The Kitchen of the Future of the Past

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Because I love to cook, kitchen design naturally interests me. Show me a big, beautiful kitchen with dark wood cabinets and gleaming granite countertops and I can picture myself right there, sauteeing garlic and slicing tomatoes and boiling pasta.

Recently, though, I discovered this booklet advertising the Whitehead Work Saving Kitchen of 1937–and I was tickled by it, both for how dated its language is and for how surprisingly “modern” a lot of its features still seem.

“The nearest approach to perfection that science knows.”

The copywriters certainly didn’t stint on hyperbole; they assure the housewife of the thirties that in their kitchens filled with steel cabinets and Monel countertops (Monel was an alloy of mainly nickel and copper), “kitchen chores, as you know them today, are practically abolished.” They assure the little woman that these sanitary, efficient rooms represent “the nearest approach to perfection that science knows.” But my favorite assertion was that the doors and drawers “work with the noiselessness of falling snow.” Cabinets that might inspire you to write haiku about them; how splendid.

The copy is certainly aimed at the lady of the house; the booklet, the copywriters tell us, is “a story that every woman ought to read.” And she can rest easy knowing that the designers have taken pains to ensure that the cabinets harbor “no jutting hinges to catch your dress.”

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But despite all these dated, overblown, and mildly sexist claims, I was surprised at the variety of options one could include in a kitchen more than 75 years ago: A towel-dryer? A bulk-foods drawer? A plate warmer? An electric dishwasher? Special vegetable drawers with louvers to encourage air circulation? And dividers for your cutlery drawer, “step” shelves for your small cans, an under-sink trash can…

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I didn’t expect all that from a pre-war kitchen. These rooms and their accoutrements seem to have been thoughtfully designed, with a genuine goal of making life in the kitchen easier for the American housewife of the 1930s. Granted, the prices for all this culinary luxury weren’t listed–you needed to work with a designer who would create a custom plan and price to suit your needs–but these kitchens, with their designers’ talk of placing the refrigerator “as near the delivery entrance as possible” were clearly intended for higher income households.

So after chuckling-slash-marveling at these kitchens of the past, it might occur to us to ask a pertinent question: How do we fare today in terms of saving steps and effort when it comes not just to cooking, but to taking care of a house? Funny, that. The University of Houston’s Digital History site includes a section on housework; according to this resource, the average housewife in 1924 spent 52 hours each week cooking and cleaning. Half a century later, in 1974, she spent 55 hours doing the same tasks.

No, that’s not a typo. Fifty years later, women were spending more time running their households–not less.

Today? The site claims that cooking and cleaning up after meals takes less time than it did in the past, but housecleaning takes the same amount of time as when our great-grandmothers did it–while shopping, household management, laundry, and childcare take even longer than they did in the early part of the last century.

How can this be? The site quotes an article from a 1930s-era issue of that quintessential women’s magazine, Ladies Home Journal, to provide an explanation:

Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a daily immersion. If our consciences don’t prick us over vacant pie shelves or empty cookie jars, they do over meals in which a vitamin may be omitted or a calorie lacking.

So it takes us longer to get things done because we actually have more things to get done…and also because we obsess over the quality and completion of those tasks. I suppose the upside is that apparently, our houses and our children are cleaner than they ever were, and our meals are ever more delectable.

Is this true? And if it’s true, is it worth it? The latter is a question that I suppose every housewife and househusband has to answer for her or himself…assuming they have the time to ponder such things, what with all the cleaning and cooking and household-running using up most of their prime hours every single day, same as it ever was, here in the 21st century.

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