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The Post-War Retro Mid-Century Kitchen
Among their other contributions to the American home, the Levitt brothers largely invented the modern, fitted kitchen characterized by wall-to-wall built-in cabinetry and appliances tucked into recesses.
The concept of built-in kitchens had been around for decades. As early as In 1912 researchers such as Christine Frederick began to apply the principles of industrial time and motion concepts to domestic tasks. Her book, The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, suggested the concept of a kitchen workspace organized like a factory with materials and tools conveniently stored and arranged.
Another pioneering domestic engineer, Lillian Moller Gilbreth began applying rudimentary ergonomic principles to household work through her own time and motion studies in the 1920s.
She discovered that much of the time required for meal preparation involved moving among the three major work centers: sink, refrigerator (or icebox), and range. If this movement could be minimized, the time required to prepare meals could be vastly decreased. She created the kitchen work triangle to graphically illustrate how these three centers should be arranged for maximum efficiency.
But, perhaps even more important to modern kitchen planning was the ultimate refinement by Katharine A. Fisher of the concept of the task-centric workspace first proposed by Christine Frederick.
A director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, author, and columnist for Good Housekeeping Magazine, she wrote a series of widely read columns about kitchen efficiency beginning in 1925 in which she proposed grouping kitchen tasks factory style, according to purpose and materials, and assigning each task to its own workstation.
Cabinets within easy reach of the workstation would hold all the implements and ingredients required to complete the task. Sounds basic to us today but it was revolutionary at the time. Everything in "daily use" should be "in view" and right at hand. Her ideas are central to modern kitchen planning.
Katharine A. Fisher: You can read some of the original Fisher columns written for Good Housekeeping at the online library maintained by Purdue University.)
In 1944, the President of the University of Illinois at Urbana, Arthur C. Willard, anticipating the post-war house-building boom, ordered the formation of the Small Homes Council to research housing issues.
By war's end, the Council had already published a number of research findings on kitchen organization, which eventually became Kitchen Design Rules published by the National Kitchen and Bath Association, the cornerstone of kitchen design for the past half-century.
By the time the Levitts began considering kitchen design, the basic principles had already been well established:
Click a thumbnail to view details of the Levittown kitchen.
The standard 1950s Levittown kitchen as it looked on move-in day – in pinkish – as recreated by the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
This well-organized kitchen contained everything the post-war homemaker needed to prepare family meals and take care of the laundry while keeping an eye on the kids in the backyard and all in a 10' x 12' footprint.
- The three main tasks performed in the kitchen: preparation, cooking, and cleanup should occupy their own workstations.
- All of the implements needed to accomplish the tasks to be performed at each work station should be close at hand.
- The refrigerator and pantry should anchor the food preparation station, the sink should be the center of the cleanup area, and the range the focus of the cooking area.
- These three centers should be arranged in a triangle, neither too large nor too small.
- Every surface in the kitchen should be sanitary and easy to clean.
The Levittown Kitchen
The universities and columnists may have had the theory but the Levitts had the design know-how and production genius necessary to actually get the job done. They incorporated the first widely available, affordable, modern kitchen into their houses.
The new kitchens were fabulous selling points, and the Levitts promoted them heavily and very successfully. The chance that a post-war husband would get out of buying a Levitt house after mom had seen that kitchen was too small to be measured by the scientific instruments of the time.
Retro Small Appliances
You picked a great retro-style refrigerator and range; even your dishwasher looks like it was built during the Truman administration. But, now your Euro-modern stainless Italian-designed, German-made espresso machine looks more than a little out of place. What to do?
No worries. There are scads of retro appliances to finish off your mid-century kitchen; and although they look like they were built more than a half-century ago, their innards are completely up to date.
Coffee-Bar Essential With retro switches and a long-life aluminum boiler, this miniaturized commercial espresso and cappuccino-maker looks like what an espresso maker could have looked like if there had been espresso makers 60 years ago. The racks on top even keep cups warm. The Cafe Retro, about $400.00, from Walmart.com.
Step Back in Time Cuisinart offers several hand mixers that take their styling straight out of the 1930s. This hand mixer's chrome finish is the perfect complement to a retro-styled kitchen, and it's a hard worker as well. The 220-watt motor packs enough power to mix a double batch of chocolate chip cookie dough without slowing down. From the Kitchen On-Line Store, about $50.00.
The Ultimate 1950s Appliance In post-war society, the Waring Blender was so essential to that new suburban institution, the cocktail party, that many kitchens had Waring blenders built right into the countertop. If you forgot to add a Waring Blender to your countertop, no matter, Waring still makes the PBB212 professional bar blender, barely changed since its debut in the 1940s. In a variety of retro colors from the Kitchen Universe, about $100.00.
The Golden Newbie Sunbeam's Heritage toaster is a redesign of its 1940's "Toastmaster" deco model with modern features including extra-wide slots to accommodate thick bagels and muffins.
The toaster's food select buttons include bagel, pastry, and toast with seven toast-shade settings. In addition, it has an option for heating things up without drying them out. Self-adjusting centering guides ensure that bread is perfectly aligned for even browning on both sides. Who knew it took so much technology just to scorch bread? In polished chrome (and some other colors but stick with the original chrome). From Amazon.com, about $25.00.
The Kitchen King Kitchen Aid made its first stand mixer in 1919 and hasn't changed it very much since. Every attachment will fit every mixer, back to 1919. If you got it right the first time, why mess with it? The mixer is so iconic that its familiar bullet silhouette is trademarked, and it even has its own fan club. It mixes, blends, folds, beats, whips, slices, juices, grinds, chops, shucks, mills, kneads, rices, shreds, churns, stuffs, polishes, purees, grates, opens cans, sharpens knives, and makes pasta and ice cream. Whew!
Available in just about every retro color you can think of, and a few you probably can't – more than 40 all told, including basic white.
Even the less expensive mixers are lifetime appliances – maybe several lifetimes. Has anyone ever had a Kitchenaid mixer break? Available nearly anywhere, $300-600 depending on model and accessories.
The Other Kitchen King If you don't need quite this much mixer, try the Sunbeam Heritage Mixer, a reissue of the original MixMaster first made in 1930. From Walmart.com for about $120.00. More people have owned a MixMaster than any other single appliance in American history. Thousands are still in use, and it is the only kitchen appliance ever to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
It featured durable and hygienic enameled steel cabinets (faster to install than wood cabinets), revolutionary Formica® laminate countertops, a single-spout mixing valve faucet, a Waring® blender base built right into the countertop, an electric range with oven, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, and a built-in chopping block next to the sink.
It was an absolute miracle of function and organization. All of the basic household services were placed in one conveniently arranged location: cooking, laundry, clean up, storage; with a view of the kids playing in the backyard.
It was so widely copied that it quickly became the new standard American kitchen. Virtually all kitchen innovation since the Levitt kitchen has been a mere refinement of the basic modern kitchen born in the genius of Alfred and William Levitt in the immediate post-war years.
Retro Kitchen Cabinets
Enameled steel kitchen cabinets were very popular in the immediate Post-War years, but in the end, wood cabinets prevailed, primarily due to price – steel cabinets were expensive – but also due to a preference for the warmer, less industrial look of well-finished wood.
Enameled Steel Cabinets
Consumers were familiar with enamel-on-steel as the preferred material for kitchen work tables and upscale pre-war Hoosier cabinets.
Steel was promoted by companies such as Mullins Manufacturing (later Youngstown Cabinets by American Standard), Geneva, and St. Charles as early as the 1930s as the vermin-proof, sanitary alternative to wood.
Once steel was no longer needed for the war effort and consumer production resumed, steel cabinets regained popularity and status as the high-end material for kitchens, which is one of the reasons the Levitts selected enameled steel for their houses. White was the most common color for steel cabinets, followed by turquoise and yellow.
Its heyday lasted less than two decades, however, and by the mid-1960s steel kitchens had all but disappeared.
In part the problem was price – these were expensive kitchens – but also because they could be easily dented and scratched, and they rusted, especially around the sink.
Touch-up paint was included by most manufacturers to treat scratches but nothing could be done about the rust and dents.
They were also hard to fit. Wood cabinets are designed to be trimmed if necessary to fit perfectly into a kitchen. Steel cabinets could not be made to trim and fit, so the kitchen had to be exactly sized to fit the cabinets.
Post-war builders were reluctant to take on the extra headache of dealing with steel cabinets, so their use in post-war housing was never widespread. Even the Levitts had dropped them by the 1960s.
In the early post-war years, wood cabinets were made on-site as they had always been, by specialized carpenters.
But, very quickly the industry was taken over by factories that could make cabinets for less cost – the beginning of the mass-production manufactured cabinet that is still with us today.
Standardized sizes and modular design made it fairly simple to mix and match cabinets to fit a particular space.
Post-war wood cabinets were minimalist and functional with plain cabinet doors and drawers.
Plywood eliminated the need to frame cabinets to control wood movement making slab doors the most common style and birch plywood the most common material – initially due to the huge amounts of birch plywood left over from the War, and later because it had become the accepted standard.
Post-War Kitchen Decor
The usual cabinet finish was just varnish without any stain or paint in an off-hite or one of the pastels. Bright, appliance white was shunned in favor or eggshell, ivory, cream, and vanilla.
Bold colors were imported using paint, wallpaper, countertop laminates, and tile.
Colors were vibrant and in hues rarely seen today with names like flamingo pink, lemon-lemon, and peach blossom.
Walls were usually painted with a washable enamel, but if wallpaper was used, it was Like the rest of the Retro palette, boldly patterned in bright, cheerful colors.
Typical kitchen refinements included drop soffits, Venetian blinds, and a built-in breakfast nook.
If the builder did not provide a nook, a table of tubular chrome steel with a laminate top and matching chrome and vinyl chairs were added for informal kitchen dining.
At least one corner or end cabinet would be outfitted with open shelves for Mom's cookbooks. Colorful Melamine dinnerware completed the mid-century modern look.
Millions of these kitchens were built; most have, unfortunately, been "updated". But, the look is coming back as "50s-Retro".
Vintage steel cabinets, chrome and vinyl kitchen table sets, and even 50s appliances, if in good shape, are commanding impressive prices in antique markets, and just about all of these are being widely reproduced.
The mid-century kitchen was usually well thought out and functional but small for the purpose into which it very quickly evolved – the social center of the home. Kitchen design did not really catch up with this revolution in kitchen status for nearly 25 years but somehow Post-War American families made their little kitchens work.
By the 1960s with the addition of a built-in dishwasher, disposer, undercabinet lighting, and the powered range vent, the modern kitchen came into being. The only significant innovation since that time is the microwave.
Reproducing a Retro Kitchen
Most of these have since been painted but the paint is relatively simple to remove and the original varnished finish restored.
Most cabinet doors were simply lipped sheets of plywood with exposed hinges and mechanical or magnetic catches.
Cabinet corners were often rounded – reproducing the look of Scandinavian design. The simple, unadorned cabinet designs fit in well with the unadorned Scandinavian furnishings of the day.
For more on Post-War and other cabinet door styles, see Cabinet Basics)
For true authenticity, countertops should be ceramic tile or laminate. Laminates were often edged in chrome trim but if not, should have a square or diamond edge treatment.
Ceramic tile was also used, and the tile was often carried up the wall to the bottom of the wall cabinets. Tile patterns were typically bold as were the colors.
Solid surfacing with a laminate look would work. The key is to keep the square edge typical of the period. Granite and manufactured stone tops would be out completely of character in a Retro-50s kitchen.
High-Pressure Decorative Laminate (HPDL) such as Formica® and Wilsonart® was the first engineered countertop material and is still the favorite of American homeowners. It out sells all other countertop materials combined and is installed in 70% of American kitchens.
Decorative laminate is made of paper layers and thermosetting phenolic resins. As many as 18 layers make up the final product. The bottom layers are Kraft paper, the same brown paper used in grocery bags, soaked in a phenolic resin. These give the material its rigidity.
Decorative laminate is made of paper layers and thermosetting phenolic resins. As many as 18 layers make up the final product. The bottom layers are Kraft paper – the same brown paper used in grocery bags – soaked in a phenolic resin. These give the material its rigidity.
Tile is a good choice for long-lasting countertops.
Tile has gotten a reputation for being difficult to keep clean. But, it was not the glazed tile that was the culprit but the cement-based grout that stained easily and collected dirt.
New urethane and epoxy grouts have eliminated the problem with grout, making tile one of the best choices for durable, beautiful countertops.
The tile should be brightly colored but largely monochromatic. Fancy tile designs were not a feature of the Post-War style.
For much more information on countertop choices for a mid-century kitchen, see New & Traditional Countertop Choices.
Post-War Kitchen Flooring
Sheet linoleum was also used. True linoleum is once again available, and in authentic colors and patterns for the period. A contemporary substitute that is easier to care for is vinyl sheet flooring in Retro colors and patterns.
Slate and oak strip flooring are also authentic. In an upscale kitchen ceramic tile could be found, again in bold patterns and bright colors.
For more about flooring options for kitchens and baths with ratings see Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths.
Retro Minimalist Moldings
The moldings in a mid-century modern kitchen should be plain and understated. Complex moldings were not a design feature of the style. Moldings were largely treated as a necessary evil, needed to hide wall edges but were de-emphasized as much as possible. In many instances they were painted in the same color as the walls, reemphasizing them further.
It is certainly permissible to use completely modern appliances in your mid-century modern kitchen. But, it would be vastly improved with retro-look appliances.
Many are available. Big Chill makes a complete line of retro appliances, including a dishwasher. Elmira Stove Works makes a dishwasher panel to attach to any dishwasher for a retro look, and a range vent as well as a retro-range and refrigerator.
These reproduction appliances have all the functionality of modern appliances but feature an authentic style and period colors such as Buick Red, Lemon Yellow, Flamingo Pink, and Robin's Egg Blue as well as White, Bisque, Orange, and Black.
Smeg offers a line of refrigerators with a "50s retro style aesthetic" in a variety of interesting colors. Smeg Portofino pro-style six burner ranges, although more contemporary in design, are available in multiple colors and would work in a reproduction mid-century kitchen.
Chambers brand appliances include retro-look refrigerators in several color options. These are apartment-sized appliances. The bottom-freezer refrigerator is a narrow 22" width which makes it an option where kitchen space is at a premium.
Some original appliances are worth considering, primarily ranges. The technology of gas ranges has not changed much in the past 60 years, so gas ranges in good condition from the 1950s still work well. You might want to update the range with electronic ignition to replace the wasteful and sometimes dangerous pilot light.
A number of companies rebuild vintage ranges with modern innards. Among these are The Antique Appliance Company and Good Time Stove Company. Or, find a used appliance dealer in your area. He can probably direct you to an old-timer who upgrades vintage ranges, stoves, and ovens.
Plumbing Fixtures and Fittings
The easier-to-use single-handle faucet made its appearance in new housing, made possible by the cylinder sleeve faucet valve invented by Al Moen, it quickly became the preferred faucet in 1950s "modern" kitchens.
All-inclusive dishwashing systems such as the Dishmaster® faucet reduced the drudgery of te after-dinner cleanup.
Integrated sinks designed to fit into and flush with the countertops dominated post-war kitchens. Most sinks were mounted using an innovative metal frame informally known as a "hootie" ring, which became a defining feature of mid-century kitchen sinks.
Invented by engineers at Walter Selick and Co. and patented in 1948, it was called a sink frame or sink rim in catalogs. The name hootie is evidently a corruption of "Hudee" the name given to the device by its manufacturer.
It became an almost universal feature of mid-century kitchens until it fell out of favor in the mid-1960s, replaced by increasingly popular undermount sinks.
The Hootie Ring: The hootie ring is still manufactured by Vance Industries which has been making hootie rings since 1949 and is now the world's largest manufacturer of the product. Sinks designed to be installed with hootie rings are available from Kohler Co.
Sinks themselves were reinvented during the post-war period.
The vast majority of pre-War sinks were cast iron or steel coated with a porcelain enamel to prevent rusting. Bare metal sinks were rare and considered upscale. Prior to the War were usually made of copper or a copper-zinc alloy called Monel (or "German Metal"). Monel was the preferred material because, unlike pure copper, it did not tarnish and require extensive upkeep. These sinks were expensive, however, and usually found only in commercial and upscale home kitchens.
Monel disappeared during the World War. Copper was a critical strategic material reserved for the war effort from 1942 to 1945. It was not available for civilian products like kitchen sinks. Stainless steel picked up the slack.
Sinks made from stainless steel had been introduced by Elkay Manufacturing in 1935, but these early sinks were labor-intensive, requiring a considerable amount of handwork to manufacture.
The sinks were ususally made with an integrated drainboard on one of both sides. Some were as long as eight feet, and many were custom made to exactly fit a row of cabinets. They were a luxury item until 1948 when the company perfected the process of forming (or drawing) sink bowls over a die, eliminating most welding and cutting manufacturing costs in half.
To watch an Elkay stainless stell double-bowl sink being made, go to this by How It's Made.
Elkay stainless sinks became affordable additions to the new houses going up everywhere and by 1960 Elkay was a household name and the largest maker of stainless steel sinks in the world. Its process for draw-forming steel sinks is now used by every stainless steel sink maker on earth.
Sinks were not the only kitchen necessities to undergo big changes during and after the World War. Faucets saw a sea change in the 1940s with the invention of the single-handle faucet with its revolutionary washerless valve.
Al Moen invented the valve over a five-year period starting in 1937. He patented the device in 1942. Manufacturing was delayed by the World War which reserved the brass needed to manufacture faucets for war production. The first single-handle faucets did not roll off the assembly line until 1947. They sold for $12.00 (about $130.00 in today's inflated dollars).
The single-handle design was much easier to use, even with hands covered in cookie dough, and was in high demand for Post-War modern kitchens. Its success was the key factor that propelled the growth of Moen faucet to one of the two largest faucet companies in North America.
Delta soon followed with its own single-handle faucet built around its revolutionary washerless ball valve. Thousands of Moen and Delta single-handle faucets with the original washerless valves are still in use.
In new faucets, the washerless valves have been replaced by more durable ceramic cartridges. But, look-alike faucets in the original 1950s styling are still being sold by Delta and Moen as well as dozens of other companies.
Moen's was not the only faucet innovation of the 1940's.
The year 1948 saw the introduction of the legendary Dishmaster® kitchen faucet by Mansville Manufacturing of Pontiac, Michigan. Essentially a dishwashing system, the faucet, which could be wall- or sink-mounted, included a brush for washing dishes under a continuous stream of water flowing through the brush handle, and a dispenser that metered soap into the stream of water at the push of a button.
Mansfield manufactured several models of the Dishmaster, mostly in chrome, but also in a variety of "custom decorator coordinated colors" including Sunshine Yellow, Avocado Green, Flower Orange, Satin Black to complement the colored sinks and appliances popular in the 1970s. The faucet saw a decrease in sales as dishwashers were installed in more and more kitchens. But, it has been resurrected by Silverstream LLC, a company that now owns the trademark and has reintroduced some of the more popular Dishmaster faucet models.
Most Requested Kitchen Feature
Many post-war kitchens are small – very small. We have seen them as small as 8'x7', much too small by any measure.
The idea of kitchen as a family social center had not occurred to mid-century architects. Kitchens were considered utility rooms, like the bathroom, to be kept as small as possible to add space to the living areas of the house. Now that we generally view kitchens as part of the living area - in fact, probably the most important part - the space is just not there. While there is much that can be done to refresh and improve even a small kitchen, if it is a too-small kitchen, the only choice may be to make it bigger.
There are a number of tried and true options for getting more space for that dream kitchen, however. We can remove a dividing wall between the kitchen and another room, add a small bump-out to the kitchen, or even a full addition to greatly expand the space.
All of these possibilities are more fully explored in Finding Some More Kitchen Space.
The Post-War Bathroom
The post-war bathroom was small and like the rest of the period's decor, minimalist.
Architects of the period considered the bath to be a utility room, like the kitchen, furnace room, and laundry, it had to be just large enough to do its job, without taking space away from really important rooms like the living and formal dining rooms.
The rooms were designed to be just large enough to hold a toilet, sink, and tub, typically 5' x 7' or, in upscale houses, 5' x 9' .... (Continues)