A history of the kitchen, from pot to pack in 10 steps
As part of a new BBC series, Lucy Worsley takes you through the evolution of your ancestors’ kitchens
In the new series ‘If Walls Could Talk’ coming soon to BBC4, the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, has been uncovering the hidden histories of even the most ordinary of homes. Kitchen design has had a tremendous impact on the lives of men and especially women throughout the centuries. Here, to tie in with episode four, are the ten transformations that turned your ancestors’ kitchens into what you have in your own home today…
1. The hearthstone and the cooking pot
The one-room medieval peasant’s dwelling contained a central, open hearth. A hearthstone, a flat rock, provided the base for a fire. Over it hung an iron pot with a rounded bottom. Although it can’t be stood on a table, a round-bottomed pot has many advantages. It’s easy to make, to nestle into a sandy floor, or to sit upon an iron tripod. To stir your pot without getting burnt you needed a very long-handled wooden spoon.
This very simple technology is extremely effective and endured for centuries. You can throw any food that comes to hand into your pot to make the soup called ‘pottage’. Cooking away all day without the need for much attention, pottage was the ubiquitous dish of your medieval forebears.
You can even cook numerous items simultaneously in a single iron pot, wrapped in cloths, or separated by wooden dividers. In early twentieth-century Oxfordshire, the rural family described in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) still eat a whole dinner cooked in a cauldron: a small square of bacon; boiled vegetables; a pudding in muslin.
2. The spit
In the homes of the great men of medieval England, the high-status and expensive food of fresh meat was roast over an open fire. The cost of such a luxurious dinner lay partly in the labour needed to cook it, as the roasting spit was a labour-intensive device requiring constant turning. It was hot, hard work, and the sweaty and dirty turnspit boys of the Tudor royal kitchens were commanded to smarten up, no longer to ‘go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now’. The attraction of soft, roasted meat was so powerful that even today we talk about a Sunday ‘roast’ when we’re referring to meat that technically has been baked.
3. The dog-wheel
This is an amusing dead-end in the history of the kitchen! Human spit-boys were replaced in Georgian England by the dog-turned spit, in which a specially-bred ‘turnspit’ dog from Pembrokeshire was employed.
Bred to have long bodies and short legs, these turnspit dogs looked a little like sausage dogs. Charles Darwin commented on their shape as an example of genetic engineering. They worked in teams of two, taking turns to run inside a wheel linked by shafts and chains to a spit. But the dogs were not completely reliable. In 1723 the tycoon William Cotesworth of Gateshead gave up on his dog-wheel and demanded its removal, ‘to keep the dog from the fire, the wheel out of the way and the dog prevented from shitting upon everything it could’.
In due course the turnspit dogs died out completely as a breed, but you can see one (stuffed) at Abergavenny Museum.
4. The range
The industrial age brought with it the seismic shift from open fire to enclosed kitchen range. Steps along the way included the American Count Rumford’s eponymous ‘stove’, the neat grate and enclosed iron surround that could be introduced into wide and wasteful hearths.
While it could hold several pots, Romford’s original design was too big for many homes. But it held the germ of the idea of the kitchen range. In due course, this ubiquitous piece of iron equipment contained a fuel-efficient stove, an oven, a boiler to provide continual hot water, and hot plate, all in one. Every range had its own quirks, and needed careful handling to limit its fuel consumption to the recommended monthly half-ton of coal. ‘Each housewife should study the draughts … so that she may be able to direct the cook how best to get good results from the amount of coal burned’, advised the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1897.
Like the expensive and finely-tuned instrument that it was, the range needed careful cleaning and maintenance. It required ‘blacking’ twice a week, first thing in the morning, a process that took about ninety minutes. The ‘black lead’ polish was brushed into the iron surfaces, then buffed up to a shine. I know from my own experience of blacking the range at Shugborough Hall for the programme that the ‘black’ refuses to budge from beneath the finger nails for at least a week.
5. The saucepan
With the flat-topped range replacing the open fire, the round-bottomed pot was replaced by the flat-bottomed saucepan. Late Georgian consumers needed little persuading that saucepans came in ‘sets’, and that one’s set should be complete. Stone and Company, advertising in The Times (1788), informed readers that they had ‘greatly improved their sets of Tin Ware, which renders it the most wholesome and cheapest furniture in use, and preferable to others offered to the public’. Such adverts surely created a desire where none had existed before.
These saucepans were usually copper with a tin lining. Copper could, over time, react with the acid in food to create a poison, so the tin was vital to keep the copper away from the food. If the tin lining became worn, it had to be replaced or the pan could potentially poison. This was the role of the ‘tinker’ roving from door to kitchen door.
6. The ‘Regulo’
Until the ‘Regulo’ or thermostat was invented, people couldn’t follow a recipe accurately because they had to guess how hot their cooker or oven was. A ‘Regulo’ was an early thermostat for a gas cooker, appearing in 1923, and was marketed as ‘an inestimable boon to our wives and daughters, enabling them to prepare for us, with the minimum of attention, a repast cooked with automatic precision’.
7. The fridge
Artificial refrigeration was first seen in 1748 when William Cullen gave a demonstration at the University of Glasgow of a freezing machine that worked by the turning of a handle. As so often, though, he was ahead of his time, and no one saw the commercial possibilities in his idea. Most of your ancestors went on using simple ice-boxes to keep their food fresh. The ice-box was a kind of wooden cupboard, well insulated with cork, lined with tin or zinc, and filled with food and lumps of ice bought from a roving ice-wagon.
The fridge didn’t really catch on until electrical supplies were standardised by the construction of the National Grid in the 1930s. Fridges were initially rather glamorous possessions, and their owners might invite their friends to a ‘refrigerator party’ where each course was pre-prepared and then whipped from its own shelf in the fridge. Cookbooks from the period show guests in evening dress gathered in the kitchen to enjoy the novelty of eating an entire meal of cold food.
8. The fitted kitchen
The fitted kitchen was in fact a German invention, first appearing in 1926 in a Frankfurt social housing project. These so-called ‘Frankfurt kitchens’ were inspired by the narrow galley kitchens of railway trains, and the space they contained was tight but very well-planned. Shockingly modern to contemporary eyes, they had work surfaces which pulled out like drawers and draining boards on hinges which could be folded away. In them the housewife was conceived as an engineer, quickly and efficiently turning out meals; in fact the design was partly intended to free up time which could be spent instead in Germany’s factories.
One of the early home-grown British fitted kitchen designs was ‘The English Rose’ of 1948, intended to use up the industrial-strength aluminium which had been stockpiled for building Spitfires.
9. The foodie
In the 1980s a new sub-culture was born: the ‘foodie’. This epicurean, yet amateur cook, had existed previously, but a work published in 1984 by Paul Levy and Ann Barr, The Official Foodie Handbook, really marks the term’s coming of age. ‘Foodies’ are interested in where their food comes from and what it tastes like: to them, the smell of a chicken roasting or a cake baking is central to ideas of home. With this the kitchen was no longer just a place for housewives or for servants. Since the 1980s, it’s been restored to its medieval place at the heart of many homes.
10. The ready meal
A very cheeky 1970s billboard for Kentucky Fried Chicken read, simply, ‘Women’s Liberation’, and the production of most food has now been transferred from the domestic to the public realm. What the Tudors used to call ‘dressing victuals’ is now broken down between extremely specialist producers all over the world. When we look at the history of the kitchen, it’s sometimes like looking back to a lost realm holding less and less meaning for us today. The impressive kitchens found in show-homes are for looking, not cooking. Some people use their ovens as extra cupboards and their microwaves instead of their hobs. Their rare meals eaten at home are ordered ready-prepared via the internet.
But perhaps with global financial chaos this is beginning to change. Only a couple of years ago, it seemed that ‘foodies’ were the few people who still cared about their kitchens. Yet a slight movement in the direction of back-to-basics is apparent in our dining habits, partly as a result of the efforts of the chef-turned-public-health-expert Jamie Oliver. In 2003 only 24% of Britons said that they ‘always cooked from scratch’, but today this has risen to 41%.
I wonder if our own descendants will still have and use kitchens in centuries to come? It seems to me that that the jury’s out.
Read more in ‘If Walls Could Talk’ by Lucy Worsley, published by Faber&Faber in April, £20.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley