America’s Kitchens (and the women who shaped them)

Back in January, I went to the New Hampshire Historical Society to take in a long-awaited exhibit called America’s Kitchens.

Sponsored by Historic New England, this exhibit covered the entire history of the kitchen in this country, as well as recipes, cooking techniques, and most importantly, the role/s of women in these important chores.  Although fairly small in scale, it featured not only print materials, but some fascinating antiques, a vintage 50s kitchen complete with appliances, and even a few hands-on displays.  As a real foodie, I’d gone into the exhibit thinking this glimpse into the past would be pure entertainment.  But it left me grappling with my own ignorance.  Although I can recollect recounted snippets of my great grandmother’s and my grandmother’s childhood chores, they’re fuzzy at best.  As a modern woman, I have never known the kitchen as anything but fun.  This exhibit reminded me that until very recent times, the kitchen was anything but.

Historically, cooking and kitchen work fell principally if not solely to females, and before the advent of today’s convenience technologies, the preparation, storage and keeping of food, and all associated & very necessary cleaning tasks were nothing short of grueling.  It’s one thing today to make a choice to cook or clean, but back in the day, women (unless they were wealthy) had NO CHOICE.  Sun up to sun down was devoted to maintaining fires, tending to livestock, working fields, preparing food, feeding families, raising children – and by raising I mean everything involved with their upbringing, be it nursing, changing, teaching, playing, and so on.  All day long there was cleaning to be done, not to mention seasonal activities, like canning, pickling, the smoking and salting of meats, butter making, and more.  And let’s not forget other important tasks like the making and mending of clothes, along with their maintenance.  Laundry alone would take hours of backbreaking labor.  The Whirlpool Corporation (well, technically its predecessor) wasn’t even founded until 1911!!

Women Worked (with a capital W) all day, every day, until they finally dropped dead of exhaustion.  Rarely was there expectation of eventual betterment or any other role to fill.

Home life for our predecessors was more than thankless; it was mandatory indentured servitude.  No wonder women were so eager to escape!  The kitchen was and is the heart of the home, but historically it was also a place of undeniable struggle.  Against hunger, against nature, and against gender roles.  While some women embraced their expected place, you can understand why others railed against it.  Choice, my friends, can make even unappealing tasks palatable.  Which brings me to another interesting point raised by the exhibit.  When American housewives had the finance and good fortune to pass their labor onto others, they happily did so, in the form of paid servants and unpaid slaves.  Interesting to note how often these unburdened women were quick to complain about the poor performance of those toiling on their behalf.

Many modern women, such as yours truly, complain about having to do simple household chores.  We gripe about having to push a vacuum across the floor or wipe down counters with magical germ killing cleaners.  We grudgingly toss clothes into big shiny machines which do ALL THE WORK FOR US.  In comparison to what our forebears had to slog through daily, we’re a bunch of pampered pansies.  But even now, some women struggle just as they always have.  They wash clothes by hand in filthy streams, they draw water from wells, carrying it miles back to their homes – often with their children in tow.  Women are still scraping by, cooking meager food, making clothes by hand, even here in America.  Fortunately, most of us reading this have a choice.  Whether you love or hate the kitchen, you’re not bound to it.  In 2010, women have the luxury of opting out of cooking altogether if they so desire, and some do.

I have been thinking about this exhibit a lot lately, not only because I recently finished reading the excellent accompanying book, but because of my own life circumstance.  I am someone who loves the kitchen, but who is forced to cook out of necessity.  When I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease and told I’d have to give up salt, I traded freedom for health.  Living in a 250 year old home, and spending hours each day in my modern-yet-historic kitchen

I wonder about the women who used to work in these walls.  I envision them laboring in front of the open hearth, baking bread in the beehive oven, having to constantly maintain the fire.  How exhausting it must all have been.  It makes me further appreciate all of the advantages I do have, circa 2010.  Like my beautiful new appliances!  Which do EVERYTHING FOR ME, including cool, cook and clean..  God bless them.

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19 thoughts on “America’s Kitchens (and the women who shaped them)

  1. AMEN.
    We’re on the same cookbook page: Cooking is fun! But it’s not a necessity, it’s a nicety. Not like the days of old AT ALL.
    If I don’t feel like cooking, we won’t starve.

    I try to take things in stride when I whine about having to clean my quesadillia maker or dump out the vacuum canister.
    Then again, who is to say those ladies with rocks who saw other ladies with washboards didn’t feel the same way?

    Your post, however, has inspired me to consider making a batch of molasses bread.

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    1. Then again, who is to say those ladies with rocks who saw other ladies with washboards didn’t feel the same way?

      HAHHH!! Love it!

      As for the cooking.. soon you & Steve will be slave to the wee one and it’s going to be ALL about take out. And order in. And… BOY do I remember those days. We had the BEST burger place down the street.
      Anyway, getting SO excited!! You poor thing, you’re probably so uncomfortable you can’t even sleep. Not long now…!!!

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  2. Seriously. Seriously. SERIOUSLY. I, for one, am thankful thankful thankful. Thankful for dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, and the microwave.

    When I was with my foster family, my daily chore was the dishes…for seven people. (At that’s if no one was invited over.) I stood there in the kitchen for 1 1/2 every dang night doing those stupid dishes by hand and I vowed. Never again.

    And we didn’t have a washing machine when I was growing up. We took our laundry to the laundromat and, for a good two years, when we were carless – we piled the laundry on the back of our bicycles and stuffed into our backpacks and rode down to the laundromat. Sometimes we did the laundry by hand in our tub. Have you ever tried washing towels and jeans by hand??? And people wonder why I tend to wear synthetic fabrics. (No wrinkles, easy to wash with super quick drying time.)

    The dryer was a godsend and I’m just going to assume you know what trying to line dry your laundry in the depth of winter is like.

    As for the microwave? No more being at the whim of any hungry men in my life. (I’d also like to give mad props to the sandwich.) How to put this delicately…”Make your own dang food!”

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    1. Hayden, after reading this let me commend you on: 1) your choice of DANG – a word I would not have been as restrained to use, and 2) your stamina & resilience. Seriously. I don’t think many people could live through the childhood you endured and turn out sane, let alone blossom into one of the most fantabulous individuals EVER. I can appreciate how hardship has shaped you and your fabric preferences. I remember having to wear wet jeans on one occasion – as a kid on vacation abroad, we’d had to do something similar and wash them in the tub. Girlfriend, NOT FUN. And as for the hand washing of the dishes, you know I am NOT ON BOARD with that either. Though I did it, and it made me stronger. (Though I am still climbing the anthill to your Mt. Everest.) LOVE YOU BABE! xo

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      1. The god’s honest truth is that I was ok with all of it (except those stupid dishes!) as long as none of the kids from the neighborhood saw us riding to the laundromat with our matching helmets and crazy jenga style laundry basket towers. I am totally telling that story when our kids are all, “Mom, you’re embarrassing me!” Child, you don’t even know.

        Christy, in you I see so so much strength. Dealing with Meniere’s is no small feat of will. I can’t imaging how exhausting it is, and how much of an attrition it can be on you day after day.

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  3. i do appreciate the modern conveniences of my kitchen because i grew up in a house without two staples–a dishwasher and a microwave. our stove was from the 50s, a huge, antiquated affair with crazy coil burners, and a marigold yellow fridge. fun times.

    i’m thankful for a washer and dryer (though i endlessly gripe about the fact they are 3 floors below me in the dungeon) and am grateful i wasn’t alive in the time of little house on the prairie. there is just no way i could have managed life like that. 🙂 it’s like being amish–ant and i were in lancaster and i asked if he would be amish for a year for a million dollars and he said no. i don’t think i could do it for a week.

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  4. HAH!! John & I were at a CSA picnic in Lancaster a few years ago, held at an Amish farm, and we were *this close* to joining. SERIOUSLY! The farmer was offering to sell us adjacent land on his property. (Guess we passed muster!) I can’t imagine giving up electricity, but the principles are very appealing. Saying what you mean, keeping your word, dressing plainly and being humble. You can see we decided to continue living “In the World,” but are trying to be better people. Which works some days.. hah!

    PS: I think it’s safe to say, We ALL love our appliances!! Hope this post makes people take a moment to say THANK YOU and go hug their fridge.

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  5. This is a great post! Thanks for adding the pic of your amazing kitchen. I love it!
    I do admire the women of the early 1900’s, but I am thankful for the choices I have with my modern kitchen and the ease of completing chores, such as throwing in a load of laundry at 11pm and staying up long enough to put it in the dryer. 😉

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  6. Great food for thought. It reminded me of the pioneer women — those brave souls who travelled across the US in hopes of building a better life for their families in the mid-west or west. These women had to do these chores you mention while travelling across the country in covered wagons, often pregnant as well. I know there is a great push on in today’s day and age for growing your own food and getting back to the markets. And also I’m grateful for the modern day convenience of the grocery store/fruit market, etc as I cannot imagine having to carry enough food for a family to last for weeks at a time, much less preparing it under these conditions.

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  7. Christy, I always love your posts, a fine tribute to women of that time and you are a fine example of hard work, thriftiness and creativity in this era! I adore modern conveniences and get cranky when the electricity goes off!
    Spoiled, yep. One of my memories from childhood…visiting my Oma in Germany and going to the cellar to wash clothes on a wooden table, they did have a ringer type machine that got the excess water out so you could hang them on the line. HARD WORK!!! Also, outhouses and a bathtub in the cellar for everyone to use…water had to be heated by fire first. That was in the 1960’s. P.S. Hayden, I had to wash dishes every night (only 5 people)and if there was one spot on something I had to wash EVERYTHING over. I WORSHIP my dishwasher!!! P.P.S. I have that white pitcher and the dishes with that design 🙂

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  8. Hi there! Thanks for your recent comments on my blog. It’s been awhile since I’ve visited your site too. Isn’t it funny how blog reading goes in cycles sometimes?

    This American’s Kitchesn exhibits sounds fascinating! I wish I had known about it when it was still in New Hampshire. Oh well.

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