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Understanding the Victorian Kitchen
The Victorian kitchen cannot be easily understood apart from the technologies and the cultural and social trends of the day.
Technologies such as indoor plumbing, the kitchen stove and the icebox had an enormous influence on kitchen work and on how kitchens were outfitted and organized.
The nearly 80 years of the Victorian/Edwardian Age from 1837 to 1914 were a period of unceasing innovation. There were huge breakthroughs in manufacturing, medicine, epidemiology, and chemistry throughout the Age. The Victorians, virtually unstoppable inventors, and tinkerers, introduced enhancements that we take for granted in today's kitchen: cookstoves, refrigeration, running water and sanitary drainage — all major improvements over what had gone before.
The most impactful, at least in its effect on the development of the kitchen, was plumbing. Indoor plumbing allowed the sink to be brought into the house. Gone was the laborious process of hauling water in buckets for cooking and washing up.
Almost as important was the kitchen cookstove which replaced the iron kettle in an open hearth for cooking. First heated by wood or coal, early stoves were large, complex and dangerous but a huge improvement over the Colonial fireplace. Natural gas in the latter part of the 19th century made possible cookstoves that were safer and simpler to use, requiring much less maintenance.
Lastly, the icebox made it possible to store foods safely for longer periods, a capability that dramatically improved the American diet.
The Victorian period began to change that. It saw the beginning of the food industry, the national, and even international, food distribution system that moves perishable food from coast to coast, and preserves food not just for a season or two but for years and, sometimes, decades.
The Victorian kitchen was not, however, by any means a modern kitchen. It did not, for example, have electricity until very late in the period, and only in a few major cities. Far more importantly, however, its basic organizing principle was entirely different, which is why it really is not possible to recreate a Victorian kitchen just by installing some Victorian-looking cabinets and a few accessories. It takes an entirely new (or rather entirely old) approach to kitchen design.
The Inwardly Oriented Victorian Kitchen
Today's kitchens are outwardly oriented. The center of the room is open. Working surfaces are arranged along the perimeter of the kitchen in the form of countertops. The cook moves from work area to work area on what the military calls "interior lines". It is efficient but it is not Victorian.
The orientation of Victorian kitchens was just the opposite. The primary work surface was in the center of the kitchen — usually a large, heavy and sturdy table. The perimeter of the room held storage furniture, the cooking stove and the sink. A wide work aisle allowed access to the central work table from all sides. Movement around the kitchen is on "exterior lines". The chief advantage of this type of arrangement is that multiple cooks can work at the same time without getting in each other's way. The Victorian kitchen was almost inevitably a multi-cook kitchen.
Preparing and cleaning up after meals was an "all hands" operation — or, at least, all female hands. Meals were the responsibility of the wife and daughters of the household. It took on average 44 hours a week to prepare, serve and clean up after meals. (Add to that the average 27 hours per week spent in house cleaning and laundry, and it is clear that the Victorian homemaker was a very, very busy person indeed).
With that much work required, being able to sit down while working was a necessity. In today's kitchen most work is done standing but due to modern prepared foods with heat and eat simplicity, today's cook spends just 4 hours on average per week on meal preparation.
Only a few families had hired cooks. Our modern perception (based apparently on old British movies) that anyone well-off enough to own a house was probably able to afford a cook is far from reality. In actual fact, according to the census records of the period, barely 25% of Victorian middle-class households had servants of any kind, and most of these were part-time.
Obviously, creating an inwardly-oriented Victorian kitchen requires a lot of space. We calculate that the minimum size for a Victorian kitchen is 11' x 16', larger is better. Luckily, most Victorian homes either have the space or can create the space with a little wall re-arranging.
Fortunately, an inward-oriented kitchen fits a modern lifestyle. In many ways, the inward kitchen makes kitchen tasks much easier by having most functions centrally located. Those who have inward kitchen rave about them, and how functional they truly are.
Which, of course, begs the question: if kitchens oriented inward are so useful, why did we ever change to outward-oriented kitchens?
The answer is simple, houses got smaller, as did kitchens, culminating in the shoebox-size Post-War kitchen. The advent of fitted cabinetry made small outward kitchens functional for the smaller families of the modern era, and home builders, ever eager to save on building costs, opted for the smaller kitchen over the inward kitchen that required more space.
That may be changing, however. Since the 1980s the kitchen has gotten larger, then larger, and larger still until it has reached the point of becoming too big to be functional as an outward-oriented kitchen.
Fitted cabinets along the perimeter walls do not actually work very well in large outward-oriented kitchens. Sarah Susanka, of Not So Big House fame, estimates that the largest practical size for a fitted kitchen is 12" x 15". For a larger space, the kitchen design works better with an inward orientation.
The Unfitted Victorian Kitchen
A second major difference between the Victorian kitchen and kitchens of today is the absence of built-in cabinetry. Victorian kitchens were furnished, not fitted,
In modern kitchens cabinets are "fixtures" attached to the walls and floor. They form the work surfaces with storage conveniently located below in drawers and on shelves concealed by decorative doors.
In a Victorian kitchen cabinets were furniture, free-standing and movable. Work surfaces and storage were usually separate. Work surfaces were tables. Storage was in large cupboards supplemented with open shelves and hooks on walls and sometimes ceiling for pots and pans as needed.
There was not much to store in a Victorian kitchen, so storage was basic. Servingware and dishes would be stored on open shelves, pots and pan on hooks or overhead racks. There was very little need for food storage. The food to be consumed in a day was purchased, or picked, or slaughtered that day. Only a very few staples were kept for more than a few days: flour, sugar, salt, and perhaps lard, baking soda, and some home-canned vegetables. Add to these the very few factory-processed canned goods and bottled sauces and condiments, and we have all of the food likely to be in a Victorian kitchen.
Fitted cabinets in a Victorian kitchen were just not needed. Were they needed the Victorians would certainly have invented them. In a modern Victorian kitchen reproduction, however, some fitted cabinetry is almost inevitable — if only to provide a place to mount a dishwasher, it seems less fraudulent if it looks very much like furniture.
The effortless luxury of turning on a faucet to bring fresh, clean, safe water into the kitchen is so new that it does not yet even qualify as a blip on the timeline of human history.
To illustrate how new modern plumbing actually it is, my grandmother had running water in her kitchen late in her lifetime. Her mother never saw and never even dreamed of a kitchen faucet that delivered water on demand.
By the beginning of the Victorian period, a few homes had the luxury of a water pump right in the kitchen but these were rare. Urban dwellers relied mostly on communal wells, several stories down and as much as a mile away. Rural families usually had their own well but otherwise needed the same bucket brigade to get water into the kitchen.
The "Smart" Windmill
In the mid-1800s well over 80% of Americans lived and worked on farms and ranches. Fortunately for these rural Americans, 1854 was the year they were delivered from the age-old drudgery of carrying water by Daniel Halladay, an American engineer from New England, who in that year patented the first small, reliable windmill for pumping water.
Wind-driven pumps of various sorts had been around since 9th century Persia and were common in parts of Europe, notably the Netherlands and East Anglia during the middle ages to remove water from low-lying farmland and feed irrigation systems.
These rudimentary devices required almost constant vigilance and adjustment, and worked only when the wind blew from one specific direction.
Halladay joined with John Burnham to found the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Company in 1857 to manufacture his windmills in Batavia, Illinois. By 1881, the company was the largest manufacturer of its kind in the world and Batavia was home to so many windmill manufacturers that it had become known as "The Windmill City".
If you are ever in Batavia, a stroll along the Fox river is recommended. Original windmills manufactured in Batavia have been located, purchased, carefully restored, and erected along the Batavia Riverwalk which currently has seven different models from various companies manufactured from 1867 to 1942. A plaque at each exhibit tells the story of the manufacturer and the particular model represented.
Windmills are coming back, not just to pump water for energy-conscious homeowners, but to generate electricity on a massive scale, using updated, computer-aided versions of the very technologies invented by Daniel Halladay over 160 years ago.
The Steam Pump and City Water
Windmills were not practical, however, for pumping the massive amounts of water needed by cities. Urban areas needed much more power than the wind could provide.
Pumping water was the earliest application of steam power. Thomas Savery invented the first practical steam-driven pump that he called the "Miner's Friend" in 1698 expressly for removing water from mines and quarries. It was balky, tempermental, and prone to frequent breakdowns but still lifted more water than mule- and horse-powered pumps. Thomas Newcomen improved on the "Friend" with his "Atmospheric Engine" in 1712 but its oscillating pump could raise water only about 25 feet.
James Watt increased the power of the Newcomen engine in 1782 by adding a steam condensing chamber and a crank mechanism that converted the engine's reciprocating movement to a more efficient rotary motion. His device could lift water several hundred feet using about half the fuel and his rotary linkage became the model for the driving mechanism used in nearly all steam locomotives.
The ability of steam engines to move lots of water was almost immediately applied to the logistical problem of supplying English cities with fresh water. The West Ham waterworks (opened in 1743), Lea Bridge (1767) and Lambeth Waterworks (1775) pumped water to London and its suburbs.
In the U.S., the steam-driven Fairmount Water Works opened in 1815 on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. It was designed by Frederick Graff and to use two steam pumps to move water from the river to resevoirs. The 138-foot Chicago Water Tower was constructed in 1869 to house a steam pump that stored water drawn from Lake Michigan. Built of limestone, it was one of the few buildings in the central city to survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 and has since become a city landmark. The Water Tower in Louisville, Kentucky was built-in 1856 also to pump water into an elevated resevoir.It is the oldest ornamental water tower in the world, now repurposed as a city park.
Both the Chicago and Louisville towers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places a registry managed by the U.S. Park Service, as is the Fairmount Waterworks.
The Kitchen Faucet
Getting water into the house was a major technological accomplishment but controlling the water once it was in the house was equally important. This is done with the modern faucet (or in British English, "tap").
In 1845 Guest and Chrimes, a brass foundry in Rotherham, England, patented the first faucet that operated using a screw mechanism and leather washers to reliably regulate the flow of water. It was a great improvement over earlier water control technology that consisted of some version of driving a plug (or bung) into the end of a pipe to stop the flow of water and removing it to start water flowing again.
The Guest and Chrimes innovation was to move the plug inside the body of the faucet, operating it with a screw mechanism rather than a mallet.
Turning the handle of the faucet raised and lowered a stem. At the base of the stem was the plug consisting of a stack of leather disks that was pressed into a brass or bronze seat until water flow stopped. Loosening the screw backed the plug away from the seat so water could flow again. This was the first of what were to be called compression faucets.
Early compression faucets had problems, however, the most troublesome being that leather washers wore out quickly, and had to be replaced often. Excessive wear persisted even after hard rubber replaced leather in washers because the screw action that opened and closed the valve also had the effect of grinding the washer into its seat.
In the end, better design and improved rubber saved the day for the compression faucet. Fuller ball valves, despite several improvements in the technology over the years, died out almost completely in the 1920s and are no longer to be found except in vintage plumbing stores. Even replacement parts are becoming hard to find.
By the turn of the 20th century, compression valves that required several turns to reach maximum water flow were being replaced by new models that required no more than a quarter turn. This put much less twisting force on the compression washer, reducing wear and extending the life of the washer.
For more information on the mechanics of a modern faucet, see Faucet Basics: Faucet Valves and Cartridges.)
The Victorian Kitchen Sink
Kitchen sinks in the early years of the Victorian era were used for more than just washing up. They were also handy for chopping and slicing meat or cleaning fish, with the waste washed out into the yard to be consumed by chickens and other livestock. For washing up, a wooden tub would be placed in the sink.
Kitchen sinks were initially made of wood and stone. Slate and soapstone were common stone materials. The more fragile marble and limestone were used in bathrooms but rarely in the more demanding kitchen environment. Wood sinks were usually lined with lead, copper or "German metal" (an alloy of copper, tin, and nickel). Without the lining, wood sinks barely lasted a few years before needing to be replaced.
Glazed ceramic sinks followed toward the end of the Victorian period, although these more delicate sinks were more often found in bathrooms where damage from a cast-iron skillet was less likely.
Before faucets became common, sinks were filled from a bucket, or more rarely, from a pump. Dirty water was drained into the yard or into a bucket to be emptied into the yard. Sanitary sewers arrived only very late in the Victorian era.
The Victorian Kitchen Stove
The kitchen stove was invented by Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) in the waning years of the 18th century. It did not look like anything a 21st century American would recognize as a kitchen stove, but it is generally credited as the direct ancestor of the modern kitchen range.,
Born in Massachusetts Colony, Thompson remained loyal to King George during the American Revolution, serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the King's American Dragoons.
After the decimation of the King's soldiers and Tory militias by Rebel American backwoodsmen at the Battle of King's Mountain and the subsequent surrender of the British Army at Yorktowne, he removed to Britain to avoid being hanged by the victorious Americans. He was knighted in 1784 by George III for his services to the Crown.
His Loyalist transgressions evidently forgiven, Rumford was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1789.
Rumford's stove took the cooking fire out of the fireplace and enclosed it in a masonry box where the flames could be more easily regulated using dampers and flues to direct heat and control temperature. His stoves were made of brick with holes in a flat top into which specially designed pots could be ed and heated individually to different temperatures. It was much too heavy and cumbersome for most home cooking but found a welcome place in institutional kitchens.
Stove or Range, Which is Correct?
The cookstove in an American kitchen is commonly referred to as a range or a stove, seemingly without distinction. Is there, in fact, a difference?
Not today. In America, both terms now refer to a cooking appliance that consists of burners on a flat top surface and one or more ovens or broilers below. But in the Victorian era, there was a distinction between the two.
A range was an appliance designed to be built into a fireplace as an insert. The earliest "open range", appearing about 1780 in England, was an iron box with an open top. A fire built-in a compartment at the center of the box heated an oven on one side and a tank of water on the other. It exhausted smoke through the open top directly into the fireplace chimney. These used an enormous amount of fuel and made the kitchen very hot but were a terrific improvement over the old hearth and kettle.
Beginning about 1840, the "closed range" appeared. It had an iron plate covering the top with rings for pots and pans to sit on. Smoke was exhausted through a flue that directed it to the chimney. Various flues and dampers permitted the heat in the range to be directed more precisely to where it was needed, so less heat was needed for cooking and less fuel used.
Ranges were popular in Britain where there were a lot of old houses to be retrofitted but rare in America where the stand-alone iron stove was preferred for the new houses being rapidly built to house the country's burgeoning middle-class population. Although British-style ranges were manufactured in America, they never caught on to any significant degree.
As the Victorians perfected the technology of casting large iron objects in the early 19th century, smaller stoves (although still massive by today's standards) suitable for domestic kitchens were manufactured of cast-iron, but still using the basic Rumford design.
By the 1850s iron stoves had become a common feature of kitchens in American middle-class homes. Early models burned wood as a fuel but after the American Civil War, coal-fired stoves became more common. Anthracite coal was available nearly nationwide via the country's growing railroad network.
It was usually cheaper than wood and did not require the homeowner to fell trees and split logs for fuel.
Coal was delivered by the local collier (who was often also the local iceman) through a coal door built into the side of the house into a coal bin in the basement from which it was distributed by household members in buckets to feed the coal furnace and kitchen stove. Ashes were placed in bags or cans. Most were carted off with the trash, but some were saved to be used on icy sidewalks and steps in winter. It worked as well as, and often better than, rock salt and it was free.
The stove fundamentally changed the way in which meals were prepared. Cooking over a hearth was at best tedious and at worst dangerous. Lifting and hanging heavy iron cookware over an open fire was followed by hours of careful watching so the food did not burn or boil over, ruining the meal. The risk of catching billowing lady's petticoats on fire was a constant and real hazard and the leading cause of accidental death and serious injury among married women in England (The U.S. did not keep such statistics at the time). Dishes could only be prepared one at a time (although some larger hearths accommodated multiple kettles).
A stove was safer and more versatile. Using adjustable dampers, the heat from the fire chamber could be distributed to the cooking surface and to one or more ovens at the same time. The temperature of each item cooking on the stove or in an oven could be individually regulated so several dishes could be cooked or baked at the same time, making more elaborate, multi-course meals possible. Heat could also be directed to a warming oven or to a tank that stored hot water for bathing and washing up.
The iron stove used far less fuel than an open hearth, did not spit out dangerous embers to start the house on fire, or blacken kitchen walls with soot and foul the air with smoke and ash. It eliminated the risk of soot and ash falling into the cooking food and could warm a kitchen in winter more efficiently than a fireplace, producing more heat with less fuel.
The heat constantly radiating from the stove added to the misery of hot summer days. Controlling the heat with dampers was a tricky business that required considerable experience and a delicate touch. The entire surface of the stove was hot and could produce a serious burn if touched accidentally.
It had to be cleaned almost daily to avoid offensive odors from burned-on food or a fire from spilled oil. It needed periodic waxing with a special heat-resistant, lead-infused black wax to prevent rust. This "blacking" of the stove was one of the dirtiest and most despised jobs in the home (See sidebar: Blacking the Victorian Stove).
All in all, just tending to the stove might require an hour or more a day and was so complicated that the most widely read home economics book of the day, Catherine Beecher's The American Woman's Home devoted an entire chapter to the "The Construction and Care of Stoves, Furnaces and Chimneys".
Very late in the Victorian era, relief from the demands of the iron stove arrived with the introduction of gas as a heating fuel. Coal gas Note 2 and later natural gas ranges were promoted by gas companies to create additional demand for their product which was already widely used for illumination but being challenged by that upstart — electric lighting.
The gas stove could be made smaller; its surface remained cool, reducing the risk of accidental burns, and could be decorated with a baked enamel finish in several colors. It did not have to be kept burning at all times, eliminating unwelcome additional heat in the summer, and it ended the labor of carrying wood or coal for fuel, starting and tending the fire, removing ashes and, most importantly, the dreaded weekly "blackening".
The invention of a reliable oven thermostat in 1915 added to its ease of use and cemented the gas stove's place in the home. By 1930 most new urban cookstoves were gas-fired, with wood and coal being relegated to rural areas where gas was not readily available.
The electric range did not come into widespread use until the housing boom following the 2nd World War, not because electricity made cooking better or easier (just the opposite, professional cooks favor gas stoves) but because it was cheaper and much faster to run overhead electric wire than it was to lay gas pipe underground, and during the Post-War boom, speed was everything (See Post-war Housing Styles: Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch for more detail).
The Victorian Icebox
By the 1880s the last of the major technological changes to the Victorian kitchen had become a feature of most American kitchens — the icebox.
A patent for an icebox of sorts (today we would call it an ice chest or cooler) was granted to a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore in 1803. Mr. Moore, like many of his generation, including Thomas Jefferson, was a jack of many trades, including inventor, surveyor, engineer, and businessman.
By the 1840s iceboxes were being manufactured by local carpenters in a variety of sizes and shapes and after the end of the Civil War in 1865, they were being mass-produced in factories by companies such as Champion, White Clad, and Gibson. Many manufacturers were local or regional and associated with an ice house that sold inexpensive home iceboxes as a way of increasing the market for its ice.
Iceboxes had hollow walls that were stuffed with various insulating materials such as cork, sawdust, straw, even seaweed. The interior, like the ice compartment, was lined with tin or zinc. They were commonly made of oak or a local hardwood, for ease of construction and because they were considered furniture. Most were well finished with handsome brass or nickel-plated steel hardware.
A tin- or zinc-lined compartment at the top of the box held a large block of ice. Cold sir circulated downward to keep food cool. The small compartment just below the ice chamber was the milk compartment, always the coldest part of the box. Uncooked meat occupied the other lower compartment. Fresh vegetables and fruits that did not require very cold temperatures were kept on the top shelf.
While a boon to food safety, iceboxes had definite drawbacks.
Opening the door to the icebox let in warm room air which hastened melting, so door opening was carefully rationed and children were usually banned from using the appliance unless under direct parental supervision.
Early models were not easy to keep clean. The zinc or tin lining helped but in the early days of the ice industry when ice was harvested from ponds and lakes, it often contained vegetation, natural sediment, and even dead fish and tadpoles, which made a mess as the ice melted.
Rarer but much more annoying, the ice compartment might be infested with midges or caterpillars that were frozen in the ice but revived once the ice melted.
Later models featured more sanitary porcelain steel liners rather than zinc, and "artificial" ice manufactured in ice houses rather than "natural" ice harvested from ponds. It was usually free of sediment and aquatic creatures, making upkeep of the icebox much easier.
Still, food odors could permeate the wood inside the box and sometimes even migrated into the insulation. Once this happened the icebox was ruined and simply had to be discarded — there was no cure. The ease with which wood retained food odors was one of the primary reasons for the growing preference for porcelain-on-steel iceboxes by the end of the Victorian Age.
As the ice melted, water accumulated in a drip tray that had to be emptied at least once a day. Sometimes this was done by the iceman when he loaded fresh ice but more often was simply one of many kitchen chores to be performed by the homemaker. Premium models featured a spigot through which the drip tray could be emptied into a bucket, and some later versions discharged the meltwater outside using a pipe or hose through a wall.
Ice was delivered every two or three days in up to 100 lb. blocks (a cubic foot of ice weighs 57 lbs.) by the leather-aproned iceman in his horse-drawn insulated ice wagon. An "ice card" placed in a front window indicated the amount of ice wanted that day.
Victorian ice made in ice plants was what is called "hard ice", frozen to a very cold temperature. It could last in a well-insulated icebox for up to a week. Hard ice is still available where iceboxes are in common use, such as in Amish communities But, most commercial ice available today is the warmer "soft ice", frozen to just below the freezing point of water – it melts quickly. As anyone who has dragged an ice-filled cooler to a Big Red game soon finds out.
The iceman was usually an independent contractor who bought standard 320 lb. ice blocks from an ice house, sawed them into smaller blocks to fit home iceboxes and sold them to an established route of customers. For a day of hard labor, he made between $2.00 and $3.20 per ton of ice delivered. There was often considerable wastage from melting, especially in Summer, so a ton of ice purchased seldom resulted in a ton of ice delivered.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, two of three households in Boston had iceboxes, and other American cities were quickly catching up. A survey just after the turn of the 20th century found that 81% of New York City households owned or at least had access to an icebox.
Food Preservation in Victorian Times
Refrigeration was just part of the food preservation story, however. The Victorians developed almost all of the methods of commercial food preservation still in use today, and this development changed kitchen work dramatically, as it did our concept of how to design and organized a kitchen.
At the beginning of the era, food preservation was done as it always had been by drying, pickling, and salting.
Commercial food processing was very much in its infancy. Our abundance of factory-prepared foods simply did not exist. If you needed to preserve the harvest bounty, you did it yourself.
When the ladies of the Victorian household were not cooking and cleaning up after today's meals, they stayed busy preserving food for tomorrow's. Home canning, jam and jelly-making, and drying, salting and curing food were major seasonal occupations. Without these efforts, the Victorian wintertime diet would be bleak indeed. In rural areas the preservation of fresh meats and vegetables in season was not merely a matter of winter convenience, it was often necessary for survival.
But, commercial preservation was given a giant leg up during the American Civil War (1860-1865) by the need to feed some of the largest land armies ever fielded up to that time by a Western nation. Note 3
Both sides of the conflict did their best to provide their armies with as much fresh food as they could. Large herds of cattle often accompanied moving armies to provide fresh meat. Vegetables and fruits, however, were more troublesome. The historical means of supplying fresh produce, foraging over the local countryside, was effective only in season, and even then could not possibly supply field armies that sometimes numbered over 150,00 men, especially in an area like Northern Virginia that had been fought over so many times that there was nothing left to forage.
Preserved foods could travel with an army but, getting enough preserved food was a major logistical problem. Traditional preservation methods were hard-pressed to keep up with the enormous wartime demand. The basic army ration of coffee, hardtack, and bacon, salt pork or salt beef kept the armies alive but did not keep them healthy.
It was not unusual early in the war for a half of a field army to be afflicted with some malady or another often caused by the poor diet — a number so high that had it occurred later in the war, once the army better understood nutrition and sanitation, an immediate investigation would have ensued. Still, even late in the war, nutritional deficiency diseases and digestive disorders often debilitated the army. For every soldier that died of battle wounds, two died of diet deficiencies and disease.
The Union army's Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs, was eager to embrace any new technology that would ease the nearly overwhelming challenge of feeding his soldiers. As a result, preserved foods over the course of the war became an increasing part of Army rations and the fledgling national food industry had grown to many times its pre-war size by the end of the conflict.
The Civil War saw the beginning of food dehydration on an industrial scale. The U.S. Army had purchased dried vegetables as early as the 1850s to feed soldiers in isolated Western outposts without access to fresh produce, but its purchases accelerated exponentially with the outbreak of the war. Dehydrated or "desiccated" vegetables found a place in Union Army field messes but not always a welcome one.
Composed of a mixture of potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, tomatoes, onions, peas, beans, lentils, and celery, the vegetables were shredded, blended, pressed to drive out most of the water, then baked at low temperature to get rid of the rest. The unappetizing result was then compressed into blocks. In 1864 just one company, the American Desicating Company of New York, produced 150,000 pounds per month.
The theory was that when broken up and boiled in water, the blocks would be reconstituted as a nutritious supplement to the Army's standard daily fare of hardtack, salted meat, and coffee.
Nutritious, maybe, but greyish-brown and tasting like nothing anyone could readily identify as food, American soldiers quickly re re-christened them "desecrated" vegetables.
Declared one frustrated trooper of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry Regiment:
"We have boiled, baked, fried, stewed, pickled, sweetened, salted it; tried it in puddings cakes and pies; but it sets all modes of cooking in defiance, so the boys break it up and smoke it in their pipes!"
Pvt. Charles Davis of the 13th Massachusetts describing his regiment's first encounter with the Army's dried vegetables wryly observed that
…from the flow of colorful language which followed its consumption, we suspected it contained very powerful stimulating properties."
According to Maj. Abner R. Small of the 16th Maine …
When the stuff was fully dissolved, the water would remind one of a dirty brook with all the dead leaves floating around promiscuously. Still, it was a substitute for food."
As they always have, American soldiers learned to deal with it. Amateur army cooks found that adding salted beef or bacon to the mix, along with some crumbled hardtack crackers produced a passable, and filling, makeshift stew.
Over time, the product got better. By the first Boer War, fifteen years later (1880-81), the British Army marched with pressed soup blocks in their rucksacks, essentially desiccated vegetables in a beef stock base, that made a quite palatable soup ration.
Today, dried soup mixes are staple items on grocery shelves, as are instant sauces and gravies, dehydrated fruit of all kinds, dried potatoes, instant puddings, mac 'n cheese in a box with powdered cheese sauce, Jell-O, and Kool-Aid — all great-grandchildren of the excoriated "desecrated" foods of the American Civil War.
Victorian Canned Food
Some canned meats and fish were purchased from companies like Underwood to supply the Union Army during the American Civil War. Note 4 But, canned goods were bulky and heavy, difficult to transport by horse-drawn wagon; and they were expensive, so the army bought only a small amount of them.
Where they were issued, they were often in bulk quantities for use in unit messes rather than in individual-serving cans. There are, however, a few indications in soldier diaries and unit records of canned foods being issued to individual soldiers from time to time, always a welcome relief from standard army fare.
One of the first canned products purchased by the Army was condensed sweetened milk which was issued as rations almost from the beginning of the war.
Invented by Gail Borden in 1853, after years of trial and error, condensed milk could be kept in a can for several years without spoiling. Borden's Eagle Brand was already a popular favorite by the outbreak of the war in 1860 and is still the best selling brand in the U.S. 160 years later.
Canned fruits and vegetables were also widely available from — civilian merchants who followed the army, selling useful items such as cigars, luxury foodstuffs and the ever-popular whiskey from wagons.
Canned cliced peaches were popular in the field in 1864, and still very popular in the field a century later in Southeast Asia. A can of C-ration peaches was worth 2 packs (of five) C-ration cigarettes or one can of pound cake, another GI favorite.
While canned goods never amounted to more than a tiny fraction of the food fed to the Union military, even this fraction meant many times their pre-war orders to the country's fledgling canneries. About 5 million cans were processed in 1860. By the end of the war in 1865, output had risen to 30 million. For comparison, today the U.S. canning industry packs 30 million cans in about 5 hours.
The Victorian Canners
Canning, as a method of preserving food, originated in France in 1810. Nicholas-François Appert, after 15 years of experimentation, published a description of preserving food by slowly cooking it in well-corked bottles in L'Art de Conserver. It would keep without spoiling for months or years. He was awarded ₣12,000 (about $500.00 1810 dollars or $10,400 in today's inflated dollars ) by the French government.
Another Frenchman, Philipe de Girard, experimented with preserving food in tin-plated iron "canisters". He engaged an English agent named Peter Durand to patent the process in England. Durand did so, receiving an English patent in 1813.
Durand also translated Appert's book into English which attracted the attention of Bryan Donkin, an English engineer who, together with John Hall and John Gamble, bought the Durant patent and set up the world's first commercial canning factory, Donkin, Hall & Gamble, on Southwark Park Road, London, later moved to Ireland which was more convenient to the U.S. market.
Having procured an endorsement of their product from the Prince Regent (later George IV), the company was already producing canned meats for the Royal Navy by the fall of 1813.
The original "canister" was a thick-walled iron pot not suitable for commercial canning. It was fairly quickly redesigned as a tin-plated steel cylinder with a soldered cap and base, still thick-walled by today's standards but much thinner than the 1/2" walls of the original canister. The tin helped retard rusting and did not taint the food inside. Today the more likely plating is chrome on the outside and melamine within, especially if the content is acidic. The word "canister" was rather quickly shortened to "can" and the process of packing food in cans became "canning".
The Appert process was introduced into the U.S. in 1822 by William Underwood of Boston to preserve condiments, pickled vegetables, and cranberries. He first used bottles but his cannery's production outstripped the ability of Boston-area glassmakers to keep him supplied, so in 1836 Underwood changed to tinned steel cans.
The can was patented in the U.S. by Thomas Kensett, who brought the idea with him from England. Patent officials at first thought his application was a hoax, and it languished in a file for several years before finally being granted in 1817.
Underwood collaborated with Samuel Cate Prescott of MIT to study the environment of food in cans with the goal of reducing the cost of canning while increasing the safety of canned seafood and vegetables.
They found, for example, that some bacteria can survive in the can until the internal temperature reaches 250°, higher than the temperature used in most canning at the time. Rather than keep the research private, the company published its findings in 1887 for the benefit of the entire canning industry.
Victorian Home Canning
Progress was also being made in home canning. One of the major problems in home canning was a reliable seal for the bottles then in use. One method of sealing involved pouring wax into the mouth of the jar to form a plug as it cooled, or coating a metal lid with wax to form a seal. Neither method was very satisfactory. Wax was difficult to remove, and not always reliable.
Another option, only slightly more satisfactory, was the thumbscrew clamp and glass lid. The jar had a cast metal wire that clamped down on a glass lid and held it tightly in the neck of the jar. These were used with round rubber gaskets to create the seal. But, they had drawbacks. Too much clamping could break the jar, and too little produced an imperfect seal that allowed the food to spoil.
The solution was invented in 1859 by John Landis Mason, a tinsmith and inveterate tinkerer. His mason jar with a metal screw-on lid was sealed with a rubber ring that needed to be tightened just "finger-tip" tight. It made home canning safe and reliable and was a huge hit with home canners and jam-makers.
Mason, however, not realizing the magnitude of his invention, and figuring he would invent more important products later, sold his patent rights for a few hundred dollars. He never did invent a more important product.
Waste Not, Want Not — Victorian Recycling
The Victorian kitchen was a model of recycling efficiency. Almost nothing was wasted and very little discarded. The amazing thing to 21st century Americans is not only did the Victorian homemaker not pay for waste removal, she got paid. Not a lot, but every penny counted.
BottlesThe very idea of discarding a bottle would probably have given a Victorian homemaker the vapors. Bottles were useful. Before zip-lock bags, bottles stored everything imaginable, from soup stock to nuts.
- If something came in a bottle, the bottle was usually returnable to be reused (and usually a deposite was required to ensure that it was, in fact, returned).
- Savvy grocers let the homemaker keep the bottle after a set number of refills (usually five), ensuring that she would return to his store again and again.
Tin Cans and Other MetalMetal had value, and if it was no longer useful in the home kitchen was sold to the ragman to be recycled. A city of any size would have several scrap metal dealers who bundled metals and sold them back to industry to make more metals.
Bones and Meat ScrapsMeat trimmings and bones were added to the ever-simmering stock pot where they became the base for the savory soups that were served at nearly every meal.
- Drippings from bacon, pork and veal were clarified and used in cooking.
- Bones retrieved from the stock pot were first fed to the dog, then, if any were left, sold to the ragman who in turn sold them to local manufacturers for making glue, gelatine, matches, toothpicks and fertilizer or to farmers to be ground into meal as a feed supplement for chickens and pigs.
Vegetable ScrapsPeelings and scraps from vegetables were collected in a pail. This "wash", as it was called, was collected every day or two by the washman who purchased it for a few pennies and resold it to local farmers for chicken feed and hog swill. The term "hogwash" still means something of little value.
Coal AshAsh from the cookstove was saved in a dustbin. The cinders and clinkers, which are partially burned coal, were separated by the frugal homemaker and put back into the stove to be completely burned.
- The remaining ash was collected by the dustman and stored in dust-yards until it was needed to make bricks, as a filler in concrete or as a stable base for sidewalks and streets.
- In England, the money paid by brickyards for the dust financed municipal dust collection, so homeowners paid nothing for the service.
RagsUseable rags were kept for household cleaning. Once beyond use, they were sold to the ragman. Washed, dried and sold to mills, they were used to make paper.
Mason jars, in various sizes, manufactured by the Ball Corporation and Kerr Glass Manufacturing, have now been in continuous production for over 150 years. Note 5
Tinkers, Tinners, and Cappers
In 1861 Louis McMurry, yet another Maryland canner, patented a machine that would cap cans quickly and reliably by crimping the caps around a rubber seal. Later the rubber seal was replaced by a more convenient liquid sealant. Note 6
Improved Canning Technology
Continuing advances in commercial canning made the process faster and less expensive. Appert's method required that food in sealed containers be cooked slowly for up to six hours. In 1861 Isaac Solomon, a Baltimore canner, discovered that adding calcium chloride to the cooking water in which the cans were immersed raised its temperature to 240°, reducing cooking time to just 30 minutes and increasing production by a factor of twelve.
Replacing hand labor with machines sped the process of preparing vegetables for canning. An automated corn shucker invented by Lester E. Denison in a839 removed individual kernels of corn by pulling the ear of corn through a series of metal-toothed cylinders that stripped the kernels from the cob. In 1894 E. P. Scott, C. P. Chisolm and J. A. Chisolm patented a mechanical pea sheller that did the work of 1,000 laborers. It made canned peas a staple of the American diet.
By the 1890s a workman operating a machine could produce 1,500 cans each day, and canned food was cheap enough to be afforded by most middle-class households as a supplement to locally-produced and seasonal foods. The number of canneries rose rapidly. The U.S. census showed 97 canneries in the U.S. in 1870, a number that had grown to 1,813 by 1900, employing 70,000 workers.
Finally, The Can Opener
One reason for this explosive growth was the invention, finally, of an easy-to-use, safe and reliable can opener.
Until the last third of the 19th century, there was no easy way to open cans. Although the Union Army issued an early lever-style can opener patented by Ezra Warner in 1858, it was nowhere near as reliable or as easy to use as the Army's ubiquitous P-38 opener of WWII fame (see sidebar), and it was not readily available to smaller units in the field. Soldiers stabbed cans open with bayonets, and even, in frustration, shot them open — a method that did not prove very satisfactory.
It remained the basic device for opening cans even after 1966 when Ermal Cleon Fraze a toolmaker in Ohio invented the now ubiquitous pull-tab can.
The Victorian Ice Age
Despite these major advances in commercial food preservation, most foods were still consumed in the place they were grown, and usually within a day or two to avoid spoilage.
It was well known that keeping food cold preserved it for a time, often as long 10 to 15 days but cooling food required ice, and in the days before electricity, where does one get ice in July?
The Ice Harvest (Video)
Video: Prelinger Archives
Ice harvesting in the Poconos in 1919. A rare film showing the details of cutting, harvesting, transporting and storing pond ice. Amateur movie from the Prelinger Archives, filmed in 1919.
Even as late as 1919 the basic motive power was the horse, outfitted with special horseshoes designed to securely grip the ice.
The process was greatly improved by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth's invention of the two-bladed horse-drawn ice cutter in 1825 which not only sped the process of harvesting ice but produced uniform-sized blocks that could more easily be stacked for storage and shipping reducing the cost of harvesting ice from 30¢ a ton to under 10¢.
In New England, ice harvesting became the winter occupation of otherwise idle farmers. Virtually no New England lake or pond was spared. Even the peaceful stillness of David Thoreau's Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts was diturbed as early as 1846 when over 100 workmen descended on the pond to remove over 10,000 tons of ice. Walden ice commanded a premium price in Europe, for no reason other than it was from a famous pond.
But, where ice truly revolutionized the Victorian diet was in the refrigeration of railroad cars to preserve fresh meat, fish vegetables and fruit while traveling hundreds, even thousands, of miles to market.
Joel Tiffany patented the "Refrigerateur Car", designed specifically to transport meat and produce in a refrigerated environment in 1877. Refrigerated boxcars or "reefers" attached to fast passenger trains, allowed the transport of perishable foods from coast to coast. As a result, California and Florida became the greengrocers to the nation.
Many fresh fruits and vegetables were available year-round in major U. S. and Canadian cities after 1880. Chicago became the American meatpacking capital and epicenter of the nation's railway system, rather than its arch-rivals, St. Louis and Kansas City, in no small part because of the great quantities of ice that could be harvested from Lake Michigan to restock reefers. The rivers that bordered its rival cities offered no such convenience.
Adulteration and Victorian Food Scandals
Canned and preserved foods were slow to catch on with the Victorian homemaker. In part, this was because they were relatively expensive but also in large part because they were widely perceived as unsafe.
Throughout the Victorian era, the regulation of food safety in the U.S. was left up to the individual states, resulting in a patchwork of laws that could not be enforced across state lines. While England had already passed nationwide food safety laws by 1860, the U.S. Congress, tardy as usual, was slow to follow suit.
Victorians were right to be suspicious of processed foods. Lurid reports of contaminated and adulterated foods were frequent in period newspapers, as were repeated reports of food scandals.
Few foods manufactured in the late 1880s were free of additives, some of which could be harmful. The problem was that no one knew for sure which additives were harmful and which were benign, or even healthy. The testing had never been done, and outside the U.S. Depament of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry, the facilities for testing foods barely existed.
Stale, soiled and even rancid butter could be oxidized by forcing air through it to remove any odor, then re-churning it with skim milk. The result could be sold as fresh butter. Chromium (as in bumper chrome) and wood dye could be used to make it yellower.
Rotten eggs were deodorized with formaldehyde and sold for baking. Butchers kept bottles of "Freezem", "Perservaline" or "Iceine" on hand to disguise spoiled meat.
Unscrupulous breweries added strychnine to beer to increase its bitterness (so fewer expensive hops were needed) and opium powder to create an addiction to the beverage. Coca-Cola included cocaine in its formula as did many cola drinks, which were originally sold as patent medicines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Division of Chemistry (later renamed the Bureau of Chemistry and still later to become the Food and Drug Administration), created in 1862, was the federal government's first step towards regulating the country's expanding food industry.
Having lost in Congress, Wiley took the crusade for food safety to the streets and demonstrated a knack for generating an enormous amount of publicity. He recruited thousands of middle-class women into the fight for better food. Major supporters included the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Consumers League.
The women, the household purchasing agents who voted with their purses if not yet at the ballot box, were very effective in changing the practices of many food companies, and ultimately of forcing a reluctant Congress to pass food safety legislation.
Wiley captured the attention of the nation by establishing a volunteer "poison squad" of young men who agreed to eat only foods treated with suspect chemical preservatives, with the object of determining whether these additives were injurious to health. The press made the "Poison Squad" a national sensation.
He also consulted with food companies themselves to improve their products. His most notable client was H. J. Heinz Company, which made consistent efforts to ensure the quality of its processed foods and was rewarded by Victorian consumers with increased sales and rapid growth.
Expensive foods were likely to be highly adulterated to reduce their cost. Coffee was often mixed with chicory, roasted wheat, roasted beans and acorns for bulk, and burnt sugar as a darkener.
Chocolate was found by the Bureau of Chemistry to contain various amounts of arrowroot, wheat, corn, sago, tapioca, flour and chicory for added weight, and the minerals red ochre, Venetian red and iron compounds for color. A study by the agriculture department of North Dakota in the late 1890s found that 70% of the chocolate sold in the state had been adulterated.
Canned mushrooms were bleached whiter with sulfites. In one study of ketchup, only Heinz was found to be pure. All the rest were made from waste products from tomato canning — leftover skin and pulp, over-ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes, starch, coal tar for color and salicylic acid as a preservative.
H. J. Heinz
H. J. Heinz promoted its prepared ketchup as pure and free from adulterants, a claim borne out through tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As a result, Heinz products found a warm welcome in Victorian kitchens where other processed food products did not.
Making ketchup at home was a long, time-consuming chore that involved peeling, stirring, and straining the tomato pulp before boiling it for hours. American homemakers were more than ready for the prepared ketchup introduced by Heinz in 1876.
Coal tar was used as the basis for a wide range of chemical dyes that found their way into foods. Metallic pigments were also widely used. A study by the Bureau of Chemistry published in 1905 found pigments derived from chrome, antimony, cobalt, zinc, lead, mercury and iron (Bureau of Chemistry, Circular No. 25: Coloring Matters for Foodstuffs and Methods for Their Detection).
Products labeled honey were found to contain little or no honey. Their main ingredient was corn syrup tinted with a variety of substances to give the syrup a honey-like color. Sometimes a small piece of honeycomb was added to complete the deception.
Reputable canners were often at a competitive disadvantage because their products were less colorful and cost more than adulterated competitors.
As late as the Spanish-American War in 1898 spoilage of canned foods was still a national problem. Over 1,000 American soldiers died of spoiled canned meat (the precise number being unknown since food poisoning was often misdiagnosed as Yellow Fever, which showed similar symptoms), while only 79 died of wounds suffered in combat.
Gen. Miles was court-martialed for his unceasing denunciations of the Army's procurement practices and suspended from duty until his mandatory retirement. But, his crusade eventually resulted in a reform of the Army's commissary department which by the First World War, a single generation later, was able to supply four million soldiers and Marines with wholesome, nourishing field rations that were the envy of our French, British and Canadian allies, and do it along supply lines that often extended 4,500 miles from America's mid-west farms to the Western Front trenches in France.
Victorian Processed Foods
As a result of the uncertainty about the safety of processed foods, Victorians used them sparingly. It was not until the early part of the 20th century when, in response to egregious food adulteration and packing house scandals revealed by Upton Sinclair in his semi-fictional work, The Jungle, a very tardy Congress finally acted to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act did consumer suspicion of prepared foods start to fade.
Nonetheless, many of our best-known food brands got their start in the late Victorian age. Underwood canned meats, Kellogg cereals, Coca-Cola beverages, Heinz condiments, Graham crackers, Welches grape juice, and Fig Newtons are just a few examples.
The food companies that did well were those which garnered a reputation for safe, wholesome products.
The H. J. Heinz Company, for example, focused its marketing on the purity of its products with various slogans that advised consumers to ask for Heinz by name and was one of the most vocal industry supporters of the pure food movement of the late Victorian period.
Heinz ketchup is still the best selling brand in the U.S. with 50% of the U.S. market; and its baked beans, pickles, sauces and relishes have graced a great many dinner tables since its founding in 1875.
The McIlhenny Company introduced Tabasco pepper sauce to the nation's tables in 1868, and the fiery condiment has been made exactly the same way for over 140 years. It needs no preservatives. There is not a micro-critter alive that could survive in Tabasco sauce. If one ever does, it will probably take over the world in a few weeks.
Graham crackers made from unbleached flour were invented by the Rev. Sylvester Graham in 1929 as a health food. Graham was a vocal critic of the American processed food industry and advocated a strict, what we would now term "organic", diet, free of meat and alcohol in a health regimen that included frequent bathing — something fairly rare at the time. Commercial bakers adopted the recipe but added sugar and honey, to make it more like a cookie.
By the 1870's the French confection, the marshmallow, had migrated to America where it was reformulated with a gelatin base rather than the hard-to-get marshmallow plant. Paired with the Graham Cracker and a Hershey Milk Chocolate bar after 1899, it ultimately became S'Mores. one of America's basic food groups,
You could cool the Tabasco burn with a tall, cold glass of Welch's Grape Juice after 1869. The pasteurized grape drink was invented by temperance advocate Thomas Bramwell Welch as an "unfermented" substitute for communion wine in Protestant churches. Its reputation for wholesomeness made it a fixture in Victorian iceboxes.
The juice was served by Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan in place of wine at an official state dinner in 1913, and replaced wine on Navy Ships by order of the Secretary of the Navy in 1914, an order that was rescinded in short order.
As a wine substitute at religious observances, it was much more successful, replacing communion wine in most Protestant churches. As a refreshing juice drink, it was even more successful and has been a favorite among kids of all ages for over 100 years.
Quaker Oats, dry oat cereal flakes, was introduced in 1877 by the Quaker Mill Company. It was followed in 1884 by Cerealine Flakes from the American Hominy Co., a dry cereal product made from corn grits, and Kellogg's Corn Flakes in 1896, initially as a diet supplement. With sugar added, it was reintroduced as a breakfast cereal in 1906, and dried processed cereal quickly became the basic American breakfast.
In the end, both parties, exhausted by the ordeal, reached a settlement. Caffeine remained an ingredient in Coke but at a reduced amount acceptable to the government. It was reduced further in 1985 when Coke introduced "New Coke". The change nearly resulted in rioting. New Coke was quickly shelved, and Coca-Cola reverted to its century-old secret formula — caffeine-included.
Fig Newtons appeared on grocery shelves in 1892. Invented by Philadelphia baker and fig-lover Charles Roser, the product was named "Newtons" after the city of Newton, Massachusetts. Neither the taste, shape nor size of the cookie has changed in over 100 years, and the distinctive pillow shape has been widely copied.
Cracker Jack was first sold at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 by its inventor, Frederick "Fritz" Rueckheim, a German immigrant, as "candied popcorn and peanuts". It got the name Cracker Jack in 1896, reportedly after a salesman pronounced the popcorn and peanut treat "crackerjack", a common slang expression of the time meaning something of the finest kind.
It did not become a kids' favorite, however, until 1912 when a "prize" was added to every box (and every kid learned to open the box from the bottom, where the toy was).Note 8 Its unbreakable link to baseball was forged in 1908 when actor and composer Albert Von Tilzer published Take Me Out to the Ball Game which included the line "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack …"
In 1900 Hills Bros. Coffee first used vacuum packing for its ground coffee. Removing the air from the can reportedly reduced oxidation and kept the coffee fresher. Most other coffee companies adopted the process.
In the late Victorian age, the canned coffee business was extremely competitive, and most brands "extended" their blends with additives to make them less expensive. Chicory was so commonly used as an additive in the Old South that many in that region came to prefer the taste of this "Cajun" blend which is still available from the Reily Food Company as Luzianne Coffee sold widely in grocery stores.
To avoid adulteration, Victorians simply bought whole beans and ground the coffee themselves. A hand-powered coffee bean grinder was a common appliance in most Victorian kitchens.
The Victorian Search for The "Rational" Kitchen
The study of kitchen design and organization had its genesis in the Victorian period. The twin disciplines of home economics and domestic science began in the mid-19th century. Home economists formalized methods of maintaining a home that strove to remove folklore and custom from kitchen organization and replace it with planning based on rational analysis.
Steering much of this revolution in housework was Catherine Beecher who with her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame) authored The American Woman's Home, published in 1869. At the heart of Beecher's system of domestic management was the "apportionment of time". She believed that effective time management was important, not just for productivity but to empower women to feel in control of their lives. Beecher wrote,
The book devoted an entire chapter to the development of "Habits of System and Order" and emphasized simplicity and efficiency in all housework but especially kitchen tasks to reduce the time spent preparing and cleaning up after meals. Kitchen work was more efficient, Beecher wrote, if the kitchen is small and necessary equipment close at hand. A large kitchen, as was the convention at the time, wasted time and effort by requiring constant movement around the kitchen to get work done.
Ella E. Kellogg (the wife of John Harvey Kellogg of Kellogg's Cereals fame) in her 1893 book Science in the Kitchen also emphasized that the kitchen be an appropriate size: large enough to accommodate the work being done but not so large that "unnecessary steps" were required. She wrote,
Cheaper by the Dozen
Lillian Moller Gilbreth was one of the first industrial efficiency experts to apply time and motion studies to the organization of daily activities in the home. With her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1868-1924), she was instrumental in the development of modern kitchen design, identifying the “work triangle” and linear kitchen layouts that are often used today.
She was one of the first female members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the recipient of the Hoover Prize in engineering and of 23 honorary degrees, and featured in Morgen Witzel's 2003 study, Fifty Key Figures in Management.
She is best known, however, as the beleaguered but unflappable mother of twelve featured in the best selling semi-biographical novel, Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of her children in 1948. The book inspired two movies: one in 1950 starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, and the other in 2003 with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.
Gilbreth died in 1972 at age 93, having survived her husband by nearly 50 years, and living long enough to see most of her "radical" notions about home efficiency and kitchen organization become basic design principles.
"In furnishing a kitchen, there should be everything likely to be required but not one article more than is wanted. Unnecessary profusion creates little; a deficiency too often sacrifices perfection of a dish. There should be sufficiency, and no more."
Each of these writers, and others of the period, were aware of a relationship between efficiency in food preparation and the size, shape, arrangement, and equipment of a kitchen but handicapped by a lack of systematic studies of kitchen work, were unable to precisely identify what that relationship should be. It was only after industrial ergonomists began studying kitchen work that sound principles of organization and management could be applied to the home kitchen. These studies did not begin until the very last years of the Victorian era.
Scientific Management was pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth who became three of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement that dominated industrial management theory in the late Victorian Age and well into the early part of the 20th century.
The Gilbreths added psychology to Taylor's purely mechanical measurement methods and studied the work habits and environments of manufacturing and clerical employees in all kinds of industries to find ways to increase their output and make their work easier, faster and more efficient.
Lillian Gilbreth moved Scientific Management into the home. She was one of the first of the industrial efficiency experts to apply time and motion studies to the organization and daily activities of the home and was instrumental in the development of modern kitchen design, conceiving the "work triangle" and linear kitchen layouts that are still used today.
Gilbreth's contemporary, Christine Frederick began a series of articles in the Ladies Home Journal which explained the application of scientific management in the home. Later published as a book, The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, the chapter on kitchen organization and layout established a basic kitchen organizing principles still in nearly universal use:
"The first step toward the efficiency any kitchen is to have the kitchen small, compact and without long narrow pantries and closets… A good-sized kitchen for a small house is 10 x 12; the ideal is nearly square… [T]he next step… is to place the principal equipment of stove, sink, tables and closets in right relation to each other… In planning for any kitchen, I have found, after close study, that there are just two main processes in all kitchen work… those processes which prepare the meal [and] those which clear away the meal. Each of these processes covers distinct equipment".
To test and prove her ideas, she created the "Applecroft Kitchen" as a study center in which appliances, devices, and processes could be tested. Her description of the kitchen is instruction for what an "ideal" Victorian kitchen should look like.
"…It measures only 12 by 14 feet, a space small enough that no waste motion occurs between tasks. Double casement windows at the south and west let in a quantity of light upon the working spaces, and give the “long view” of outdoors so necessary to relieve the eye strain of the worker."
"The kitchen itself is finished in light cream with white woodwork in a “flat” washable paint, which insures sanitary handling, and which is most cheery, light and cool. The floor is covered with a new pressed cork material impervious to grease and very soft to the foot of the worker. The arrangement of the chief equipment is after the manner of the efficient kitchen described in chapter three …"
"The refrigerator, kitchen cabinet, stove and table are in one group, placed so that food from the icebox is placed on the cabinet table next to it, in preparation for cooking on the stove next to it, and lifted when finished from the stove to the metal-topped table next to it. From icebox all the way to the dining room is in one direction."
"On the other side of the kitchen entirely, and moving in the opposite direction, is the clearing-away-process group. The sink, drain-boards, garbage disposal [by which is meant garbage "can", not the electric device under the sink. Ed.], and china closet are close together."
Her notion of task-based workspaces has become a cornerstone of modern kitchen design. But, while most kitchen designers use the concept daily in planning modern kitchens, not one in a hundred knows that it originated nearly 100 years ago with Katherine Fisher.
Reproducing a Victorian Kitchen
Go into your kitchen and remove all the prepared and processed foods in your cabinets, pack them in boxes and move them to the dining room. Now, pack up and remove all the small appliances. You can keep any staples (flour, sugar, salt, dried beans and legumes, pasta, coffee, tea, and baking powder), and spices. If you have potatoes or onions in your root cellar, you can keep those as well as any fresh produce or meat in the fridge (for purpose of this experiment, rechristened the "icebox"). Now consolidate those in as few cabinets as possible. How many did you need? One? Two? Not many.
This illustrates one of the principal problems in reproducing a Victorian kitchen. We have to store many more foodstuffs than the Victorians even imagined could exist … (Continues)