Wow! How cooking your food has changed over the last 140 years ago.


Credit: Courtesy of Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Centre, Pennsburg, Pa.

For close to a hundred years the cast iron cook stove was a fixture in American and Australian farm kitchens. In the 1930s, rural electrification offered rural families the promise of the convenience and cleanliness of the all electric kitchen. Gone would be the drudgery of chopping and transporting wood, the feeding of fuel and cleaning out of the ashes, the stove-top heating of water for dishes and bathing, and sweating over a hot stove in summer. Gone, too, would be the pleasure of warming by the kitchen stove and another piece of rural self-sufficiency.

However I don’t think chopping wood and cleaning out a fuel stove is drudgery at all, given the pleasure it gives, the cheap heating you gain and the amazing way it cooks food. In fact some of the best sour dough and slow cooked meat, fish and vegetables I’ve ever tasted have come out of my 1890 Younger’s No 3 fuel stove – made in Sydney’s Oxford’s Street before cars were common place. Unfortunately due to more rules and regulations factories can pump out huge amounts of pollution, as do cars but you can’t have an open fire a few nights a year?

Anyway, fortunately in the country we can still have open fires and cook on fuel stoves and there’s surge back to the slow way of cooking foods. needless to say you don’t have to use a Victorian fuel range to do this, as there a stack of new fuel stoves that are brilliant to cook on too these days.

We decided to restore our 1882 kitchen back to the way it was originally, but with a few modern comforts disguised to fit in. Part of that restoration was our fuel stove, salvaged from a wreckers yard not far from us – although it has taken me nearly 8 years to find all the parts to get it operating and I’m still missing a couple of bits, which I will find any day. The last pieces I found recently we’re found at a swap meet, someone’s front garden and online. The Younger No 3 fitted perfectly into the recess in the old chimney, so I reckon the original fuel stove that had been removed decades ago was very similar to this one.


The Younger No 3 Sydney – c 1890 – 1905.

Talking about old fuel stoves and old kitchens, here is a brilliant link and article on kitchens – fuel stoves and how cooking changed dramatically between 1890 and 1920.

Historic Kitchens 1890 to 1920: Design and Development

© Stuart Stark, Heritage Consultant

Please note – All text and images Copyright © Historic Media 2007-2008

Kitchens are rarely photographed, being seen as utilitarian rooms, and not something worth being recorded for posterity. While every home has a kitchen, information on historic kitchens is more difficult to research than most other rooms of a house.


A rare kitchen photograph from Victoria, B.C. c1900, showing the lady of the house at her “NEW HOUSEHOLD” range. A hot water tank is behind, connected to the stove to provide hot water for washing and bathing.

For people wanting to ‘restore’ a Victorian kitchen (pre 1900) for their own use, they usually are approaching it from a romantic viewpoint, rather than from creating a workable room for food preparation. An Edwardian kitchen (1900 – 1920) on the other hand, is usually worth restoring , as those rooms can be easily adapted to encompass most everything that we count on as being essential in a modern kitchen.

Between 1890 and 1920, everything to do with kitchens changed: Food availability and storage; type of food; the lack of servants – who actually made living possible for families – and technology of providing water, fuel and refrigeration.  Even the introduction of central heating reduced peoples’ reliance on the kitchen stove for heating the house.

Victorian kitchens – those before 1900 – mostly had not changed a great deal since Georgian times in the early 1800’s. They had a fireplace or a ‘range’ (a built-in-to-the- chimney stove) for cooking, a dresser to keep china on, and a kitchen table for food preparation, at a back-breaking low height. Refrigeration was mostly non-existent, unless one was wealthy and had an ice house. Ice boxes could keep food cold for a short period.

Other forms of food preservation was used, including salting, and canning, by many households.  Root cellars could keep potatoes, and other produce through the winter.      


Pallant House Gallery and Historic site, Chichester, England c1820. Restored kitchen. This kitchen is typical for the Georgian to late Victoria period. A ‘range’ in the chimney, a dresser and a kitchen table were the expected usual requirements, though using a table for food preparation was back-breaking work. 


Kitchen, Point Ellice House Historic Site, Victoria B.C. A built in range was used for food preparation and heating. This house was lived in by the same family from the  1860’s through 1960’s.The house is open to the public. See: 

Ranges and kitchen stoves in Victorian houses required constant fuel – even in summer – and the resulting heat in the house could be overwhelming to the housewives and servants tasked with food preparation. Water for baths and washing clothes and dishes also had to be heated on the stoves, so there was no let-up with the heating requirements in the house. It was hard, physical work.


 Plan of a house c1890. The kitchen shows only a sink as being a permanent installation. The chimney beside the sink would be for the stove, which would be connected to the stove by an overhead stovepipe. The stove would likely have had a copper boiler attached to heat hot water. The bathroom behind the chimney was located close to the stove for ease of providing hot water, and warm air for bathing. This bathroom had no toilet facilities: the house had an earth closet on the back porch for sanitary reasons. The pantry would do double duty for food storage and storage for dishes and other utensils. 

Around 1900, all things to do with houses were taken over by an exciting wave of modernization. A new type of housing in the form of California Bungalows became popular across North America.  Street cars made it possible to buy food from grocery stores in smaller quantities, making bulk food storage unnecessary. City water was connected to most houses between 1900 and 1920 in towns and cities, making wells, and carrying water outdated.  Water heaters were connected to stoves, allowing hot water for both sinks and baths to be conveniently available. And ice boxes were common in homes, soon to be replaced by early refrigerators, which were introduced in the 1920’s.

Combined with this progress was the introduction (and understanding) of the necessity for better sanitary and waste water disposal, both for convenience and for health reasons.

Kitchen cupboards and counters were introduced in the early years of the 1900’s. Tops of counters were wood initially, which was an understandable design transfer of the familiar wood from the kitchen table being used for newly designed countertops. But the quest for the best counter top started then, and has not stopped to this day. Slate, linoleum, arborite, granite, quartz, stainless steel, and other material for countertops, have all been used as designers try to solve the countertop conundrum.


An early installation of kitchen cupboards c1905. Wood counter tops and sink drains were common to begin with. Note the lack of ‘toe-kick’ space. The floor is patterned linoleum. Here it is a ‘mosaic’ lino, which was popular through the 1890’s into the 1910’s. Small pieces of different coloured lino were glued into patterns at the factory and available in rolls. Printed linoleums became popular – known as “Art squares” – from 1905 through the 1920’s and later. 

Below are a few samples of linoleum from a 1914-15 catalogue from a Scottish linoleum company – world-wide suppliers of linoleum – showing a range of printed linoleums suitable for kitchens.

Screen-shot-2014-01-27-at-9.23.51-AM-470x624 Screen-shot-2014-01-27-at-9.24.05-AM-470x318


A butler’s pantry (1910) between kitchen and dining room was used for storing dishes, glasses and serving pieces. The wood cupboards and counter are similar to those that would have originally been in the kitchen. Again, there is no ‘toe-space’ at floor level. 
Mackie House Historic Site 

After 1900 ‘Home economics’ was being taught for the first time, treating home planning and operation as more of a science, rather than mere survival.

In 1902, an “Ideal Kitchen” was described in ‘House Beautiful’ magazine:

            “Something along the lines of a Pullman-car kitchen, or a yacht’s galley or a laboratory [or] the scientific cleanliness of a surgery”

And in 1907, ‘Sanitary News’ wrote: 

            “the modern American home must have a perfect system of hot and cold water  supply; an inoffensive and sanitary system of disposing of household wastes; an adequate system of automatically controlled heating combined with ventilating; and a convenient complete system of artificial lighting”

These changes, though desirable, did not happen overnight. Many homes did not modernize until much later.  In homes where the unmarried daughter lived on in her parents’ house until her death – as late as the 1970’s or 1980’s – often nothing changed in the house.


An unchanged kitchen in an 1893 house with original wainscoting and a 1920’s stove. Note the drying rack over the stove controlled by a pulley system and a towel rack behind the stove. Photograph taken 1983. 


Two pictures from another ‘unchanged’ home. The stove, dating from around 1915 was still in use, as was the sink with its angled wooden draining boards. The original tongue and groove wainscoting was still in place from c1895. Photographs taken 1980’s.


By the 1920’s, modernization – for most households – was thoroughly underway.

Running water was in most homes in towns and cities, and gas was introduced as well, providing heat when required, with no hauling coal or wood to keep the fires burning.


An early photograph of a kitchen with gas burning range, connected to a hot water tank, supplying hot water to the kitchen sink, as well as the bathtub elsewhere in the house.

By the 1920’s refrigeration was more common, though initially dangerous, poisonous gases were used for cooling, until Freon gas was discovered as a safer alternative. Kitchens, now painted (or “enamelled”) in gloss white oil paint, were easier to keep clean – part of the new wave of ‘sanitary’ spaces that were likened to “the scientific cleanliness of a surgery”. And ‘toe-space’ under the cabinets was introduced to most kitchens. This handy invention was claimed to have been invented by a Seattle company who said, proudly: “This is progress!”


Kitchen from the 1920’s: white and sanitary. A major development from only a generation earlier.

Kitchens are the focal point of our lives, and in many ways, the most important room in the house. Look at what features might be original in your house and see if you can incorporate them into your preservation and renovation project.  Original cupboards can often be retained, and so can sinks and tiles with some careful care and attention.

If you are not able to keep original features, they can often be recreated. New cabinets can hide new appliances, and a kitchen can be built that is ‘timeless’. It will be functional and appropriate to the history and style of the house. It will not ‘date’ within a few years, requiring yet another expensive ‘redo’. Let the house tell you what it wants.


A new kitchen in the style of an Edwardian kitchen, incorporating all the modern conveniences, but being appropriate to the age of the historic house. The floor is Battleship linoleum, and the cupboards are based on old designs from the 1908 to 1912 period. Another design feature is to make cupboards look like separate pieces of furniture, and not connect the counter at back left, allowing an extra bank of convenient drawers, and a more ‘period’ feel to the room. By using historic design elements that are sympathetic to the house, the design of the kitchen will not ‘date’, or look out of place, as a ‘new’ kitchen would, in only a few years.

Check out this link too – just crammed full of great historical stuff on old houses and the people who restore them properly!!


6 thoughts on “Wow! How cooking your food has changed over the last 140 years ago.

  1. Great post! The kitchen in the very last photo is beautiful, but the food coming out of it probably isn’t as tasty or healthy as the food that was made in the earliest kitchens you show. I want the kitchen in Victoria, BC 🙂

    • Many thanks for the email, being a chef I too found it fascinating! I particularly love the early kitchen photos, I guess I was meant to live in another culinary time! Cheers, Steve.

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