Let’s play a game. Here are two pictures. One is from 2019. And one is from 1920. Tell me if you can guess which one is which. I’ll wait.
I guess that’s not really fair. Even in black and white, no one would ever mistake the second image for a kitchen from 1920. It’s just so clearly NOT.
This kitchen came up in google as a “farmhouse kitchen.” Yet it so completely clearly does not even remotely resemble the kitchen from 1920. But why? What exactly makes it so different?
Ok yes. There is more stuff in the 2019 kitchen. More counters. More cabinets. More lighting. More refrigeration. More everything. So that makes it a better kitchen, right? More stuff means you can get more done?
I don’t buy it. A hundred years ago, more food came out of the kitchen on a daily basis than we would ever dream of cooking today. Three meals a day. Seven days a week. To feed an average household size of 4.5. Bread, soup, pastries, meat, vegetables, coffee, tea, snacks, EVERYTHING. It all came out of one kitchen. And a kitchen with decidedly SO MUCH LESS STUFF than we have in modern kitchens.
But people obviously ate. So how did they do it?
One word: efficiency.
Historic kitchens were absolute masters of efficiency. Everything had a place and a purpose. Nothing was placed in to the kitchen without there being a very good reason for it to be there. Built in cabinets were expensive so they were placed thoughtfully and with great deliberation.
The kitchen also served as the central hub for cleaning, laundry, grocery delivery, meal serving, dish washing, food preservation, and a hundred other tasks. So while needing to be able to support massive amount of food production, the kitchen also needed to be able to be flexible, depending on what was required of it that day.
Now. If you’re here reading this, chances are good you have some amount of interest in historic kitchens - particularly in creating historic feeling kitchens that still function for modern life. Good news! Me too.
Unfortunately, nobody on the internet seems to be interested in telling me how to do that. So I had to go hunting. And BOY did I find some good stuff.
I would like to take a moment to mention Forgottenbooks.com. I don’t even remember how I found this website, but it was an absolutely magical day when I did. They offer THOUSANDS of scans of historic, out of print books on every subject imaginable. If you’re willing to wait a month or so, they’ll even print a copy for you. AMAZING.
While hunting through this gargantuan treasure trove of information, I found two kitchen reference gems.
First is An Ideal Kitchen, written by Maria Parola in 1887. This “…guide for all who would be good house keepers.” details exactly how to appoint a kitchen, pantry, and china cabinet in 1887. As far as reference books go, this is a fantastic place to start. Kitchens in 1887 were large and spacious, a good size being 16’x16’ or 15’x17’ according to Miss Parola.
(Side bar: my kitchen is exactly 15’x17’. There was much joy and squealing to be had when I made this discovery.")
The primary permanent fixtures in the kitchen at this time were the range and the sink. Groceries were stored in a pantry, and dishes were stored in the butler’s pantry or china closet. Everything else in the kitchen was mostly unfixed (with the notable exception of the drop down table under the left window below. Which is so GENIUS I might explode).
While I absolutely love the way this kitchen looks and feels, it isn’t quite right to my house. Since my farmhouse was built in 1905, I am aiming for a SLIGHTLY more modern kitchen. Note the use of the word SLIGHTLY. I do not mean stainless steel anything. That’s just silliness. I mean modern in the way kitchens were arranged. Much had changed in kitchen ergonomics by 1914 - which brings us nicely to the next book.
Enter, my one true love, the holy grail of kitchen reference, The Efficient Kitchen. Written by Georgie Boynton Child in 1914, this is EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT IN THE WORLD OF KITCHENS.
In 1887, domestic help was still very much alive and well. Houses were larger. Kitchens were larger. Kitchen staff was still employed. So the larger proportions of the room made perfect sense to accommodate more than one person.
By 1914 however, houses began to shrink in size (kitchens now around 10’x13’ according to Mrs. Child). Fewer households employed hired help. Many homemakers found themselves at the helm of the food ship and desperate for a way to minimize their time in the kitchen.
And along came Georgie. Based on the introduction, she and her husband spent years together investigating how kitchens function and how they could be run better. They even went so far as to learn manufacturing best practices to improve efficiency, and then figured out how to translate them to the domestic space.
(Side bar: As a manufacturing engineer whose entire job it is to increase production floor efficiency, I am relating SO HARD to Mrs. Child right now. Get on it, girl.)
What Georgie and her husband discovered was that HOURS of time could be saved simply by giving thought and care to the placement of items in the kitchen.
Everything she mentions is such a “DUH” moment. Oh I use flour at both the baking station and at the stove? Maybe I should have two containers of flours. DUH. OF COURSE.
What did I get out of these two books? A WHOLE bunch of amazing information. But the ultimate takeaway is this: today’s kitchen plans are unfocused. Completely unfocused. They are driven by maximizing counter space and cabinets without actually understanding what will go in them. In light of that, no wonder the use of the kitchen is also unfocused.
Yes it is wonderful to have miles of counter space. But then you have to decide what part of the counter you are going to use every single time you go to make food. Which means none of the equipment you need can be set up efficiently for that use.
In manufacturing engineering we focus on reducing decision points for the operators. Decision making increases mental fatigue. The fewer decisions, the easier the job, the happier the operator.
The kitchen operates the EXACT SAME WAY. Every time you have to make a decision about where to store the bread, where to mix the pie filling, where to chop vegetables, you experience decision fatigue.
Here’s where things get absolutely fascinating. These books were originally written to teach home makers what to add and how to outfit their kitchens so they could operate in the most efficient, time saving manner possible. The resulting kitchens were neat, simple, totally efficient, and beautiful.
But what happens if we apply the same practices and teachings to our kitchens today? I’m not sure yet. But I have a hunch that the resulting kitchen, instead of being this…
… will look more like this.
These kitchens are not only beautiful. But they work. And they work hard for you. They are functional, simple, stunning, and timeless. And that’s what I want.
Where do we start? That’s coming up next time in Part 2. See you then!