Have you ever wondered how long kitchens have been around? Well, it depends on your definition of a “kitchen.” If you mean a place where people cook food, you can trace its origins back to the Middle Ages in Europe around the 12th century.
Medieval communal societies comprised of one-room homes had open fire areas to cook food and produce heat and light. Eventually, houses were built to be larger, so the open fire areas got their own rooms.
The only problem was that these houses had insufficient ways of releasing smoke from the inside. They had primitive chimneys, such as brick tubes and air ducts, but they weren’t sufficient enough to remove all the soot. People had often developed eye and respiratory health conditions as a result.
The Scientific History Of Kitchen Efficiency
The kitchen as we know it today began to take shape beginning in the 1920s, in part via studies done by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who designed the “Frankfurt kitchen” to optimize efficiency; the small kitchen also had bins of cooking and baking essentials on the countertop for easy access. Her work was groundbreaking in part because she was informed by interviews and studies done with other women in the kitchen space, effectively bringing them into the design process. Stateside, a 1948 study done by the United States Department of Agriculture brought several efficient kitchen design plans to the masses, including the “U-shaped kitchen,” which was designed to reduce the number of steps required to get from the stove to the sink to the work space with the sink in the center — all in part to maximize time spent in the space.
“[The study took into account] how many steps does the woman of the home have to take to prepare a meal? Or even just a cup of tea?” Yust explains. “They looked at ‘What are the relationships between these stations, how can we bring them together to make life more convenient?’ They had people prepare meals and tracked the lines on the plan, [watched] where were they going. That’s when we started getting into more integrated appliances with countertops.”
Post-World War II, people began to move out to the suburbs and the growing demand for new homes helped standardize proportions for things like cabinets, appliances, and countertops. “After World War II … we got into standardization [based on the Beltsville research],” shares Yust. “[Countertop height] came down to about three inches below the elbow of the person using the kitchen; the standard height of a woman at that time was 5’4,” so that’s how that was established.” Appliance sales boomed too, all promising to make life easier for the woman of the house.
The Origins Of Cooking
The exact origins of cooking remain shrouded in mystery, yet, at some point in the past, early humans mastered fire and discovered a means to utilize it to prepare food. The remains of primitive campfires (made roughly 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus) have been discovered, and what appear to be indications of open fire are visible.
Evidence suggests that it may be the process of cooking that allowed us to evolve, survive and thrive. The National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine says, “Unique among animals, humans eat a diet rich in cooked and nonthermally processed food. The ancestors of modern humans who invented food processing (including cooking) gained critical advantages in survival and fitness through the increased caloric intake. However, the time and manner in which food processing became biologically significant are uncertain.”
Cooking is so intrinsic to our identity that the types of foods and how they are cooked and served are culturally exported worldwide.
Home preparation has historically been an informal activity that has been completed by all members of a family in a private or in a central gathering place. Still, in some cultures, girls have borne most of the pride. Home preparation has also been carried away from home in many places, like in eateries or schools. Before the democratization of culinary offerings, an early predecessor to present-day bakeries was racy restaurants that offered recipes for clients as an added service.
When service personnel, travelers, and people move away from “home,” a significant distance, one of the most emotional connections they describe when asked is the foods they grew up with.
“Home-cooking” is often associated with comfort food, and some commercially-produced foods and even restaurant meals are presented as having been “home-cooked,” regardless of the actual origin of those foods. This started in the 1920s and is more common in cities of the U.S. because suburbanites need home-style cuisine despite time constraints.
The Evolution Of The Kitchen
The modern kitchen is the heart of the home. Whether the preparation and cooking site for delicious meals or the favorite spot for sharing time together to relax and converse, today’s kitchen is comforting, welcoming, friendly, and functional. Although the modern-era kitchen is practical, functional, attractive, and inviting, it wasn’t always this way. Throughout the majority of history, the kitchen existed primarily as an area to prepare food and wasn’t even necessarily located in the house itself. The English term, “kitchen” is derived from a Latin word, “coquere,” which means to cook. Join us for a journey from ancient times to the present and see for yourself how much kitchens have evolved.
The Time Before Kitchens Were Kitchens
Kitchens have come a long way since ancient times, haven’t they? Originally, kitchens were not much more than pits with fire used for cooking the food. In northern China, the remains of hearths from an estimated half a million years ago were found with the remains of bones of numerous animals. Early on, there weren’t really any kitchens. Instead, there were areas for preparing and cooking food. Oftentimes, spits made from branches were positioned over a fire made in a pit. Ancient Chinese archaeological finds suggest pigsties were located close to the food preparation area, probably for convenience. Pig meat was one of the primary sources of meat consumed in ancient China. Food items were often stored in bags made from the skins of animals, gourds, or woven baskets. There were no refrigerators or even iceboxes. The very first hearths were made out of clay or stone. One of the main purposes of the hearth was to contain the fire while cooking. The risk of fire was always high. Many times, the hearth completely encircled the fire to help keep it from spreading to the home.
Kitchens In The Middle Ages
European countries did not adopt the Roman central heating system. Instead, they continued to rely on a hearth with an open fire. Cooking was done on the hearth in a main centralized area in order to also use the fire as a heater. Hearths held coals and ashes. Pots of food could be placed in the coals to cook. Rotating spits cooked large pieces of meat. The heat generated by the hearth was used for more than cooking whenever possible. In Russia, some hearths were designed to allow laundry to dry. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the first wood-burning stove was invented in Europe in the 1500s. Strangely, it took almost 200 years for the stove to become a common fixture in kitchens. Fireplaces with chimneys were built in castles in Northern Europe by 1000 A.D. For the most part, fireplaces were only seen in the wealthiest homes even as late as 1600 A.D. When fireplaces did start appearing in the homes of commoners, they were usually constructed of common mud and wattle. Wattle was made of vertical rods woven together with horizontal reeds. These were very flammable. Wealthy households enjoyed fireplaces made of brick or stone. Fireplaces were much more efficient than the open fires in hearths. By the 19th century, stoves and hearths were becoming much more sophisticated. Still, kitchens remained far from our current-day vision of a typical kitchen. Functionality remained the main objective of kitchens in the Middle Ages. Kitchens were still kept separate from the rest of the home until the late Middle Ages when separate kitchens started to appear. During this time, fireplaces were placed along the walls. Kitchens were located away from the main building to avoid the smells and noise of the kitchen from bothering guests. Keeping the kitchen fire away from the main house was also done to prevent a fire hazard.
20th Century Kitchens
Kitchens from the early 1900s were much more advanced than their predecessors, but still far from what we expect kitchens to be like today. The entire home was becoming much more modern by the turn of the 20th century. A transformation was taking place that touched all aspects of the American lifestyle. As cable cars improved transportation options, it became possible to make more frequent trips to the store. It was not necessary to store large amounts of food. Kitchens were being connected to the municipal water system which made cooking and cleaning up much more sanitary, efficient, and easy. Another huge improvement was the arrival of gas ranges in American kitchens. Imagine, no more slaving over hot coal stoves.
By around 1902, the old-fashioned stone, ceramic, or wooden sinks were replaced by enamel, granite, and steel. Plumbing modernized kitchen sinks and drainpipes eliminated the need to manually port the sink water outside to dispose of it. Early sinks were mounted to walls and they had legs like furniture. Sometimes they came with drainboards. The same system is still used in present-day Italy in some small villages. The sinks were not yet integrated seamlessly with the countertops. In the kitchen, furniture was still freestanding. Built-in kitchen cabinets were not yet common.
Cupboards And Countertops
In the early 1900s, countertops, if there were any in the kitchen, were made of wood. A Butler’s pantry, constructed of wood, was often located between the kitchen and dining room. It was used to store the dishes. The Hoosier wooden cabinet featured ample storage space for pantry items, spices, and a pull-out workspace so the modern cook had everything conveniently within reach. First sold in 1898, the Hoosier had fallen out of favor with American housewives by the 1940s. Similar cabinet designs remain popular in parts of Europe to the present. Linoleum floors became popular during this time. Printed linoleums were offered in a wide array of patterns.
The refrigerator was invented by General Electric (GE) in 1911. The first refrigerator in American homes, however, did not arrive until 1927. The first refrigerators were more expensive than a Model T car. GE’s Monitor Top refrigerator cost $525. A Ford Model T at that time cost about $300. Although the refrigerator was invented in 1911, the majority of Americans did not have refrigerators similar to today’s refrigerators until the 1940s. Until that time, most Americans had what was called an icebox in their kitchen. The icebox was really a type of cabinet, insulated, with a space for a block of ice to be inserted. The iceman delivered a block of ice to the home, usually on a weekly basis.
As is the case today, the 17th and 18th-century cooks required various tools for their work. Today, we’ll look at the colonial cook’s equipment to simplify her job.
Back then, all cooking was done over a fire, and a competent cook would never allow her fire to burn out because it was difficult and time-consuming to start a fire from scratch. After raking the hot coals into a mound, she would either bank them beneath a layer of ashes or cover them with a curfew, a brass or copper device pushed against the hearth’s back wall for the night. The embers were removed in the morning, and the fire grew. Two English curfews, a fire fork, and a blowing tube—a long iron pipe used as bellows—are all depicted in the figure to the right. Shovels and tongs were additional essential fireplace implements.
In colonial times, it was more typical to have multiple, smaller fires in a larger hearth than a single sizeable fire.
Like how we now use adjustable settings on our ranges for boiling or simmering dishes, the fireplace was used for cooking rather than a single massive fire. Small mounds of live embers were raked onto the hearth in front of the fireplace for cooking at lower temperatures. These were employed for baking in a kettle, frying in a pan, and broiling on a gridiron. The cook used a crane built within the chimney to hang larger pots for cooking at higher temperatures. The length of the fireplace may be supported by simple iron bars. A crane that could be swung out from the fire would be preferable if you could afford it, so the cook could check on the contents of the pots without getting scorched by the heat. She could raise or lower the pots or move the crane outward to adjust cooking temperatures. She could suspend numerous pots at various positions using pot hooks, trammels, or chains.
The English Royals entertained at Hampton Court Palace. The kitchens were an essential element of palace life from its completion in 1530 until the royal family’s final visit in 1737. Each department in the Tudor kitchens was run by a Sergeant, a group of yeoman, and a team of grooms.
Three Master Cooks, one for the King, the Queen, and the rest of the court, were in charge of the kitchen area where the meat was roasted. Which of the 1,200 or so members of Henry’s court qualified for meals as part of their compensation was determined by these staff members according to a complicated set of regulations.
A job in the kitchens could be sweaty and filthy. To ban the scullions from walking around “naked, or in such vileness of clothing as they do today, nor lie in the evenings and days in the kitchen or ground by the fireside,” Henry VIII had to issue an order.
The Tudor court was visited by a Spaniard in 1554, who described the kitchens as “veritable hells” due to the commotion and activity there. He also noted that there was enough beer available, and people drank enough to fill the Valladolid river.
Where Did The Modern Style Start From?
Kitchens of the late 1800s and kitchens of the early 1900s are where we start to see the modern kitchen. Throughout the history of kitchens, the modern kitchen has been the most functional and practical. The history of kitchen design stems less from aesthetics but more from convenience and innovation.
While some designs are incredibly distinct from where they came from, others may not be as inherently obvious. Contemporary kitchen designs fall into this category. It is thoroughly believed that modern design, as people know it, began to take place around the same time as World War I. During this conflict-fueled time, a philosophical movement was taking place, and it would be one that would quite literally change the way that areas would be seen.
This movement was known as “modernism,” It occurred at its peak during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. This movement was known for its abstract thinking that often deviated from traditional realistic and almost renaissance beliefs from the previous times. When it comes to architecture, especially, this can be seen by the smooth, straight lines, massive glass windows, and the use of geometric shapes and patterns. As the movement progressed deeper into architecture, this spread into having more open floor plans, using more manufactured materials, and incorporating natural elements to integrate them with the outdoors.
Additionally, before introducing modern kitchen design, kitchens were vastly different from the open space everyone knows and loves. Before this, kitchens were dark and poorly ventilated corners of the house. Curiously enough, before modern kitchens became commonplace, designers would try to hide the kitchen from the rest of the house. With the introduction of modern kitchens, a design spearheaded by a Viennese architect would come into the light. This design was focused on offering more space in the kitchen, offering “rationalization and efficiency.” This kitchen design with more space, ventilation, and shelves for people to store pots and pans would quickly become the new standard, becoming the modern kitchen design that people are used to today.