“Don’t even bother to show me anything that doesn’t have a new kitchen...you’d be wasting your time and mine,” said the assertive woman who called my real estate office the other day. I in turn didn’t bother to ask whether she would consider a great home at a great price with a kitchen that could be renovated. I knew I was dealing with someone who knew exactly what she wanted.
"I just don’t want to deal with re-doing a kitchen," she added, obviating my question. “Oh, and I want a kitchen that is open to the dining room or family room,” she added, “I don’t want to feel like a mole when I’m cooking.”
There may not be too many readers old enough to remember when kitchens were to be used and not seen, certainly not from the dining room. And, that was before the advent of family rooms. As recently as the 40s and 50s, kitchens were still very small, utilitarian and ugly, hidden from public view. It was worse before that.
In 18th century America, many finer homes such as the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton, banished the kitchen altogether from the house in separate structures, but mostly for heat considerations and the threat of fire. In fact, the major cause of death among young women in America in the 1700s and 1800s was by immolation from their skirts catching fire on open hearths. So the early kitchen was a place for toiling and drudgery, and certainly not for a cheery Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray.
However, at the end of the Civil War, when there was an exodus of household servants from the kitchen who went to work in the factories of the new industrial age, women were left in desperation mode to both produce their families’ food and to cook it. Help was needed and the entrepreneurial spirit of American enterprise came to the rescue with an onslaught of new gadgetry that remains unparalleled with any other period of invention, even in today’s age of technology.
Consider that before 1900, there were already more than 185 patents for various kinds of coffee grinders and more than 500 patents for different types of peelers for all the fruits and vegetables. There was even a peeler that removed the kernels from ears of corn.
There were also apple corers, cherry pitters, potato mashers, and sausage stuffers. Made of iron, with the patent numbers included in the casting, some tools were as simple as a round swiveling rod with a knife blade that peeled skin, to complex contraptions full of gears and wheels that could peel, core, slice and section, all from the same tool. This was the age of mass-produced helpers, from egg beaters and ice cream makers to juicers.
The Victorians were particularly adventuresome with invention, wanting the newest and the most modern. Outside they were creating “painted ladies” of their houses and, inside, they embraced anything that could improve the household.
Larger equipment, like the cast iron stove played significantly in the prosperity of Westchester. The discovery of an iron ore mine at Annsville Creek in Peekskill in the 1850s and the building of the railroad nearby were seminal events in the area’s development as the iron stove capital of the world.
Once electricity wended its way across the country, the sky was the limit for harnessing this new power to aid housewives. Inventions from the 1880s to the 1930s included the first electric toaster, the electric kettle, electric mixers, and eventually the electric stove.
The refrigerator took a little longer as the ‘ice box’ continued to be in favor well into the 1930s. My mother told me that my Aunt Dolly kept her ice box until after World War II. Maybe it was a matter of the expense at the time, but I clearly remember Mother telling me that many women didn’t want to give up their ice boxes because they could relieve the boredom of the day when the “ice man cometh.” I didn’t understand the joke until I was older and, today, I still don’t know whether that was a reference to my Aunt Dolly.
So there you have it: a period of only 50 years when women demanded that the kitchen transform from survival mode to one of self-fulfillment and as an indication of upward social mobility. Next week, we’ll look at the reasons for the expansive kitchens of late 1990s and early 2000s and will explore the transformative events that are revolutionizing our plans for kitchen design and appliances in today’s far different economic climate.
Bill Primavera is a Westchester-based realtor associated with Coldwell Banker and a journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. His website is www.PrimaveraHomes.com and, for questions about buying or selling a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.