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Understanding the Victorian Kitchen
The Victorian kitchen cannot be easily understood apart from the technologies and the cultural and social trends of the day.
Technologies such as indoor plumbing, the kitchen stove, and the icebox had an enormous influence on kitchen work and on how kitchens were outfitted and organized.
Social and cultural trends also had an enormous impact.
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 substantial improvements over what had gone before.
The most impactful, at least in its effect on the development of the kitchen, was plumbing.
Indoor plumbing allowed the sink to be brought into the house, banishing the laborious process of hauling water in buckets for cooking and washing up.
Almost as important was the kitchen cookstove which replaced the iron kettle in an open hearth for cooking.
First heated by wood or coal, early stoves were large, complex, and dangerous but a huge improvement over the Colonial fireplace. Natural gas in the latter part of the 19th century made possible cookstoves that were safer and simpler to use, requiring much less maintenance.
Lastly, the icebox made it possible to store foods safely for longer periods, a capability that dramatically improved the American diet.
The Victorian period began to change that. It saw the beginning of the food industry, the national and even international 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.
These innovations paved the way for the modern kitchen. But the Victorian kitchen was not itself a modern kitchen. It did not, for example, have electricity until very late in the period, and only in a few major cities.
Far more importantly, however, its basic organizing principle was entirely different, which is why it really is not possible to recreate a Victorian kitchen just by installing some Victorian-looking cabinets and a few accessories. It takes an entirely new (or rather entirely old) approach to kitchen design.
The Inwardly Oriented Victorian Kitchen
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 along "exterior lines".
The chief advantage of the arrangement was 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 in meal preparation.
Only a few Victorian families had hired cooks. Our modern perception (based apparently on old British movies) that anyone well-off enough to own a house was probably able to afford a cook is far from reality. In actual fact, according to the census records of the period, barely 25% of Victorian middle-class households had servants of any kind, and most of these were part-time.
Obviously, creating an inwardly oriented Victorian kitchen requires a lot of space. We calculate that the minimum size for a Victorian kitchen is 11' x 16', larger is better. Luckily, most Victorian homes either have the space or can create the space with a little wall re-arranging.
An inward-oriented kitchen fits a modern lifestyle. In many ways, the inward kitchen makes kitchen tasks easier by having most functions centrally located. Those who have inward kitchen rave about them, and how functional they truly are.
Which, of course, begs the question: if kitchens oriented inward are so useful, why did we ever change to outward-oriented kitchens?
The answer is simple: houses got smaller, as did kitchens, culminating in the shoebox-size Post-War kitchen.
The advent of inexpensive fitted cabinetry made small outward kitchens functional for the smaller families of the modern era, and home builders, ever eager to save on building costs, opted for the smaller kitchen over the inward kitchen that required more space.
That may be changing, however. Since the 1980s the kitchen has gotten larger, then larger, and larger still until it has reached the point of becoming too big to be functional as an outward-oriented kitchen.
Fitted cabinets along the perimeter walls do not actually work very well in large outward-oriented kitchens.
Sarah Susanka, of Not So Big House fame, estimates that the largest practical size for a fitted kitchen is 12" x 15". For a larger space, the kitchen design is more functional if its orientation is inward toward a central workstation that today is more likely to be an island rather than a sturdy table.
The Unfitted Victorian Kitchen
A second major difference between the Victorian kitchen and kitchens of today is the absence of built-in cabinetry. Victorian kitchens were furnished, not fitted,
In modern kitchens, cabinets are fixtures attached to the walls and floor. They form the work surfaces with storage conveniently located below in drawers and on shelves concealed by decorative doors.
In a Victorian kitchen cabinets were furniture, free-standing and movable. Work surfaces and storage were usually separate.
Work surfaces were tables. Storage was in cupboards, dressers, larders, and safes supplemented with open shelves and hooks on walls (and sometimes ceiling) for pots and pans as needed.
Storage in a Victorian Kitchen
There was not much to store in a Victorian kitchen, so storage was basic.
Servingware and dishes would be stored on open shelves, pots and pans on hooks or overhead racks. There was very little need for food storage. The food to be consumed in a day was purchased, picked, or slaughtered that day.
Only a very few staples were kept for more than a few days: flour, sugar, salt, and perhaps lard, baking soda, and some home-canned vegetables.
Add to these the very few factory-processed canned goods and bottled sauces and condiments, and we have all of the food likely to be in kept for more than a day or two in a Victorian kitchen.
Fitted cabinets in a Victorian kitchen were just not needed. Were they needed the Victorians would certainly have invented them.
In a modern Victorian kitchen reproduction, however, some fitted cabinetry is almost inevitable — if only to provide a place to mount a dishwasher.
Cabinets will seem more at home, however, if they look very much like furniture. (See the "Kennebec Victorian Kitchen above.)
Victorian Kitchen Plumbing
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. So are sanitary sewer systems to carry away household waste, treat it, and return it safely to the environment. All of these civilizing improvements began during the Victorian years. … (Continues)