The American kitchen, 1850-1950: From Workroom to Heart of the Home: from workroom to heart of the home

Research output: Other contribution


This essay explores the changing space and material culture of the American kitchen from 1850 to 1950. There were huge changes in what a kitchen is, what a kitchen does and who works there. The origins of the American kitchen are in the Colonial ‘keeping room’ or ‘hall’, which was prevalent from 1700-1839. Located on the ground floor of dwellings, the keeping room was a space in which cooking was done on a massive hearth, alongside day-to-day living activities.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the kitchen continued to be the space for family meals and activities in rural areas. However, in middle-class households in urban areas the kitchen became the space for the activities of domestic servants and family life moved into the parlour and the dining room. The kitchen tended to be located in the basement to separate the dirty work of the kitchen, smells of cooking and activities of servants from middle-class residents. From the 1870s, when apartment houses or buildings rather than townhouses and brownstones were built, kitchens were located on the first floor, at the rear of the home. Thus the location of the kitchen made it a workroom rather than the heart of the home.

This designation of the kitchen as a workspace was further exacerbated by its diminishing size in the 1920s and 1930s, influenced by domestic reformers such as Christine Frederick who advocated the introduction of the work triangle in galley, U or L-shaped floor plans. These shifts in the location of the kitchen were intrinsically tied to the role of the mistress of the house and the shift in her status from mistress to professional housewife in the 1930s, alongside the declining availability of domestic servants. By the 1940s the multipurpose kitchen as a space for food preparation, cooking, eating and living became popular. Thus the kitchen was returned to the heart of the home.

All these changes in the space of the kitchen are reflected in the trade catalogues of the period. Furniture and cabinetry took on an increasingly factory-like appearance, firstly, with freestanding Hoosier cabinets, influenced by the Beecher sisters. The introduction of the fitted kitchen with white-painted wooden or metal cabinets developed this tendency further. The use of bold primary colours in the 1940s, followed by softer pastel shades in the 1950s made the kitchen an attractive space for the housewife. Together with the introduction of kitchen islands and L-shaped counter extensions with stools in the late 1940s, this facilitated the kitchen’s redesignation as a combined living and workspace.

Trade catalogues of the period illustrate vividly changes in food preparation and storage, cookery, washing up and laundry. Technologically driven changes in cooking appliances, aided by the availability of gas and electricity, meant that they could be maintained and used firstly by a greatly reduced household staff and then by the housewife herself. The cooking hearth gave way to the iron cookstove and the range. The introduction of refrigeration, and later freezers, revolutionised food preparation and storage, along with pre-prepared and convenience foods. New chemicals, detergents and washable wallpaper, flooring, and work surfaces facilitated hygiene. Labour-saving appliances were said to take the place of servants and reduce some of the drudgery of cookery, laundry and housework. Ironically, some of these developments meant that higher standards of housewifery and housework became desirable, which in Ruth Schwarz Cowan’s words, created ‘more work for mother’, meaning that the housewife did not actually save any labour.
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputDigital product
PublisherAdam Matthew
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameTrade Catalogues and the American Home


  • Home
  • American home
  • Kitchen
  • History of the kitchen
  • History of the home
  • Design history
  • History of design
  • American History


Dive into the research topics of 'The American kitchen, 1850-1950: From Workroom to Heart of the Home: from workroom to heart of the home'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this