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The Heart of the Home Thru History

Grandmother and grandson baking together

A good genealogist and family historian will be keeping in mind the lifestyles of the era they are researching to help discover motivations for migrating across the ocean or even just moving across town. What were their daily lives like? Let's get a little bit more sociology in this week, shall we?

Basic Human Needs Chart

On the right we see the basic human needs chart (this one courtesy of the FBI) devised by Abraham Maslow, and you can see the biggest piece of the pyramid at the base is "Physiological Needs." Every human must have Air, Food, Water, Shelter and Sleep to survive. This was true back in caveman days just as it is today. I'm sure you are just as fond of air, water, and sleep as I am, but let's talk about Food and the Shelter for prepping it - especially kitchens!

Cooking has become more than just heating food for most of us (although I fear that most of us can share at least one experience of eating over the sink in a rush in this day and age). It is an art, and it is an important part of different cultures on this planet. There is no celebration that does not involve food in some form, right?

open fire outdoors

Historians say the first type of cooking (2 million years ago) was roasting meat over an open fire, and they speculate that the first occasion was probably accidental. "Fire. Good. Oh! Yum!"

Fast forward 30 - 50 thousand years, and we progressed to earth or pit ovens, which are still in use today. You can buy stainless steel boxes to bury in the earth to cook in! Clay ovens such as Tandooris, and Kamados are still in use, the latter now reincarnated as big eggs or kettle grills.

ancient village

Throughout the Middle Ages whole families would group in one big room on one floor around a central indoor fire with or without a hole in the roof. Can you imagine the smoke? And then, it all changed with the invention of the chimney in the 11th or 12th century. This changed everything in the way homes were built and heated (multiple stories! castles!), and the way food was prepared.

colonial American cooking fire

Fast forward another few hundred years to The New World in North and South America where additional kitchens were often built outside of the main house as well, for use in the hot months or for long sweaty chores such as canning. For the most part, they followed the styles of European kitchens cooking over open fires raising their pots away from the fire with iron levers.

The first metal kitchen stove made small enough for use in a home came in 1834. It was cast iron and invented by Philo Stewart. They could be made into different shapes and forms, and now we see esthetic design in a kitchen was becoming important. The first electric stove was developed in 1912. Pictured here is the Copeman electric stove, made mostly of wood with a timer and heat controls! Image courtesy of

Copeman Electric Stove 1912

1914 saw the invention of the electric refrigerator. Water was circulated to keep food cold instead of giant ice blocks. Credit Florence Wilhelmina Parpart (1873 - 1930) with this miracle!

Kitchen design took a big step forward in the 1920's when the focus (finally) turned to making the job of cooking less laborious.

Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky (1897-2000) is credited with the being the inventor of the modern kitchen. She was the first woman Austrian architect and a Nazi resistor! In Austria there was a program of housing reforms instituted and she designed the first mass-production kitchen, now known as the Frankfurt Kitchen. This image was provided by the National Kitchen and Bath Association at their website:

1920 Mass produced kitchen design

You can see the tile backsplash, linoleum floors (much more sanitary than wood), efficient use of space, and color!

The kitchen remained a hidden room in the house until after WWII in the US. They became less utilitarian, and became a place to show off modern designs and conveniences. Think about the differences in colors over the decades! In the Eisenhower era of the 50's, pastels were in. Seen a pink tile bathroom or kitchen lately? The most popular appliance colors in the 60's were coppertone, poppy red (think diner decor) and turquoise or teal. Who can ever forget the avocado green or harvest gold of the 70's?

In the 80's it seems we had a big pendulum swing and our tastes became more "minimalist." Off-white was the appliance color of choice, along with black, followed by stainless steel which reigned supreme in the 90's through the 20's of this century. I read where the new metal is "black stainless" which is reportedly better at resisting fingerprints and smudges.

Laminate countertops have been eschewed and replaced with tile in the 80's (horrible idea which is supposed to be making a comeback, do we need to talk about cleaning the grout?), and then granite, quartz, and marble.

Today's American refrigerators include water and ice through the door, see through glass doors, computers & cameras. Ours are generally MUCH bigger than their European counterparts. And while our laundry rooms are still closely secreted, in Britain the washer and dryer can often be found in the kitchen near the oil fueled AGA and the countertop electric kettle.

modern open space floor plan

Open floor plan houses in which the kitchen, living, and dining areas actually shared the same wall-less space became incredibly popular in the 90's in America. This was the height of the kitchen as the heart of the home era. One big common room with a central cooking center, just like in the Middle Ages but with better air circulation and lighting! This image was from where there are hundreds of ideas if you're thinking about a new style.

We talked in an earlier blog about food about the development of frozen foods, food transportation, etc. and we must not forget about the modern conveniences of the microwave (invented in 1934!!) and the convection ovens which speed up food preparation for modern day cooks.

What are your memories of kitchen and home growing up in America or elsewhere? Do you remember your grandma's kitchen? Was there a free standing sink like mine had? She had a huge pantry/store room in a next to the kitchen, and a scary basement she used as a "root cellar" sometimes. Ask your parents about their kitchen memories. What was it like where they grew up?

cheering crowd

These basic human needs and desires drive every person on the planet. We are different, but we are the same, and not just genetically!

I hope you enjoyed our trip down kitchen memory lane. How is your research going? If you'd like some help, send me an email. Always a free initial consultation, and I love hearing from you all.

Thank you for your time,

Leslie Ryan

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