4 Ways History Changed the Modern Kitchen

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There are many people who would agree that the kitchen is the heart of the home. Many American homeowners devote much of their time and money to remodeling their kitchens and according to Home Advisor, the average cost of a kitchen remodel in 2016 was $20,474. Oftentimes, depending on the size of the remodel and appliances installed, this price can easily double. So why spend so much money on a single room of the house? The reasons go back to the fascinating history of the kitchen itself. Here are four ways in which today’s kitchen differs from the kitchens of years past:

1. The rise of the middle class.

Modern kitchens are a part of our dwelling spaces, but this was not always the case. It is true that in the past, the hearth was the center of the home for agrarian or poor families. This was not by choice, but out of necessity, as homes often consisted of a single room. The upper classes had more space and tried to avoid mixing the kitchen with the living areas. In Roman times, the act of cooking was associated with slaves and slaves’ quarters. This perception continued into the Middle Ages. Castle plans kept kitchens in the lower areas, well out of sight. Servants had to use separate stairways to avoid mixing with the nobility. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that the kitchen’s status improved. The expanding middle class wanted to mimic the upper class’s penchant for entertaining, yet they tended not to have much in the way of domestic help. As a result, the kitchen stepped up as an intermediate space for the host to prepare food. With this development, the kitchen became an extension for the rest of the home; it became a respectable space in the house. Today, the walls separating kitchen and dining areas have frequently been removed altogether, creating a new kind of inviting space.
16th century kitchen
16th century kitchen at Cotehele House, Cornwall, England. (photo credit: Home Things Past)

2. Technology brought comfort to the kitchen.

Technology has gone a long way to improve cooking, storage and disposal methods. Before the 18th century, food preparation meant hours of menial labor. This would fall to household servants or the “woman of the house.” On top of this, food spoiled quickly without refrigeration and storage options were limited. Ventilation was also poor, and smoke from wood fires would fill the room with soot and ash. Some key innovations in the 18th-20th centuries revolutionized the kitchen. Cast-iron stoves allowed for food to cook faster. Smokestacks helped to divert smoke away from the kitchen. Plumbing also made food preparation and cleanup far more efficient. Refrigeration, electricity and gas were all pivotal as well to the evolution of the kitchen.
Frankfurt Kitchen
Frankfurt Kitchen
There was also an increased interest in improving efficiency and comfort. The new field of ergonomics in the early 20th century led to the rise of the “Frankfurt Kitchen” designed in 1926 by Austrian architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky. This design became the forerunner of the standardized kitchen. Her design was the result of an exhaustive survey of her potential tenants. She was curious what everyday people wanted from their kitchens and her breakthroughs led to the kitchen layout most of us are familiar with today.

3. Greater options allowed the kitchen to reflect personal style.

The basic design of modern kitchens allows for safe and efficient food preparation. This has, in turn, allowed homeowners to focus instead on style. Pinterest boards, catalogs and various websites and blogs prove that there are endless kitchen styles. Most people nowadays allow the kitchen to blend in with the rest of the home, becoming an extension of it, and essentially, becoming an extension of ourselves. In generations past, there was little emphasis placed on the kitchen’s appearance. One kitchen would closely resemble the next within the same social settings. The reasons for this are tied to the separation of the home from the kitchen and its classification as a utilitarian space.  As the kitchen opened up to the rest of the home, the home opened itself to the kitchen in turn. Mass-production resulted in plenty of options in kitchen appliances, gear and decor. For instance, do we embrace the latest cutting-edge kitchen appliances? Are we a sucker for “As Seen on TV” gimmicks? Or do we avoid both and fall back on tried-and-true traditional methods? The choice is uniquely ours.

4. We (largely) moved past a hand-to-mouth existence.

Our relationship with food has changed radically throughout the years. This simple fact has transformed our kitchens as much as any other factor. For those who don’t consider food security a problem, cooking is more than just ensuring there is food on the table. Cooking has becoming a luxury, a passion, a culinary art. Throughout much of history, food security took precedence. In times when food was abundant, food was used quickly or preserved for later. When food was scarce, various methods were employed to stretch whatever was available. This determined the types and kinds of cooking implements that were used. Simple was better. It is true that food security remains a concern for far too many of us, even in affluent countries. Yet for many others, we have options when it comes to the question of what to eat. Even with so many convenience or fast-food choices available, people increasingly turn to cooking. Some cook for health or money-saving reasons, or simply for the joy of cooking itself. In turn, the rise of highly-specialized kitchen appliances and gadgets reflects this reality. It could be said that the kitchen has come into its own in the 21st century. More than ever before, our kitchens are now communal and personal spaces. The homey modern kitchen has gone full circle as a hearth space once more; it has returned to being a symbol of the home. It is likely our kitchens will continue to change with the times, depending on needs and continually evolving styles. This may be something to keep in mind when you are considering how your kitchen serves as a gathering place for family and friends to enjoy their love for food, how it forms the heart of your home and how it represents you.