A lot has changed since the turn of the century with the design of the American kitchen. From appliances to cabinets and work stations, the look has continued to become more modern and sleek to match the climate of an overall home style. But many homeowners are finding themselves pining for the character and simplicity that retro and old-day features had to offer.
The Hoosier cabinet with its furniture style approach and the old kitchen work area with a long and resilient surface have been missed through the advancement of compact spaces and streamlined cooking. The art of cooking has returned with chopping up fresh vegetables and herbs on cutting boards. Historic homes are rising as a choice over the modern kitchen and open dining room to add the distinctive flavor of the past.
The kitchen in the early part of the 20th century was small. It packed in a workspace for other activities, and it would contain a sink, drainboard and counter on each side. A gas or wood burning range with table was common. Some cabinets were built-in and shelving was open with common access to free-standing cupboards. Nowadays, a free-standing pantry cabinet is used as additional storage in a smaller space where a built-in pantry isn’t possible.
Kitchens would rise in prominence during the 1920’s and would be efficiently designed. This design was the brainchild of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, an Austrian architect. The design would be known as a “Frankfurt Kitchen” which also had baking essentials and cooking bins on a countertop for ease of access.
Table of Contents
- Styles that Support Period Kitchens
- Returning to a Timeless Era
- Frequently Asked Questions
Styles that Support Period Kitchens
The era of your home has a lot to do with how you can get your kitchen to flow. The modern straight lines and sleek appearance of a contemporary kitchen may clash with Victorian homes that feature wide-open countertops and wall-covered plate racks. However, contemporary style is one of the easiest styles to update to a Victorian kitchen with just a few changes. The floor plans that support a contemporary style kitchen are not hard to use in a period kitchen.
The Victorian era began in 1837 and ended when Queen Victoria died in 1901. However, many saw this period extended to the beginning of WW11. The biggest change in turning a contemporary-style kitchen into a Victorian kitchen is replacing the hardware and/or cabinet fronts. Farmhouse kitchen sinks are another feature that the early 1900’s graced in the Victorian style of the house.
Ornate door and drawer handles, shaker-style door fronts, and decorate moulding with wide crown moulding around the ceiling and stove can make a tremendous change from contemporary to Victorian-era look.
Around 1869, Harriet Beecher Stowe published The American Woman’s Home, a take on home economics of this time. It explained the concept of kitchen design in North America and stayed popular for years. Being explained as the ‘heart of the home’, design details and the popular dining area in this room became the highlight of conversations everywhere.
Where today’s kitchens have built-in cabinets and appliances, food prep areas relayed on freestanding tables, small tables, and a long kitchen table for meals. and conversation. Not everyone had the means to do all the fancy work that represented the grace of the Victorian era and the Depression from 1930-to 1945 brought changes that were more affordable to families. Light fixtures became key in offering illumination to the area where much work for meal preparation needed to be done. Ceiling lights and indirect soffit lighting were introduced to create a more natural setting for light. Of course, this is the one area that has been vastly improved and kept as one of the modern conveniences of today’s living. Many other improvements, like warm water heater capacity and city water availability, have also been modernized.
Open shelving and freestanding workstations began to disappear as enclosed cabinets were built and installed during the 1920s. Easy reach kitchen cabinetry and double duty counter space began to appear and the sweet detail of freestanding cupboards and tables were removed.
1920s farmhouse original kitchen styles can still be found in older homes that were built in the pre-depression era. Food storage would have been placed in a flour bin, bread box, and butler’s pantry. A back porch was common off of the kitchen where large pots and pans could be stored. Only the basics were found with very few style elements to add aesthetics.
The 1930s and 1940s brought big changes to the American kitchen. Cleanliness became a factor with stoves, ovens, and refrigerators. New materials, like stainless steel, were introduced for countertops, and tile backsplash was common. Where color had been lacking, blues and greens began to pop up in floors, walls, and cabinet space. Metal cabinets made an appearance during this time and were called ‘vermin-proof’. The scare of polio was real and metal was the one material that rodents could not chew through. However, metal dented, it could rust and showed fingerprints. White was the only color available and by the 1950s when colors were introduced, metal was on its way out.
Returning to a Timeless Era
Creating your own perfect kitchen that is timeless in design is possible by incorporating the new with the old. By capturing the style characteristics of the early 1900’s warmth and charm and keeping the easy access of the cooking area of kitchens today, the wish list of your favorite time period can be accomplished.
Large changes in kitchen remodeling to recreate an earlier period often require hiring a general contractor and getting a design consultation. For research on your own, the Old House Journal is the perfect place to start for ideas. You will find that kitchens in the past were not fond of an open floor plan, like an adjoining living room but still had many square feet. Built-in cabinets and appliances of today or an added laundry room take away from the actual size of the room by extending out from the walls. You would be surprised at how large your kitchen appears when cabinets, appliances, and other add-ons have been removed. A larger space, to begin with, can let you realize the substantial room that older kitchens had.
It would take custom home builders to have the insight for storage and odd-sized period appliances to duplicate a scene from the pre-1910 kitchen. But there are design suggestions that can bring a timeless look and feel to your modernized kitchen.
The easiest transformation of making a timeless kitchen is replacing cabinet door fronts and hardware. Wood has always been an easily accessible material that could be designed for wood countertops, floors and cabinets. Shaker cabinet drawer and door fronts have been used since before the turn of the century. They make a nice design statement as well as being timeless. Hardware was often cup-shaped and perfect for setting the tone of old-fashioned style. There are all sorts of sizes and shapes of cup pulls that will satisfy a country look in any kitchen. Even as the brass finish begins to tarnish, this will create a weathered and period appearance. Install a butler or Belfast sink. You are in luck with these sinks now being quite trendy, but they are also timeless in style and will keep the flavor flowing.
Take that high-seated kitchen island and remove. Replace it with an oblong wooden table that seats at least 6. Whether it is ornate is up to you and the period you have chosen. Victorian era styling was known for its deeply carved furniture. Line any open wall area with shelves or plate racks. If there is room, a freestanding cabinet with tons of doors and drawers will make up for the storage space lacking from a functional kitchen island.
Details are important in creating a timeless kitchen. Think of the items that were available 100 years ago and are still here today. Copper pans and tea kettles, colored glass jars, and hanging brass utensils are a few items that are still used today and add style throughout the room.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you find retro appliances that would look awesome in your new timeless kitchen?
It is possible to buy retro appliances from specialty companies, but they are not cheap. In addition, the time period only goes back 50 to 80 years. Look around at auctions and older homes for buys. Many times a stove will be given away just to haul it off. These antiques are heavy! Take your time and search through specialty companies and maybe that unique piece will show up. This could be the find of the century for your new timeless kitchen.
I actually discovered an amazing retailer for period homes. Called Victorian Emporium, they sell everything to make your period renovation project a success! You will find furniture, fixtures, accessories and other decorative elements to help achieve the period effect you’re looking for.
You will find everything for:
- Victorian Kitchens
- Victoria Bathrooms
What if I don’t want to give up my open area that is shared with a dining room or living room, but still want the feel of a timeless era?
It is not impossible to bring that period kitchen into adjoining rooms with a little thought and preparation. Keep the same color scheme and style in mind. You might be able to extend the wall spaces for an additional storage room. You could also purchase a room divider that was weathered and appropriate for the feel you desire to keep the space separate.
Is it hard to build a butler’s pantry?
A butler’s pantry is nothing more than slim shelves or enclosed doors that were used as a pantry in earlier days. A good carpenter will be able to build this unit to your specifications and style to match your kitchen.
Your new timeless kitchen can be as original or as modern as you like. By changing a few minor or major parts of your room, you will be in awe at the dramatic difference yesterday’s designs can update your kitchen.
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Karen Garton, Senior Writer
Experienced Writer with 20+ years. Demonstrated writing experience includes technical writing, magazines, story writing, and journalist projects. Karen has a powerful media and communication background with academic training from LaSalle University (architecture, interior design) and business college courses. She loves editing novels and contributed to a national art journal. See her detailed profile on Our Team page.