Food-Prep Places: History of the Kitchen

Once relegated to the outdoors, a cellar or an outbuilding, the kitchen has become the central ingredient of our houses and our domestic activities: It's where we cook and eat, connect and socialize, do homework and office work, play and relax.

But initially, the kitchen wasn't a room; it was a roving task, accomplished wherever there was heat and/or water — and later (much later), refrigeration. Considering the amount of time and money we invest in modern kitchens, it's hard to imagine that they were once structurally and functionally annexed spaces – and before that, nothing more than an outdoor fire pit and a lake or stream.

Cooking was primarily an outdoor project until the development of chimneys and fireplaces (and eventually wood- and coal-burning stoves) enabled people to prepare food indoors. The cooking space, called the hearth room or keeping room, tended to be smoky and soot-coated. The inventions of gas and electric cooking ranges during the 1800s and 1900s helped to clear the air – and simplified the art of tweaking cooking temperatures.

An indoor kitchen was beneficial if you lived in a cold climate. In the summer, however, the extra heat was a detriment, so culinary pursuits seasonally migrated back outside or to a separate building. In warm climates, remote kitchens were needed year-round until the mid-1900s, when modern air conditioning and ventilation systems became prevalent.

In addition to excessive heat, smoke and cooking odors made food preparation a grungy chore best kept away from living areas. From medieval times on, at wealthier estates servants performed cooking chores in a cellar or a separate building to shield masters and their guests from the unpleasant realities of food preparation.

With the industrialization of the 1800s, urban crowding demanded compact multifamily housing and infrastructure – especially water-supply lines and waste-removal systems. Bringing water indoors required sinks, faucets and drains, improving convenience and dramatically affecting kitchen design. Gas lines brought fuel to cooking ranges, water heaters and furnaces. Whether in apartments or city houses, kitchens finally had a place on the floor plan — near the rear, but nevertheless a place.

Efficiency and utility became the hallmarks of kitchen development. Even during the early 1900s, the science of ergonomics and time-motion studies drove kitchen innovation. German designer Friedemir Poggenpohl incorporated these principles into his kitchens; his company went on to establish standardized dimensions and layouts that are still applied in modern kitchen design. In the 1930s the Frankfurt kitchen, a 70-sq.-ft. modernist design by Austrian architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, became a model of compact work kitchens.

During the post-World War II housing boom, mass-produced cabinets made larger kitchens more affordable. Electric refrigerators and small appliances quickly became part of the everyday home kitchen. Gradually, the idea of incorporating the dining area into the kitchen became more palatable, and as open floor plans became popular, the kitchen was ultimately invited into the family room. In a mutually beneficial way, kitchen advancements have greatly improved our lifestyle, and our lifestyle trends have in turn influenced kitchen design.

Designed for small government-housing units, the highly efficient Frankfurt kitchen (shown in the photo above) was also intended as a catalyst for social change, as it enabled homemakers to have more time to work in offices and factories.