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Hearth to Hearth: What is a Kitchen?

Hearth to Hearth: What is a Kitchen – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2003

by Alice Ross

When is a kitchen not a kitchen? Hard to say. If you look in the dictionaries, they tell you that for over 1,000 years, such English terms as cycene, kycchen, and ketching have meant “the place in a house where cooking is done.” For most of this long stretch of time it was not necessarily a separate room, but simply the cooking fire itself – an unstructured area without provision for smoke. With no special venting, the fire’s vapors found their own paths through the thatch roof or open eaves, contributing to a dim, dingy atmosphere. For the vast majority the “kitchen” was a designated spot on the floor (often of tamped-earth), usually smack-dab in the middle of a one-room dwelling. It not only produced meals, but it also kept the house warm, heated water, provided limited lighting, and served a dozen other tasks. It was far from the specialized food space developed by the wealthy.

On the other hand aristocratic kitchens maintained distinctly dedicated cooking areas. They produced larger quantities of food and in considerably greater variety. The owners considered it highly desirable that the work, noise, odors, heat, and danger be removed from their spaces, both private or public, so that their senses would not be “offended.” Great American mansions were influenced by appropriate British arrangements, among them the designs of noted architect William Auld (England, 1778), whose kitchen “ells” were placed in distant wings of the main house. Sometimes they adapted the large cellar-kitchen complexes that may be seen today in the early 17th-century Ham House restoration (Surrey, England). These were staffed by professionally-trained chefs and a hierarchy of assistants and were appropriately outfitted with equipment not usually found in modest home kitchens. “Hot kitchens” with great fireplaces contained wind-up clock jacks (mechanical spit-turners like early rotisseries) that turned the spitted and skewered meats on the hearth, but produced a great deal of heat in the room. They were consequently supplemented with “cool kitchens,” separate rooms that maintained the lower temperatures necessary for popular puff pastry delicacies, gelled puddings and jellies, and ice cream. Such professional kitchens were served by adjacent skulleries where the cleaning-up was done, and by storage areas for wine and spirits, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and quantities of staples by the barrel. The cook or housekeeper usually had an adjacent private room and the keys for locked “closets” or pantries to safeguard the most valuable equipment, accessories, and ingredients. It is helpful to examine these elaborate kitchens as they were often well preserved and therefore most written about and visited, but not to be confused with those of average means. It is helpful to make distinctions between the two economic situations.

Other kinds of cooking areas were needed by those without permanent dwellings. These included nomadic gypsies, pastoralists who shepherded flocks and herds to follow pasturage and water, or semi-nomadic Eastern Woodland Native Americans who moved periodically for better soils and un-depleted forests. Such groups often cooked out of doors. This again raises the question of definition: were these firesides, then, “kitchens?”

American kitchens drew on such traditional European kitchen forms, depending on the time, place, and one’s social and economic level. Monticello adapted the “ell” arrangement and early 19th-century Shaker villages used the idea of multiple kitchens in their cellars. Average kitchens generally borrowed appropriate elements from each tradition; tempered by the special conditions of the New World, they formed a uniquely American style.


At the time of American colonization, most Europeans were still locked into small quarters with small smoky all-purpose rooms. These were often the first form of housing for colonial settlers, and predominated among emigrants as they pushed the frontier along. The work of survival and becoming established left only so much time for house-building, after all. The kitchens of the 17th and 18th century bustled with people and a miscellany of activity, particularly as most Americans of the time were agricultural and driven by a wide range of subsistence needs. The first generations to build in the New World may have had only bare-bones equipment – not enough chairs to go around, not enough table space or utensils for everyone to dine together, not enough storage to keep the essentials organized or out of sight. Some of the family sat on the floor to work or eat; sleeping pallets (stuffed mattresses) were unrolled onto the floor at night and stuffed into a corner by day. Although this level of material culture was temporary, it was to be repeated as families gradually moved west, opened new land, and built sod houses, log cabins, and adobe homes. Within a generation it was possible to enlarge the house, using the abundance of land and wood (for both building and for fuel). European newcomers raised their sights and their roofs and installed fireplaces with chimneys. The central fire was on its way out, but the kitchen as an all-purpose room remained intact for some time.

In addition to the usual food tasks, the hearth was the center of intermittent chores such as soap- and candle-making, medicinal preparations, dying, spinning, artesian production, instruction, and the care of children, the ailing and infirm. There was, at first, limited storage space (but also limited numbers of things that needed storage), and arrays of commonly-used equipment of all kinds were in evidence. As generations inherited, expanded, or replaced these early shelters, they were understandably guided by the desire for space, efficiency, and comfort. They were, to the extent possible, influenced by the standards of the wealthy.

Cooking functions took on a larger share of kitchen activity. Farm houses added rooms for socializing or sleeping, and were served by additional outbuildings and sheds that absorbed more of the work. A family with servants or slaves moved its kitchen to the cellar, and subsequently to a separate dependency kitchen or “out-kitchen,” a building just outside the dining room. This was a common feature on southern plantations, but existed on wealthier properties in the north as well. Again associated with growing wealth, these kitchens were almost entirely food-oriented.

Houses in growing nineteenth-century cities were constrained by limited land. If you could not spread out laterally, you could always dig down. Cellar kitchens continued to serve the wealthy. Subterranean cooking rooms required separate entrances in the rear, large bulkhead doors and steps, and mounted pulleys reminiscent of the baronial English estates. In somewhat more modest circumstances the kitchen continued on ground level as a multi-purpose room, but was now situated at the back of the house away from the more formal parlors and dining rooms. The kitchen door was no longer the common entrance for important visitors, and was now used largely by informal family and neighbors. The “front door” brought you to the parlor at the front of the house, where you could make an impression with fashionable furnishings.

The increase of urbanization also affected the kitchen. Numbers of new immigrant women working as domestics added, in many cases, to the family’s social relocation to the dining room. Increasing numbers of multiple dwellings, tenements and apartment houses, accommodated city dwellers. At first, their kitchens were multi-purpose rooms with fireplaces. These were replaced, in time, with the cast-iron cook stove. Running water, faucets, and drains replaced the bucket system. As improvements lessened the work load, additional cooking responsibilities were embraced and filled the void, with the effect of strengthening the kitchen as a food center.

This trend continued until after World War II, the creation of the suburbs, and the automobile. Once again the kitchen moved and shifted its social place. Marketing by car, visiting by car, chores done by car – clearly the driveway and garage would dictate where the kitchen and the kitchen door should be. Supervision of children in the yard or the street demanded kitchen windows with adequate views. Neighborhood visiting increased among women home alone during the day; the koffee klatch became an important break in the day and kitchen decor took on new meaning. Furnishings, cabinetry, color-coordinated appliances, and artistic decoration followed fashions as parlors had, and testified to the room’s renewed social importance. In the 1970s “country kitchens” complete with antiques reflected bicentennial fervor; a generation later “hi-tech” invoked the image of professional cooks. Once again the kitchen was a social center for the family.

For most of us today, the kitchen retains its specialized cooking function. However, in the typical “galley kitchen” of urban co-ops and condos, there is barely room to cook, less to bake, and no window on the sky, no dining table for socialization, no children playing, or fresh air. We distinguish between “cooking areas” and “kitchenettes,” suggesting that cooking no longer needs a room for itself, or perhaps an attempt to follow the dictates of the wealthy and separate the evidence of work from living areas.

Kitchens have shifted away from being the room-of-all-activity to the room-for-all-cookery, to a room-of-little-activity. To stretch the point a bit, it has changed from the home’s work and social center to becoming a place where family members arrange their own meals and eat alone, where some try to cook ahead for the coming work week, and where hobbyists occasionally indulge in a weekend gourmet project. Semi-professional magazines feature expensive showcase kitchens that are large enough to have housed an entire family in the past. Ironically, if the stories are true, they are barely used by their owners who have opted for take-out or restaurant dining.

Perhaps this is a story about the demise of the kitchen and the demise of cooking. They do go together, after all. How then do we define “kitchen” today?

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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