Drooling Over Historic Kitchens

WARNING: A RANT:

There is something which quite vexes me!

Kitchens.

On the fabulous Old House Dreams, for example, a house will be shown from, say, 1905, but with a 1950s kitchen.

And people will comment: Oh! I would need to tear out that kitchen and install a period-correct one.

I read (and hear) this ALL THE TIME.

The problem?

  1. The people who state this will 100% guaranteed NOT install a period-correct kitchen. They will install a wholly modern fitted kitchen with every possible gadget and convenience, and all hyper-glamorized to a point where their new kitchen will be THE most visually dramatic in the whole house. This new hyper-kitchen will look NOTHING like a kitchen from 1905.
  2. And in the process, a true period kitchen, the 1950s one, will be thrown into the dumpster. ARGH!!!!!!!!

I always rush in to defend (as do others) these 1950s kitchens (or 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, and even 1970s) if they look in good shape and are of high quality. These are period kitchens. Their replacement will not be.

Oh, and look at what some idiot did to this extraordinary period kitchen. Be prepared to scream.

Rant over. Normal programming will now resume…

 

I greatly enjoy pouring over images of historic kitchens. This does not mean that I am ready to commence with the restoration of the Cross House kitchen, or even that I will recreate a truly period-correct kitchen. It just means that I enjoy the process of learning about old kitchens.

When I purchased the Cross House in 2014 I had zero idea of what an 1894 kitchen looked like, or what a 1894 stove looked like, or an 1894 kitchen sink, or what refrigeration was like in 1894.

I know now. And learning about all this has been great fun.

A while back I did a series of posts about historic kitchens. People seem to greatly enjoy these posts.

Wanna have some more fun?

 

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1870s? This is the kitchen in the astounding Armour-Stiner house, which is likely the finest house restoration in America. I am uncertain how much of this kitchen is original and how much is recreation. If the former, wow. If the latter WOW! Note very simple gas lighting. Built-in range. Wood floor. Tall hot water heater. The plaster cornice is highly unusual for a kitchen. Almost unheard of. Image courtesy Joseph Pell Lombardi.

 

1880?

1880? This house was on Old House Dreams.  This is a pretty good recreation. The plain walls and the color are accurate. The two-tone wainscoting, too. The sink is post-1915, as are the INCREDIBLE double ranges. The gas/electric sconces would have been gas in 1880. The gas chandelier is, I think, fancier than would have been normal for an 1880s kitchen. The tile flooring is not correct for 1880. Still, I give the effort high marks. To me, the kitchen could pass for a 1920s update of an 1880s kitchen. And I am fine with that.

 

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1899 (date of image). Note the built-in cast-iron range, and a freestanding range (far right). This appears to have been typical for the period, although I do not know why. Why two ranges? Note also how low the built-in range is. The gas lighting is very plain, and has two glass smoke bells hanging from the ceiling. A small sink is in the corner and with a small drainboard. It is also interesting how the sink is placed right in front of a window, and its backsplash simply covers up the window. Is the “rug” linoleum? Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

 

1899.

1899. Very simple gas/electric lighting. Two ranges. And each was obviously intended, rather than the small one having been added later. The range hood is metal, as I think all range hoods should be (today, people often have a hood mimic cabinetry). Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

 

1899.

1899. Nice detail of the above kitchen. Looking to the hot water tank. The floor appear to be terrazzo. I adore terrazzo. Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Circa-1900.

Circa-1900. very simple gas/electric lighting. Subway tile walls (fashionable today!). Tile flooring. TWO sinks! Are those hot water heaters high up on the walls? Love the miles of piping. The range looks like the very acme of modernity. Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

1915? Tile floor and walls. Cast-iron range. Love the light fixture. Sink with wood drain boards. Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

1900? Tile floor and walls. Cast-iron range. Love the light fixture. Sink with wood drain boards. Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

 

1903

1903. Andrew Carnegie Mansion, NYC. The lighting is all electric with just a hint of fanciness. Two ranges. And that is some island! Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

 

1914.

1914. Hot water heater in corner. Small sink. Laundry tubs to right. I like the inclusion of a rocking chair. Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

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1916. This remarkably intact kitchen was on Old House Dreams. The house recently sold and I would be very surprised if the new owner did not gut this treasure of a kitchen

 

Circa-1925.

Circa-1925. Too delicious. The 1920s was the last decade when kitchens would comprise free-standing components. In the 1930s built-in cabinets with built-in sinks and ranges designed to fit in between cabinets became standard. A “fitted” kitchen. A late 1930s kitchen would be considered modern today. Note floor tiles, subway tile walls, electric lighting, and refrigerator (refrigerators for home use were introduced in 1913). I do not know where the sink and range are, but the refrigerator seems miles from them. Image Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The main aesthetic theme in all the above kitchens is SIMPLICITY.

And nobody does this with new kitchens.

Sigh.

 

 

42 Comments

  1. briana on November 27, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    I have a 1908 kitchen with original cabinetry. I’m very thankful that it is still almost 100% intact, however it does need some amount of modernizing. It’s nice to read an opinion of someone who appreciates these things. I’m rethinking can lights in favor of under cabinet lighting. Sometimes adding lighting is not just a modern day preference, but necessity. The woman I bought the house from literally installed an outdoor spotlight in the corner of the ceiling!

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      I am all for having kitchens be convenient and comfortable! And I love dishwashers!

      YES! Under cabinet lighting is MUCH preferable to can lights! Just say no to cans!

      • Melody on November 27, 2016 at 8:28 pm

        Or in my area – say no to pot!

        The term can lights used to throw me off; we call them pot lights.

    • Seth Hoffman on December 1, 2016 at 11:11 am

      I’ll fully second under cabinet lighting. We have one ceiling fixture in the center of our kitchen, and under cabinet lighting which I recently added. Having a source of light that you don’t shadow when working is wonderful! Even well-placed can lights will be somewhat shadowed on the counter when you’re standing in front, plus under cabinet lights are virtually invisible for the asthetic of the home.

      I did cave and install two very small can lights in the ceiling directly above the sink, which I have wired in the (dimmable) under cabinet circuit. We have a huge window above the sink, but after dark, working in the sink was terrible with the large shadow cast. Working with good task lighting makes more of a difference than you might think.

  2. Kelly on November 27, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    One of my favorite kitchens was incredibly simple.

    I dread showing our new kitchen when the time comes. lol 🙂

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 8:14 pm

      Fabulous kitchen! It looks like a 1920s update of an 1888 kitchen. Well done!

    • Eric U. on November 28, 2016 at 12:20 am

      Hmmm… I looked at the kitchen you link to and thought, “I’ve seen that sink with the 3 cans beneath it and the book matched pair of stoves somewhere before…” Sure enough, they were transported to Kansas:

    • Californianinkansas on November 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      That kitchen is glorious!

  3. Jason J on November 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Personal thought, is that most people won’t ever recreate a period kitchen and that if one thinks about kitchen history they would surely stop that rant.

    I am rehabbing a church property and the parsonage (where pastor would live) we are rehabbing for our person use. The kitchens you’ve picture are ones that would be seen in the upper crust of society in those days.

    Here this was a African American church and was built in 1888. The kitchen here, would have more then likely consisted of free standing pieces, possible a very low end coal stove and a hand pump for the well “if” they were able to afford to have a well dug.

    As much as I would love a period kitchen, just for histories sake, there is no way I would ever reinstall one in today’s age. For my morning coffee, I wouldn’t want to have to fire up the coal stove, go pump the well water and wait for everything to heat up. It would be afternoon before I got my cup.

    So my plan, is to put the kitchen together with nothing older then the 1950’s. There will be appliances modern enough to cook with and then I will add in free standing pieces dating to the age of the structure. This way it blends in with the structure.

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Jason,

      I am not advocating that everybody with a historic structure should install a kitchen 100% true to the period.

      Indeed, I will not likely do that in the Cross House! There is no way I am going to use a wood stove!

      My point is the horror of people tearing out actual period kitchens in the name of installing fake period kitchens. Kitchens which look NOTHING like historic kitchens. I deeply lament this all-too-common practice. I lament! Deeply!

      Assuming that an original kitchen is gone, or that some fabulous later kitchen from, say, the 1950s is not present, I see nothing wrong with creating a modern-styled kitchen in a historic house. Such a kitchen is actually period! People will look back decades from now and say: I love the kitchen! It is so 2016!

      So, do whatever you want. Just please everybody don’t tear out a good kitchen from a previous era just because it differs from the era your house was built. And please everybody STOP calling hyper-kitchens “period-correct”!

  4. Melody on November 27, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I love historic kitchens! Love, love, love them!

    But…. would I want to cook every meal in one every day? No, I do not think so.

    The two range thing – I think those kitchens belong to some pretty swanky homes. Most days would probably only have the core family to feed, while at times the house would be full of visitors for fancy dinner parties. The smaller range would take a lot less fuel and add a lot less heat to the house. That’s my thinking at least.

    The sinks are Fab-u-lous! I especially love the cast iron ones that have an incorporated drainboard on either side.

    I agree, most people would never, ever backdate a kitchen to the 19th century accurately. A Keurig simply does not fit the time period.

    Personally, I really love the kitchens with floor to ceiling cabinets. Lots and lots of cabinets, with miles and miles of counter tops, a ginormous sink in front of a big window, big extra wide stove, and a fridge that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

    Actually, my (crazy) dream house would have an original kitchen in the basement. One with a big fireplace with all the cranes, a big wood fired range, etc. And then, the modern kitchen would be in an addition that happened to be tucked away at the back of the house, blending in as best possible to the original exterior, but obviously separated from the original interior. Having a butler’s pantry as the transition point. (It makes sense in my dreams.)

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 8:54 pm

      I am not advocating that anybody create truly period-correct kitchens! Please see my reply to Jason!

  5. Tiffaney on November 27, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    The 1916 kitchen looks a lot like what we have here in our rental house, though I think this place was built in the 40s.

    I would absolutely KILL for such a simple kitchen. I’m trying to convince my husband to go along with it. Give me the big stove (probably an Aga), the sink with the drainboards, the old-timey-est fridge possible (maybe an ice box converted to electric), that large island with the drawers, some subway tile and maybe a terrazzo floor that doesn’t look too public-building-ish, AND I WOULD BE IN HEAVEN. I don’t need all the crazy crap people have in kitchens these days.

  6. David on November 27, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    I think the main reason why people install the infamous “fake period kitchen” is because of storage issues, in the pictures that you provided above, the kitchens all have legs, no draws or cabinets, which can be a big problem with today’s need for lots of pans and and pots. Also today people use a lot of mixers and blenders and that could look ugly and messy just sitting on the counters. Although, if people live in period homes, the will most likely have a butlers pantry, which has cabinets and draws. That said, I am 100% against ripping out a period kitchen and putting in the fake stuff.

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 10:04 pm

      Hi David!

      As I replied above, I am fine with people installing new kitchens.

      My issues, as noted, are detailed above!

  7. Eric U. on November 27, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    I share your frustration. I blame television for the problem. There are too many programs about “fixing up” houses which are obsessed with sledge-hammer-wielding TV personalities destroying vintage kitchens and baths. They make it look so… necessary. They “normalize” it and popularize it. These shows urge demolition as a way of stimulating the economy. The big box stores won’t sell as much stuff if everyone learns to appreciate preservation and conservation. Just sayin’.

    • Ross on November 27, 2016 at 10:52 pm

      Ye speak truth, oh wise one.

  8. Cory on November 28, 2016 at 6:22 am

    The second smaller stove was to be carried outside on a porch in the hotter months for cooking. The house stayed cooler that way. I live in Amish country. I watch them do that every year.

  9. Steve H on November 28, 2016 at 7:42 am

    It appears that in several of the photos the smaller ranges were gas fueled – you can see the gas piping and valves. They were probably used during the summer months, so as not to heat up the house. Because manufactured gas was expensive, they would not have been used all the time. Also, I believe that manufactured gas did not have the BTU output of natural gas.

    • Ross on November 28, 2016 at 7:46 am

      Ah! That would make sense!

      • kizilod on December 1, 2016 at 11:23 am

        I read something in an article from House Beautiful’s December 1902 issue that seems to confirm this theory. For kitchens in mansions they recommend “the largest and latest and most improved range cheek by jowl with an equally fine gas-range for use in hot weather”.

  10. Bethany Otto on November 28, 2016 at 8:28 am

    One of my favorite posts! I adore looking at period kitchens. Growing up, my parents’ 1904 house had two large original wood cabinets, and a fabulous 50’s steel kitchen with red formica counters. Alas, even my antiques loving mom succumbed to the pressure and replaced the white metal cabinets and counters with wood and corian, and refaced the original wood cabinets. However I was thrilled when she casually mentioned to me recently that the original doors are still in the basement. If I ever get to have their house I will put them back on immediately!

  11. Connie in Hartwood on November 28, 2016 at 10:11 am

    I have stopped watching most DIY home renovation programs. Many of them are over dramatized and highly fictionalized anyway. The prevailing theme that makes me most disappointed is when the homeowners/contractor take a sledgehammer to perfectly good, reusable materials (like kitchen cabinets, regardless of the vintage), then make a comment about how some minor material in the new space is eco-friendly … never mentioning the waste and landfill space represented by the contents of who-knows-how-many dumpsters. My only hope is that the average remodeler begins to see this for what it is, and they begin to think for themselves and do right by their vintage home(s), regardless of what they’re seeing on TV, blogs, or Pinterest.

  12. Colin Boss on November 28, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    This all really interesting. In the UK, I live in a tenement, where the original kitchen consisted of an inbuilt cast iron range, no refrigerator beyond a little 4 foot x 1 foot box open to the outside where butter, milk and meat was stored, a large porcelain sink. There was what is called a bed recess with a built in bed, covered by curtains and where either a servant in fancy houses/apartments, or one of the children slept. Most houses in the UK built up until about 1920 had this basic layout. There was usually a scullery which was an annex where the big copper water boiler was located. This was built over an open fire, and looked a little like a witches cauldron, built into a brick frame. On wash day filled with water to be boiled for laundering. The mangle sat next to it. In tenements usually the laundry was in the back court (rear garden) where the neighbours shared the facilities. In some houses a pantry existed(a half-bathroom sized cupboard) usually lined with marble shelves where perishable items would be stored. When my folks bought our Edwardian family house in the early 1970s, all of this was still in place, and as a kid I clearly remember playing in the copper cauldron before it was ripped out . Everything in that kitchen was ripped out in favour of modernisation with formica etc! I’m therefore fascinated to see how US kitchens looked. I’m with Ross, why rip out something which is solid and well made for one of these Home Depot ‘bleugh’ kits which all look the same.

    Good luck Ross with your renovation. I’m sure it’ll look incredible and sympathetic to your beautiful house when installed.

    • Ross on November 28, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Colin, what a fascinating read! Thank you for posting it. My mother was born in Scotland, so I have always felt only half American!

      • Colin Boss on November 29, 2016 at 11:15 am

        Oh well there you go then! I guess with a name like Ross you had to have ancestry. You’ve got an entire county named after you! Now you started me thinking I’d love to see the Butler’s pantry at the Ross/Cross house. I always head straight for photos of those when perusing ‘Old House Dreams’. It’s something only really grand houses in the UK have. Though in saying that I once ‘flipped’ a huge Edwardian townflat which had a butlers pantry, but it had been ripped out at some point.

  13. Chad on November 28, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve debated what I would do about the Atlantic City kitchen, where the refrigerator is in front of a window. Would I try to get more steel cabinets, send them out to be repainted, and try to install a fake circa-1960 kitchen, or do something else? (Of course the original sink and cabinets in the butler’s pantry would be inviolable)

    • Ross on November 28, 2016 at 5:44 pm

      Well, first you and I need to buy the fabulous Atlantic City house and then we can have lengthly debates over the perfect way of restoring the house!

  14. Californianinkansas on November 28, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Amen!

    Also, Nicole Curtis is the Devil. I’m only kinda kidding.

    • Ross on November 28, 2016 at 5:50 pm

      I kinda know what you mean.

  15. Cindi M on November 28, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Oh, Ross, I have been wondering when I would be introduced to your kitchen. Please give us a look around!

    • Ross on November 28, 2016 at 5:49 pm

      Your wish is soon my command…

  16. Karrin on November 30, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I found this article to be utterly fascinating, and in line with what Ross has already taught us.

    • Ross on November 30, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      Wow. That IS fascinating! Thank you, Karrin!!!!!!!!

  17. Heather on December 18, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    I was just introduced to your blog but I feel like you’re speaking my thoughts. Beautiful and amazing work you are doing!

  18. Del on January 4, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Hi Ross 🙂 Happy New Year! x :)My mother, who was born in the 1920’s, Victoria, Australia had in her families kitchen two ranges aswell. She recalls that one side was always in use for heating of the household water, which was attached through copper piping to a copper hot water jacket/boiler. This side was also used for baking of the bread, which was cooked consistantly throughout the day & for boiling the kettle. The lower compartment, was used as a plate warmer. This left the other side free for cooking of the meals etc Their fridge in her childhood days, was a Huon Pine Ice Chest (looks like a meat safe)Lined inside with Enamel with chrome shelving, the top flips up to put the big block of ice in, & a pipe drains away the melted ice water into a drip tray at the botton of the Ice Chest. This was top of the range in 1915. The beauty of this magnificant Ice Chest, is that over 100yrs later, I’m still using it as my fridge in my 1940’s Double Decker Bus, Offgrid, Not So Tiny Home, in the Aussie Rural Bush 🙂

  19. JANNE on January 20, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I am also a fan of period kitchens. I have an 1920’s bungalow. When I purchased the house they had redone the kitchen in white compsite cabinets. I declined the new stove and fridge and eventually tore out the cabinets and paneling. Under the paneling were 2 windows! and beadboard,floor to ceiling. My stove is from the 1930’s and my fridge 1940’s but I have a working monitor top fridge in the garage waiting to move in. I found the remains of the kitchen shelving in the garage and cabinet doors used to make more storage. Work in progress….

    • Ross on January 20, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Oh! I wanna see pictures!!!!!!!!

    • Jason J on January 20, 2017 at 11:16 am

      I second Ross! I want to see photos 🙂

  20. Jan on April 14, 2020 at 9:07 pm

    Hi Ross can you recommend any books worth reading on the subject of restoration of kitchens and bathrooms. I would appreciate your recommendations I am in the planning stages and want to do it right. I will not be using a wood stove for cooking so it will be a tasteful restoration, with period updates that fit the house well. What do you think of brick floors in a kitchen

    • Ross on April 14, 2020 at 9:13 pm

      Nice to meet you, Jan!

      I own a lot of books but have never found a book showing how to restore kitchen and bathrooms. No, such books are all about how to gut historic kitchens and baths.

      Also, I would not enjoy standing for long periods on a brick floor!

    • Architectural Observer on April 15, 2020 at 12:26 am

      Is there something inherently distasteful about wood stoves?

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