I’ve teamed up with GE Appliances and BlogHer to bring you this post.
The history of the kitchen is a fascinating one. I’ve never seen one, but I would love to watch a documentary on the subject from a sociological perspective. Kitchens tell us so much about the prevailing culture and are a reflection of its values and philosophies. And so it’s no wonder that as people and cultures have changed, so have their kitchens. The American kitchen is no exception. In my article The American Kitchen: The World’s Melting Pot, I discussed some of the things that make the American kitchen unique and the prominent role that it plays in our lives in both the physical and social structure of the home. But that wasn’t always the case. As the needs of American families have changed, and with the emergence of technological advances, the American kitchen has undergone many transformations since its earliest days.
Let’s take a brief walk through the years and see just a few of the changes that have taken place through the past several decades. We’ll start with the 20th century.
Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons The following pics, unless otherwise noted, are all courtesy www.cdxnd.com The early American kitchen was far from the “social space” it is now. The kitchen also served as the utilitarian work room and often contained the sewing machine and laundry. It was usually a dark and dreary room located out of sight at the back of the home where the mother would spend her whole day working. Though not a social gathering place, since it held the wood stove it was the place people huddled to keep warm in the winter. Refrigerators were unheard of, instead ice boxes were used to keep food cool. Most homes by this point had cooking stoves, specifically hearths that required constant monitoring throughout the day, adjusting the stoves, adding fuel, adjusting dampers, hauling in more water to keep the hot water tank full.
Kitchens still doubled as the utility/workroom but by now had the addition of a very heavy cast-iron stove, a sink, and an icebox. And speaking of double duty, these stoves commonly performed triple duty: They were were used to cook, to heat water for baths and washing, and were used as the home’s furnace to provide the heat. It was also during this decade that some luxury electric appliances were introduced (though few homes had them) to make work easier: Very basic ranges, refrigerators and waffle irons.
People began to look past the kitchen as a mere workroom and started incorporating a little “style.” Lighter colors were used to brighten the kitchen, linoleum was used on the floors along with colorful rugs, and people began painting their cabinets different colors. Sanitation was a major emphasis of the 20’s and many of the newspaper and magazine ads focused on food safety and kitchen hygiene. Another big emphasis in the 20’s: efficiency through organization. Kitchen calendars, grocery list wheels, cookbook holders, cabinets with blind-corner pullouts, built-in spice racks, the popular Hoosier cabinet… these were a few of the contributions of the Roaring Twenties.
Perhaps in contrast to the dreary world outside during this era of the Great Depression, the American kitchen saw even more color introduced to brighten up the room. Kitchens were often colorful with bright linoleum and dinnerware. The “Shelvadore” refrigerator was introduced, the first fridge that held food in the door and a design that continues in use today. Kitchens began to adopt a greater element of “fun.”
Photo courtesy Jasperdo under Creative Commons The war is over and people feel even more inspired to cheer things up. Though most American kitchens are still white or cream, two-toned kitchens such as yellow/blue and bright red/white become popular. Instead of free-standing, kitchen cabinets were starting to be built into the walls and refrigerators were becoming more accessible to the middle class.
The 50’s was the decade to see any remaining vestiges of the antiseptic white kitchen tossed out the window. Color wasn’t just limited to the linoleum floors, rugs and a few accents throughout the kitchen cabinetry – this was the decade of pink, yellow, green and blue fridges, sinks and stoves along with bold floral wallpaper. The kitchen also sees a structural change – no longer relegated to the back of the home, it’s now becoming the shining star of the home. It’s located more at the forefront where the homemaker can interact with members of the family in the living areas. Refrigerators come with the first ice makers and automatic defrosters. Appliances such as hand-held mixers, toaster ovens, milkshake makers and stand mixers enter the market. Electric stoves are common and available in virtually every color of the rainbow. Happy kitchen, happy home.
During this era of the feminist movement and as more women joined the workforce, it is no wonder that more time-saving appliances took to the market. Garbage disposals, dishwashers, refrigerators with freezers, and more storage space were gaining popularity. The anything-goes bold colors of the 50’s were being replaced by a new favorite, “harvest gold.” And linoleum, being inexpensive and easy to clean, was all the rage.
Mustard and orange countertops, dark, heavy cabinets with gaudy ornate handles, dropped ceilings to make you feel even more stifled within that visually painful atmosphere, more harvest gold appliances along with copper tone bronze and rust brown, and a plethora of knickknacks to add to the claustrophobia. Interesting fact: In 1975 the sale of microwaves exceeded that of gas ranges. Is it any wonder? Nuke the food in two minutes so we can get out of the kitchen! But as much as we’d like to think this decade never happened, we have this era to thank for kitchen islands and raised bars, a legacy that has continued.
By this time, kitchens have become the heart of the home. As such they have significantly increased in size. Warmer colors are back in style with oak cabinets and the countertops and flooring beginning to match. Gone are the days of harvest gold and avocado appliances; now they’re mostly white, ivory or black. More conservative furniture makes a return with solid wood dining tables and chairs, and wallpaper, especially wallpaper borders, is making a comeback. More kitchens are displaying things like cookbook shelves, pegboards, wine and pot racks. With the introduction of more celebrity cooks on TV, kitchens are becoming more and more equipped to “show off” to guests.
Entertaining becomes more popular and consequently kitchens become more comfortable, larger, and flow into the family room to provide greater space for entertaining the guests. The “open floor plan” becomes increasingly popular. Kitchen islands become all the rage and enable the host to entertain while preparing the meal. Ivory appliances have moved out but white and black are still the most common with stainless steel surfacing more towards the end of the decade. Vinyl is out and replaced with tile or wood floors.
Stainless steel is a must and the decor is simple and uncluttered. Granite countertops are all the rage as are large kitchen islands with built-in stoves. Again, kitchens are built for entertaining. This is also the decade for kitchen gadgets and there is virtually an unlimited selection on the market, everything from bread makers to rice steamers, and of course the best food processors and stand mixers take their place prominently on the countertop.
The era of the “trophy kitchen.” Sleek and uncluttered are the only rules as more people branch into the “eclectic” look. Granite is still the most popular but many are experimenting with such things as slate and concrete along with expressive backsplashes. But whatever the material used, large kitchen islands are considered a must with plenty of space for entertaining. Kitchens feature massive range hoods for an upscale feel, high-end sophisticated appliances like high-speed ovens with induction cooktops to impress visitors and project social status. There is also a huge emphasis on lighting with recessed cabinet lights and dropped lighting over the kitchen islands. Cabinets extend to the ceiling for a feeling of grandeur, lavish pantries are a must, and no luxury is overlooked, including built-in flat screen TVs for watching all your favorite cooking shows. The goal is aesthetic perfection combined with ultimate functionality. In short, kitchens have become a status symbol.
Regardless of how we may feel about our current era of trophy kitchens, there is one aspect of the American kitchen that doesn’t appear to be changing: The kitchen as the heart of the home and the social gathering place. The kitchen is the place where family and friends gather to talk, to laugh, to share stories, and to enjoy a meal together. Share your memories with us. What changes have you observed in the kitchen over the decades?
Also, take a moment to check out Our American Kitchen, a documentary series by GE Appliances that shares inspiring stories from the kitchen. Like the story of Chase, a 13-year-old boy with autism who discovers the joy of cooking and starts his own cooking show. Or the story of the Richards Family, who adopted five children from Vietnam and Africa and became knit together by love if not by blood.
What does the American Kitchen mean to you? Tell me in the comments in three sentences or less and you’ll be entered to win a GE Cafe™ Series Refrigerator worth $3,100! Entries from participating blogs will be pooled and one winner will be chosen at random.
This giveaway has ended.