooking. Yes, in spite of our modern kitchens often being gathering spots, or rooms more dedicated to storage of foodstuffs, dishes and pots and pans, it’s always really been all about cooking.

    We know our distant ancestors cooked first over open fires, with advances in kitchen arts continuing from the Romans to the European Middle Ages, on up to America’s Colonial era. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that things really began to change and the kitchen came into its own.

    Brooklyn’s earliest homes, those belonging to Dutch settlers, and built in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s, had no real kitchen as we know them today. Built in 1652, the Wyckoff Farm in what is today, East Flatbush/Flatlands, has a hearth and fireplace, in which food was cooked over the open fire, hung in pots, roasted on spits, or baked in the ashes.

    Dishes and containers of water or other drink were stored nearby in freestanding hutches, or on shelves. By the time the Hendrick I. Lott house, in Marine Park, had been renovated and enlarged in 1790, the original house had become the kitchen wing, separate from the public rooms of the now grand house.

    The kitchen was now the domain of the slaves and servants, where the homeowners no longer had to be in the same room as the preparers and servers of food. For wealthy, and even not so wealthy Brooklynites, the kitchen would be terra incognita for most for another hundred years.

    We often think the invention of the electric refrigerator was the most marvelous thing about modern kitchens, but we should really marvel at the invention of the stove. Before the stove: cooking over an open fire, the temperature and speed of cooking controlled by raising the pot higher or lower above the flames.

    After the stove: being able to place a pot on a specific hob, with a more or less constant radiant heat cooking the food. Ovens that could now also be regulated, placed in the same unit as the cooking surface. The Oberlin Stove, a cast iron cooking stove that could burn coal or wood, was patented in 1834.

    The industrialization that began in the mid-1800’s was a boon to the kitchen. Houses now had running water and gas lighting. Stoves were large, cast iron behemoths, but they could not only cook meals for families; they could also heat water for hot baths, and sometimes warm the home, if connected to do that. Kitchen sinks appeared for the first time, with side hand operated pumps bringing in fresh water .

    In 1869, Catherine Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, published their American Woman’s Home, or Principals of Domestic Science. In this groundbreaking book for women were common sense and helpful guides for everything seen at the time to be under a woman’s purveyance: her home.

    The kitchen section was one of the first outlines of what a modern kitchen of the time should have. Some of it is very specific, such as how many pots or dishes one needed, and their ideal kitchen was used by cooks and servants, but underlying the detail was the beginning of the organized kitchen, where everything had a shelf, cupboard, container or space.

    The work surfaces and storage were designed to be ergonomic and time-saving, the beginnings of the traffic patterned kitchen, maximizing the ideal path for taking food items or dishes from containers and shelves to work spaces and the stove or sink.

    The kitchens of the late 1800’s are, for many of us, the ideal kitchens for our late Victorian row houses or homes. If we are lucky enough to have original kitchens, they are what we now call “unfitted kitchens”. They were also the domain of staff.

    The mistress of the house supervised, dictating menus or managed the budget, but she did not cook. Because these areas were the domains of servants, we shouldn’t be disappointed at how plain and un-ornate they are, especially in comparison to the public rooms of our rowhouses or large houses.

    The walls may have tongue and groove wainscoting, not fancy moldings. The walls plain plaster, or perhaps subway tile, or marble slabs behind the sink. Painted tin ceilings were very popular, and still highly prized today. Floors were often tiled, or were scrubbed wooden floors.

    All of these details correspond to the late Victorian craze for sanitized surfaces and cleanliness, as the correlation between the spread of germs and general cleanliness had been made. Kitchen surfaces needed to be able to be scrubbed clean, and smooth surfaces like tile and marble made that much easier.

    The late Victorian kitchen had the latest in modern appliances, as well. A cast iron stove, able to cook and bake, often connected to a hot water heater that would feed into the sink and piped to bring hot water to the bathrooms. This stove would often have a large range hood to catch and direct odors, smoke and grease.

    The sink was now a large porcelain surface on sturdy legs, with hot and cold running water from taps, not pumps. A large work table was usually in the middle of the room, which served as both work space and eating table for the staff.

    Wealthier homes had iceboxes, lead lined cupboards with a block of ice below keeping food cool in a compartment above. There was usually a pantry, a closet with shelves and built-in cupboards for storing foodstuffs, dishes and pots.

    Often there was also a built-in cupboard in the actual kitchen, or a butler’s pantry, either in the hallway leading to the dining room, or a separate room next to the kitchen, or upstairs behind the dining room, where servers could do final prep work on the dish before serving.

    Very wealthy homes might have a locked silver room, and larger butler’s pantries had separate sinks built into the units. Lighting to the kitchen was supplied by generous back windows, as well as overhead gas lighting, gas sconces, and later, electric lights.

    Today, intact Victorian kitchens are either loved or hated. Some people, like me, find the unfitted kitchen to be quite suitable to today’s needs with only upgrades in electric and plumbing capabilities, and in appliances.

    What a Victorian kitchen lacks most is counter work space, and that can be made up for in other ways. For many of us, the charm of a comfortable period kitchen can’t be beat. For others, a Victorian kitchen is the farthest thing from ideal. As the 20th century progresses, and the general use of servants disappears, the kitchen undergoes some radical changes, morphing into the recognizable kitchens of today.

    How did the modern kitchen evolve? Where did those upper and lower cabinets come from? Who came up with granite countertops, anyway? The 20th century awaits, next time.

    Photo: Illustration from Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, American Woman’s Home.

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