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Understanding the Victorian Kitchen
To all of us of a certain age, much of a Victorian kitchen would seem oddly familiar. There would be cupboards and working tables but no built-in cabinets and probably a sink or two after piped water became common. There might have been a new Hoosier cabinet after the turn of the century and almost certainly a gas range during the later Victorian period, at least in the cities.
Some of it would be a little mysterious. The lark spit, sugar nippers, spice tin, and marmalade cutter would be unfamiliar but the iron skillets, brass pots, steel cutlery, and chinaware would be old friends.
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 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.
Kitchen Orientation: Outward vs. Inward
The main difference is in orientation. 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. Fortunately, most Victorian homes have the space or can salvage 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 inward-oriented kitchens 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 larger inward kitchen.
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 walls do not actually work very well in large outward-oriented kitchens. Sarah Susanska, 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
The 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.
Fitted cabinetry in a Victorian kitchen seems fraudulent somehow. And, although some fitted cabinetry is inevitable — if only to provide a place to mount a dishwasher, it works better if it looks very much like furniture.
Victorian kitchen Technology
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 enormous influence on kitchen work and on how kitchens were outfitted and organized. So did social and cultural trends. The demand for improved hygiene and sanitation influenced the materials and fixtures deemed suitable for the kitchen, and the push for better organization and time management helped homemakers make more efficient use of their kitchens.
The 65 years of the Victorian Age from 1837 to 1901 was one of unceasing innovation. There were huge breakthroughs in manufacturing, medicine, epidemiology, and chemistry throughout the Age.
The most impactful, at least in its effect on the development of the middle-class 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.
These three innovations made the modern kitchen possible. Somewhat less direct but just as game-changing were commercial and industrial technologies for preserving, storing and transporting food. For the whole of man's history, food had been eaten within a few miles of where it was grown. There were few ways of effectively preserving food for long periods, and almost no way to transport it long distances.
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 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.
Well into the Victorian Era, getting water to the kitchen for cooking and washing required carrying it from a well or pump, a process that had barely changed since the dawn of man. The big technological improvement during the first 10,000 years of human existence was the replacement of animal skins with ceramic urns and wood, then metal, buckets as water carriers. Buckets and urns allowed more water to be hauled with less effort, and less spillage.
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 1854 the well over 80% of Americans lived and worked on farms and ranches. Fortunately for these rural Americans, 1854 was the year rural American was delivered from the age-old drudgery of carrying water by Daniel Halladay, an American engineer, who in that year patented 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 nearly constant vigilance and adjustment, and worked only when the wind blew from one specific direction.
Halladay's "Self-governing Farm Wind Pump" was a "smart" windmill — nearly automatic — turning itself to face changing wind directions and adjusting the pitch of its blades in response to wind speed so shaft rotation remained constant. Attached to a pump, it allowed water to be effortlessly lifted to an elevated tank where it was stored until needed. By 1900 600,000 windmills were in use in the U.S.
Halladay joined with John Burnham to found the U.S. Wind Engine Company to manufacture his windmills in Batavia, Illinois, a city that eventually played host to so many windmill manufacturers that it became known as the windmill capitol of the world and earned the nickname "The Windmill City".
While the last windmill factory closed in the 1950s, Batavia is still the "City of Energy" hosting the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. And, windmills are back, not to pump water but to generate electricity on a massive scale, still using updated, computerized versions of the very technologies invented by Daniel Halladay over 160 years ago.
The Steam Pump and City Water
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 pumping water out of mines and quarries.
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 engine could lift water several hundred feet using about half the fuel. His rotary linkage became the model for the driving mechanism used in nearly all steam locomotives.
The ability of steam engines to lift 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 in 1767 and Lambeth Waterworks in 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 and stayed in operation for nearly 100 years, finally shutting down in 1909. The Water Tower in Louisville, Kentucky was built-in 1856 and is the oldest ornamental water tower in the world. 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 the few buildings in the central city to survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 and has since become a city landmark. Both the Chicago and Louisville towers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places a registry managed by the U.S. Park Service.
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.
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 into the end of a pipe to stop the flow of water and removing it to start water flowing again.
The Guest and Chrimes device moved 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.
The design 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.
The competing technology was the Fuller Ball Valve, patented by Henry W. Fuller of Brooklyn, New York in 1879, in which a handle was attached to an offset cam that opened and closed the water channel using a grape-sized rubber ball attached to a stem. Because the cam mechanism did not grind the rubber ball but rather merely compressed it to stop water flow, the mechanism lasted much longer between repairs. The cam required about a half turn to operate making precise control over flow volume tricky, requiring a deft touch. Note 1
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 a number of 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.
The compression valve faucet became the model for faucet operation for more than a century, being supplanted only in the 1950s by the single handle washerless faucet valve that revolutionized the industry. Today even the washerless valve is largely history, having been supplanted by the even more reliable ceramic disc cartridge valve. (For more information see Faucet Basics: Faucet Valves and Cartridges.)
The Victorian Kitchen Sink
Kitchen sinks were initially made of wood — often lined with lead, copper or "German metal" (an alloy of copper, tin, and nickel) — and stone. Slate and soapstone were common stone materials for kitchen sinks. The more fragile marble and limestone were used in bathrooms but rarely in the more demanding kitchen environment.
After fixture manufacturers learned to bond porcelain to cast iron, iron sinks came into widespread use in the U.S. and were featured by American Standard and Kohler after the 1870s. These were often wall hung with tall backsplashes and wide drainboards on each side of the sink. These were so sanitary and easy to maintain that they virtually eliminated lined wood sinks within a few years.
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. Early sinks were often made very shallow to be used 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 wood tub would be placed in the sink.
The Kitchen Stove
The kitchen stove was invented by Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) in the waning years of the 18th century. 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.
He removed to Britain after the war to avoid being hanged by the victorious Americans. He was knighted in 1784 by King George III for his services to the Crown. In 1785 he was hired by the Prince-elector of Bavaria to reorganize the Bavarian army. He also designed and built the Englischer Garten in Munich, still one of the largest and most beautiful urban parks in the world.
For his efforts, Thompson was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, taking the title Reichsgraf von Rumford in 1791 after the town of his birth: Rumford. It is by the name "Rumford" that he is remembered by history.
Rumford was a self-taught physicist and an expert in thermodynamics — the science of how heat moves. His experiments challenged many of the principles of the discipline widely accepted in his day. He was also a prolific inventor. His inventions included the Rumford fireplace, still considered the most efficient open fireplace design, the percolating coffee maker, thermal underwear and thermos bottle as well as the cookstove. He is credited with having discovered the sous-vide method of cooking food in a vacuum container which he described in an essay.
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 technology of casting large iron objects was perfected in the early 19th century, smaller stoves (although still massive by today's standards) suitable for domestic kitchens were manufactured of cast iron.
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.
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. The risk of catching billowing lady's clothing on fire was a constant hazard.
The cook could not leave the fire unattended for any length of time without the risk of ruining the meal. 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 held water for bathing and washing up.
"Blacking" the Victorian Stove
Before I started writing this, I was looking around our home and my mind was cast back to the days when everything was such hard work. Today, if the house is cold, we can be warm within minutes by the flick of the central heating switch, or the press of a button for the gas fire to be ignited, instant warmth is available and maybe it is taken for granted by those who have grown up with these modern conveniences … My mother and grandmothers would not believe how easy it has become to look after a home.
My least favorite day of the week was Saturday, this was the morning that the oven range had to have a thorough clean-out. This was a filthy job. The room would be freezing cold, especially in winter and we would sit huddled in our coats. Before the fire could be lit, the flues and the ventilators had to be thoroughly fettled. The flue brush was a strange looking object, the handle being made from twisted wire, the actual brush head was long and narrow, so that the fire back could be reached. Cleaning this was a long, laborious process, then the coal rake was used to rake all the debris which had loosened and collected.
If the flues were not cleaned every week baking day would be a disaster as the oven would not be hot enough. The coal oven was part of the range, and this was the only means of baking or roasting.
After the ashes, cinders, and soot had been shifted, the hard work would really start.
My mother would spread newspapers on the hearth and around the fireplace, and out would come the black lead. She would wash the fireplace, to remove the ash and soot, wait for it to dry, which seemed to take forever, as we were still shivering, black lead was spread over all the fireplace with special brushes and she would rub and rub until she could see her face in it. The brass hinges on the oven door would receive the same treatment, next the fender would be polished. Then, thankfully, the fire could be lit. If my mother didn't have any sticks (she couldn't afford to buy fire lighters), she would set us on making "paper sticks" from the newspaper she had placed around the fireplace. We were only too eager to do this, as it meant the dreaded black lead ritual was coming to its end for another week.
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.
But, while iron cook stoves made women's lives easier, they did not eliminate all the drudgery of cooking. The fire had to be started, or at least stoked, each morning and fueled several times a day — requiring about 50 pounds of coal daily.
Ashes needed to be emptied at least once a day, and usually twice. 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 accidentally touched. 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: "Cleaning the 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 (generated by passing live steam over red-hot coal in an airless chamber to produce a smelly and potentially toxic blend of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, and sulfur) 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 cook stoves 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 after World War II, not because electricity provided better or easier cooking but because it was cheaper and faster to run overhead electric wire than it was to lay gas pipe underground.
The Victorian Ice Box
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. He invented the icebox out of necessity to keep his butter from spoiling while it was being transported to market. His idea was simple. Place a tin box full of butter inside a larger cedar box filled with ice, and wrap the box with rabbit fur to insulate it. Fortunately for the rabbit population of rural Maryland, better insulation materials were soon discovered.
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.
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. Raw 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 hastened melting of the ice, 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 icebox models featured more sanitary porcelain steel liners rather than zinc, and "artificial" ice manufactured in ice houses became more common 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. Steel is still the preferred material.
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 later versions included a system that discharged the meltwater outside through a pipe or hose.
Ice was delivered every day or two in up to 100 lb. blocks (a cubic foot of ice weighs 57.2 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.
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.
H. J. Heinz
H. J. Heinz was the first company to manufacture vinegar in individual bottles for home use.
Heinz was a favorite of health- and sanitation-conscious Victorians with its products that were guaranteed to be pure and free from adulterants.
As a result, Heinz products found a warm welcome in Victorian kitchens where other processed food products did not.
Preserving Food Safely 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.
Most food preservation was home-based. 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.
Commercial food processing was very much in its infancy. Our abundance of factory-prepared foods simply did not exist, and if you needed to preserve the harvest bounty, you did it yourself.
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 2
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 quarter 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, after the army better understood how to feed itself, an immediate investigation would have been launched. Still, nutrition deficiency diseases and digestive disorders often debilitated the army. For every soldier that died of battle wounds, two died of diet deficiencies and disease.
Union Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs was eager to embrace any new technology that would ease the nearly overwhelming burden 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. Dehydrated or "desiccated" vegetables found a place in army field messes but not always a welcome one.
Shredded, 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 rock-hard blocks that looked a lot like dog biscuits.
The theory was that when boiled in water, the vegetables would be reconstituted as a nutritious supplement to the Army's standard daily fare of hardtack and coffee.
Nutritious maybe but greyish-brown, and tasting like the 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, possibly a little tongue-in-cheek:
"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. We ate it, and we liked it, too."
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, Ramen noodles, 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 3 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 an 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 from wagons. Canned peaches were popular in the field in 1864, and still very popular in the field in 1964 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.
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. It would keep without spoiling for months or years. He published his discovery in L'Art de Conserver in 1810 and was awarded ₣12,000 (about $500) by the French government.
Another Frenchman, Phillipe 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. He also translated and published Appert's book in 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.
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 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 word "canister" was also rather quickly shortened to "can".
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 had been 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 poured 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 thumb screw 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 screw-lid jar still in use today was the solution. Invented in 1859 byJohn Landis Mason, a tinsmith and inveterate tinkerer, the glass jar with a metal screw-on lid was sealed with a rubber ring. It made home canning safe and reliable and was a huge hit with homemakers. 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.
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 4
Tinkers, Tinners, and Cappers
Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type 1
In 1942 the Army's Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago, tasked with creating a can opener small enough to fit in a pocket that did not rust, need sharpening, or break in use, took 30 days to come up the "Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type 1", more famously known as the P-38 can-opener.
It was everything the Army hoped for, and more. It is smaller and lighter than a quarter, cheap to manufacture (about 12¢) and completely reliable. It could be hung on a dog-tag chain so it was always available for use as a knife, scraper, wire stripper and screwdriver as well as a can opener. With a little practice, a GI could open a C-ration can in about 10 seconds, faster if it was something good, like peaches or cheese with crackers.
The military eventually issued well over 2 billion of them before they were retired, not just to American forces but to allied armies as well. They are no longer needed to open the current standard MRE ration that comes in a plastic pouch. But, the P-38 is still in production and sold worldwide for about 50¢ — 75¢ for its larger cousin, the P-51.
Why P-38? No one really knows.
One story is that it takes 38 punctures with the device to open a C-ration can. But, since the name pre-dates C-rations, this is probably malarky. Another legend is that is got its name from the fact that it is 38 mm long. But, as the military did not measure in millimeters in 1942, this theory seems equally shaky.
Most likely it was named after the P-38 Lightning, a sleek, twin-fuselage, heavy fighter plane just coming into service in 1942. Why the clunky device reminded soldiers, sailors and Marines of the sleek aircraft is a mystery never solved.
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 5
Advances in Victorian 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.
In 1874, A. K. Shriver, another Baltimore canner, patented the closed kettle which cooked at very high temperatures using live steam or superheated water which decreased cooking time to just a few minutes.
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. Automated corn shuckers and mechanical tomato peelers sped these canned vegetables onto grocery shelves nationwide. 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.
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 quarter 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.
Finally, in 1870 William Worcester Lyman patented the first rotating wheel can opener. It was safe, simple to use, and inexpensive enough to be affordable. 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.
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.
In hot weather, raw milk could be kept for only an hour or so before it began to turn. Chicken had to be eaten the day it was plucked. Beef and pork were safe for a day or two at most. Pickling, salting and drying allowed fresh food to be kept longer but altered the taste, texture and often the nutrition of the food.
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 summer?
Frederic Tudor (1783-1864) thought he had the answer. A businessman from Boston, he developed the process of harvesting ice in winter from frozen ponds and streams, and transporting it by rail and ship to well-insulated "ice houses" throughout the world for summer cooling. By keeping it insulated, Tudor could ship ice as far as 16,000 miles to Calcutta, India.
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.
The quiet of David Thoreau's Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts was shattered 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.
The ice trade was nationwide by 1870, revolutionizing the meat, poultry, vegetable and fruit industries, and enabling the introduction of a whole range of new drinks and foods, including commercial ice cream, which the nation delightedly consumed in massive quantities, giving rise to the corner ice cream parlor in nearly every city and town in Victorian America.
But, where ice truly revolutionized the Victorian diet was in the refrigeration of railroad cars.
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 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 Missouri River that bordered its rival cities offered no such convenience.
By the mid-1880s ice was being produced mechanically in commercial ice plants. Just one company, Pacific Fruit Express, which shipped iced fruits and vegetables from California to Eastern cities, owned 18 artificial ice plants by 1899 and produced over a million tons of ice annually. And, this was just that one company. There were hundreds. Every major and minor city had an ice plant, often combined with a food locker in which homemakers could store food at near-freezing temperatures, a boon in the years before mechanical refrigeration made home freezers possible.
Lincoln's plant, Valley Ice, was built in the 1890s and is still a going concern at its original location for over 100 years (although now owned by Arctic Glacier), providing packaged ice to bars, restaurants, and groceries throughout the Lincoln area.
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. Department 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 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.
Concerned consumers could send suspicious food samples to government-funded laboratories at Experiment Stations across the country. Food producers and manufacturers could use the USDA stamp of approval to weed out competitors who sold adulterated products. It was not very effective.
By 1880 the dangers of food adulteration were well known. The Bureau under the leadership of progressive food reformer Harvey Washington Wiley had documented food adulteration practices in the U.S. in great detail in a series of bulletins entitled "Foods and Food Adulteration" but it lacked the authority to do anything about it. The Department of Agriculture recommended a national food safety law to Congress but it was defeated by the lobbying efforts of liquor manufacturers and purveyors of patent medicines.
Losing 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, who voted with their purses, 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.
Wiley also consulted with food companies themselves to improve their product. 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.
While Congress dithered and stalled, the food safety problem grew. Sulphuric acid was used to spike vinegar to increased acidity. Chalk, bone meal and even pipe clay were reportedly added to flour to make commercial bread whiter. (Although this is probably an urban myth. Frederick Filby in his A History of Food Adulteration & Analysis (1934) reported baking bread with these adulterants and finding that these are all easily detected in the finished product, and would fool no one.). Pickles were colored with copper salts to make them greener, and cayenne pepper and cheddar cheese with red lead or vermilion (mercury sulfide) to impart a more vibrant red color.
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 green vegetables were commonly dosed with copper compounds to enliven their green color. 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.
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).
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.
After the war Army General Nelson A. Miles demanded a court of inquiry into what he called the "embalmed beef" sold to the Army by the big three Chicago meat packers, which resulted in the resignation of the Secretary of War, Russell A. Alger, and scathing criticism of the meat packing industry by the popular press but no prosecutions, and no additional food regulation by Congress.
Victorian Processed Foods
As a result of the uncertainty about the safety of processed foods, Victorians were slow to adopt them. It was not until the early part of the 20th century when, in response to egregious food adulteration and packing house scandals, 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 most famous 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. 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. Its 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 graced a great many dinner tables from its founding in 1875.
The McIlhenny Company introduced TabascoNote 6 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.
The Rev. Sylvester Graham invented Graham crackers made from unbleached flour 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 very 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.
Philadelphia Cream Cheese appeared in 1872, invented by dairyman William A. Lawrence in Chester, New York as an American version of the soft European cheeses like Neufchatel. It had no association whatsoever with Philadelphia. The name was adopted solely because the Philadelphia region had a national reputation for quality cheese-making. The company is now part of Kraft Foods.
Dry oat cereal flakes were introduced in 1877 by the Quaker Mill Company. It was followed in 1884 by Cerealine Flakes, a dry cereal product made from corn grits, and Kellogg's Corn Flakes in 1896 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.
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 as "candied popcorn and peanuts". It got its current name in 1896 but did not become a kids' favorite 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). It became indelibly associated with baseball in 1908 when composer Albert Von Tilzer wrote "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. 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 developed in the mid-19th century. They 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,
"Without attempting any such systematic employment of time, and carrying it out, so far as they can control circumstances, most women are rather driven along by the daily occurrences of life: so that, instead of being the intelligent regulators of their own time, they are the mere sport of circumstances."
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,
"There should be ample space for tables, chairs, range, sink, and cupboards, yet the room should not be so large as to necessitate too many steps. A very good size for the ordinary dwelling is 16 x 18 feet."
Kellogg constantly referred to the kitchen as "The Household Workshop" that should have a single function, that of preparing meals, and identified in detail the appliances, fixtures, utensils, and equipment required for that purpose. Her goal was to equip the kitchen everything necessary but nothing that was not necessary. She observed,
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 1948 semi-biographical novel, Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of her children. 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. Taylor became one of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement that dominated industrial management theory in the late Victorian Age and 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. She was instrumental in the development of modern kitchen design, conceiving the "work triangle" and linear kitchen layouts that are often used today.
Her 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".
Her observations were not limited to the kitchen. Chapters of the book covered the efficient scheduling of household tasks, the housewife as purchasing agent, how to manage household finances, record keeping, efficient cooking, and the development of efficient habits, to name just a few.
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."
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)