State Historic Site
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2007 - December 2007
FROM A SMALL, hot, dark and dirty place located in the furthest reaches of the home, the modern kitchen of the early 20th Century was expected to emerge into a clean haven of creativity where the housewife could turn out magnificent meals for her family on a daily basis. That this was not always the case didn't seem to bother manufacturers or their ad men! After the invention of the electric and gas stoves, it took years for them to find their way into the majority of American homes. Even so, advertisers stayed on task – making modern utilities sound like domestic miracle-workers:
Is there then not some new equipment that you need? Have you the major pieces of equipment which do so much to change housekeeping into homemaking? There are modern ranges with oven temperature regulators ... mechanical refrigerators which no housewife could possibly do without after once having had one; and dishwashers that save time and labor. Then, too, there are the small devices equally important in the kitchen activities of preparing, cooking and clearing away meals, such as small electric beaters and mixers for cakes, mayonnaise and eggs.
ELECTRIC & GAS STOVES, RANGES & OVENS
The first electric stove was patented in the 1890s. Unfortunately for the patent holders, it was a long time before the invention found its way into the average household. At that time, few homes outside major metropolitan areas were wired for the amount of electricity needed to power such stoves. Instead, gas stoves were the first "modern" kitchen appliances, introduced in the 1880s.
Made to burn manufactured, natural or compressed gas, these ranges were particularly popular in urban and suburban areas. Sheridan's first gas stoves began to appear in the late 1910s, powered by manufactured gas created from Tongue River Valley Coal (natural gas arrived via pipeline from southern Johnson County in 1930). The new stoves had many advantages over wood and coal-burning models: they were smaller, cleaner, more easily regulated, and cooler. With insulated sides and a smaller cooktop, both gas and electric stoves put out far less heat than their predecessors. In the 1930s, the Standard Gas Equipment Corporation marketed its Smoothtop range by pointing out the benefits of its insulation:
Cook in a cool kitchen this summer with Smoothtop’s insulated oven. Cold cuts, vegetable salads, jellied soups, preserves – all those cool delicacies which the family loves for summer-time meals – these all have to be cooked first! This means heat somewhere in your kitchen. Now you can do your summer roasting, baking, oven canning – in a kitchen as cool as outdoors. Smoothtop’s insulated oven will prepare a whole summer-time meal, and will so perfectly keep its heat within itself that you can touch its outer wall while meat roasts in the oven. Think what this marvelous new Smoothtop gas range with its new insulated oven will mean to you this summer.
Companies famous for their wood/coal ranges – Monarch and Majestic, for example – readily entered the gas/electric market. While touting the benefits of their modern wares, however, they didn't forget the fact that many did not have access to modern utilities:
The secret of happier cooks and better cooking. Cook with electricity on a Monarch electric range. That’s the secret, as thousands of women have already discovered. No wonder Monarch is the choice of good cooks! Long before the days of electric cooking – way back when your mother cooked with coal and wood – Monarch was a favored household name . ... No matter what the requirements of your kitchen, there is a Monarch Electric Range that fulfills them perfectly.
Interested in appealing to all markets, companies also marketed apartment-sized ranges. Since the majority of city-dwellers lived in apartments, this proved to be an excellent strategy.
The first artificial refrigeration was demonstrated in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1748, but nothing came of it. A century later, physician John Gorrie used compressed gas vapors to cool yellow fever victims in Florida. In 1851, he received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration. Commercial refrigeration began to appear in the 1850s, but refrigerators small enough to fit in the average American home were not introduced until the 1910s. Between 1911 and 1918, over two dozen home refrigerators had been introduced by such companies as General Electric, Frigidaire and Kelvinator. Costing twice the price of a new car, a refrigerator was seen by some as being more important than the automobile in terms of its benefits to society.
Refrigeration was one of the greatest boons to the early 20th Century homemaker. No longer did she have to worry about cleaning up after wet and dirty ice deliveries – the refrigerator cooled itself without ice. She could buy food in larger quantities, thus saving time and money going to the store. Because the refrigerator kept food icy cold, the homemaker didn’t have to worry as much about food spoilage leading to illness. For the majority of families without a garden in which to grow vegetables and raise livestock, the advent of the refrigerator – combined with the development of the modern supermarket – led to a more varied diet as well as better health due to improved nutrition.
Even though refrigerators were expensive, manufacturers were not shy about touting their many benefits. In fact, several went so far as to imply that a woman wasn't a good mother unless she had a refrigerator:
You, as a conscientious mother, buy the best food for your children, prepare it with scrupulous care and cook it correctly. Yet, in spite of all, you may be giving your children food which is unwholesome – even dangerous! For even the best food becomes unsafe to eat unless it is kept at the proper degree of cold, which medical authorities agree should be 50 degrees or less – always. ... There is only one way to be sure that your children’s food is fresh and healthful – correct refrigeration.
Another development destined to lighten the load of kitchen workers everywhere was the automatic dishwasher. Built right into the sink, the electric dishwasher, such as this 1927 Kohler, promised an end to “thrice-daily drudgery”:
Every clever woman has wondered, rebelliously and often, whether the dishes would always have to be washed by hand. They won’t. The modern sink has arrived. It is electrified. It is the Kohler Electric Sink. Now you can wash the dishes with one finger – the finger that presses the button – and not get that finger wet. Think of being able to end for the rest of your life, the thrice-daily drudgery of dishwashing! It’s rather wonderful, isn’t it?
The early 20th Century housewife (or hired cook) had a myriad of electrical appliances to aid her in preparing meals for her family and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. From toasters, percolators and egg cookers, to juicers, mixers and ice melters – if electricity could make a job easier, manufacturers found a way to create an “electric servant” to help:
The electrical equipment that Mother needs and probably wants, or wants and probably needs, are endless. For the table, she has the toaster, the percolator, the waffle iron, doughnut-baker, pancake griddle, grill, teapot, egg boiler and other things to choose from.
With all these appliances, one might begin to worry about safety concerns - both the appliances themselves and the electrical circuits to which they were connected. And that was a valid concern: during a test by Underwriters Laboratories in 1911, one early open-wire toaster burst into flame after six minutes! Even after manufacturers addressed safety concerns, there were problems. In the early 1930s, numerous house fires were caused by refrigerators which had been tampered with by owners seeking to bypass overload protection devices. As for household wiring, manufacturers and homebuilders alike recommended over-wiring rather than risk putting too much strain on an under-wired system:
When you plug in your toaster or percolator, have you ever noticed how the lights dimmed for a moment? If you have, perhaps the circuit in your home is slightly overloaded and it would be well to run a new one for your toaster. ... Separate circuits for the toaster in the dining-room and in the breakfast-room, a separate circuit for the electric fan, the refrigerator, the range, for the outdoor lights, and for your light over the distributing panel, as well as for the ironing-board and bathroom-heater outlets.
Better Homes & Gardens, 1930 (Georgen Collection, TESHS)
Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)