Home & Garden Columns

What Would Stickley Do With a Computer in the Kitchen?

By Jane Powell
Friday August 03, 2007

The Kitchen 

Go to a kitchen showroom or a home improvement store, or open up a shelter magazine, and you will see the contemporary kitchen accoutrements that we have been convinced to lust after: restaurant stoves, built-in stainless steel refrigerators with internet access, granite counters, and so forth. But if your house is historic, which covers everything from Victorian to World War II, you will be doing your home a serious disservice if you give into that lust and install the latest “state-of-the-art “ kitchen.  

The first “modern” kitchens, in the sense that they had stoves, refrigeration, electricity, and plumbing, came about in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Though a kitchen of that era might look primitive now, it was miles ahead of earlier kitchens, where cooking was done in fireplaces, refrigeration was non-existent, and water had to be carried in. By the turn of the twentieth century, the basic kitchen elements we still use were in place: ranges, refrigerators, plumbing, electric lighting, cabinets for storage, and even concepts about efficiency, such as continuous countertops and the work triangle. Though there have been technological advances since then (under-counter dishwashers, microwaves, garbage disposals), these basic elements have remained much the same. 

Nonetheless, the kitchen was, and is, the most complex room in the house. The demands placed on it in earlier times are nothing compared to the demands placed on it now. Then it was a utilitarian space, for the servants or the woman of the house. But now, the kitchen has supplanted the living room as the central place in most homes. Is it possible to have a period kitchen that still meets modern expectations? It depends on your expectations. An exacting reproduction of a 1915 kitchen may not be for everyone- how do you feel about doing the dishes by hand? But with a dishwasher, it could still look like 1915, but you might be a lot happier.  

The elements that make up a historic kitchen are fairly standard, and by picking a combination of appropriate elements, it’s possible to have a kitchen that incorporates modern technology yet still looks right in an older home.  



The right cabinets are the most important element in making a kitchen look period-appropriate. Historically, cabinets were face-framed (as opposed to frameless European-style cabinets), with flush inset frame-and-panel doors (now called “Shaker” doors—square stiles and rails around a flat panel). Overlay doors (still frame and panel) began to appear in the 1920s, influenced by the doors on Hoosier cabinets. (Flat “slab” overlay doors, made of plywood, began to appear in the 1940s.) Panels in the doors could also be glass, either plain or with muntins.  

Drawers were either inset or three-eights inch overlay, with wooden glides. Old cabinets lacked the toe kicks of modern cabinets—the face frame extended down to the floor. (Toe kicks appeared in the 1910s.) The lower cabinets were shallower than the standard 24 inches used today, ranging from 15 to 22 inches deep, though upper cabinets were 12 inches deep and still are. Upper cabinets often hung lower than modern cabinets, 12 to 14 inches above the countertop, rather than the 18 inches now standard. Unlike many modern cabinets, the upper cabinets went all the way to the ceiling, rather than leaving the tops exposed to collect dust and grease, or by filling the gap with a soffit. Custom storage abounded, with tilt-out bins for 50 pound bags of flour and sugar (used now for pet food or recycling), corner cabinet lazy susans, sliding shelves, and so forth. There were also specialty cabinets, including California coolers- a ventilated cabinet with wire or slatted shelves, which used the chimney effect to draw cool air up from the basement or crawlspace, which was used to store foods like potatoes, onions, garlic, even wine. Another specialty cabinet was the built-in ironing board, though many of these have been turned into spice racks. And of course, the hoosier cabinet (now a generic term, Hoosier was one of many manufacturers) was prevalent in many households. There weren’t any kitchen islands as we know them, only worktables, though many work tables had built-in storage. 

Most historic kitchen cabinets locally were made of vertical grain Douglas fir, inexpensive at the time, now more expensive than oak or cherry. Cabinets were either varnished or painted with enamel in shades of off-white to beige, as white was considered “sanitary”, and they were really obsessed with sanitation back then. 

Cabinet hardware was also standardized with ball-tipped mortise hinges, surface-mount butterfly hinges, or offset hinges for overlay doors. Doors latched with spring-loaded cupboard catches, hexagonal glass knobs, or simple wood or brass knobs. Drawers utilized metal bin pulls, glass bridge handles, hexagonal glass knobs, or wood or brass knobs. In the Victorian period, metal hardware often had elaborate patterns formed by lost-wax casting, but after 1900 hardware was much plainer. Metal hardware was usually brass or nickel, until chrome became popular in the mid-1930s.  

Appropriate cabinets are offered by national companies or can be custom-built by local cabinetmakers. Suitable hardware can be found locally or on the web. 



Countertops are the most difficult element, since there is no perfect countertop. In the past, the most prevalent countertop was varnished wood. This is fine in some areas, but problematic around the sink or near the stove. The second most common countertop is ceramic tile. White hexagonal porcelain tiles or other small mosaics were common, although sizes up to 4” by 4” were used. Backsplashes were often subway (3” by 6”) tiles laid like bricks, though 4”by 4” tiles were also employed. Tile was white from the late nineteenth century through the Teens, maybe with a colored border or liner. In the Twenties and beyond, wild color combinations like jadite green and black, burgundy and yellow, lavender and peach, and even three and four color combinations began to be used, although white continued throughout. The third most popular countertop, surprisingly, was linoleum- it held up well on the floor so why not on the counter? I am referring to real linoleum, which was invented in 1863 and consists of linseed oil, cork, ground limestone, and pigments on a burlap backing. It is a green alternative to highly toxic vinyl.  

Stone countertops were rare—there might be a marble pastry slab in an upper middle class kitchen, and occasionally soapstone or slate would be installed, but granite is very wrong for a historic kitchen. And contrary to the hype, stone is actually porous and requires sealing. 

I detest Corian, but some of the newer composite materials aren’t too bad. Products like Fireslate, Silestone, Richlite and even concrete have an appropriate look. Even some patterns of laminate, with a matte finish and a wooden edge molding, look decent. It is legitimate to use different countertop materials in different areas of the kitchen- tile or stone near the sink and stove, wood or linoleum elsewhere.  



Kitchen floors used one-inch by four-inch tongue-and-groove boards of the same old growth Douglas fir as the cabinets, either varnished, painted, or covered with linoleum. Occasionally hardwood flooring (oak or maple) was installed. Fancier houses sometimes had ceramic tile floors, either hexagonal tiles or quarry tiles. 


Sinks and Faucets 

Sinks were almost always white porcelain over cast-iron. There were two kinds- sinks with built-in drainboards and backsplashes, which were wall-hung, but often had decorative legs, or occasionally sat on top of cabinets, and undermount or tile-in sinks, which were set into tiled countertops. Undermount sinks are still widely available. Farmhouse-style sinks were primarily used in the 19th century. Butler’s pantries utilized small copper or nickel silver sinks, these softer metals thought less likely to chip the fine china which was washed in the butler’s pantry rather than the kitchen. The nickel-plated faucets were wall-mounted, rather than deck-mounted as most are today. In the 19th century, the faucet would have had separate hot and cold taps, but by the 20th century, mixing faucets with cross or lever handles were the norm. 



Vintage stoves are currently popular, and you could pay up to $30,000 for a restored double oven Magic Chef. You could also pick up a perfectly good 1940s Wedgewood on Craigslist for $500 or less, or a restored stove for somewhere between $1200 and $3000. If you want more of the modern stuff like electronic ignition and sealed burners, Elmira and Heartland make vintage-looking stoves with modern components. A simple (and thus inexpensive) modern stove also can be unobtrusive in a historic kitchen. Nowadays, people who don’t cook at all insist on having restaurant-style stoves—I guess they’re for the caterers. 

Refrigerators are difficult to deal with, being large and hard to disguise. Only a few people want vintage refrigerators, which have to be manually defrosted. A “fully-integrated” fridge that can be completely covered with wood panels is an option, as are refrigerator drawers made by various companies. Replicas of wooden iceboxes with modern refrigeration components inside are also available, as well as retro 1950s-style fridges. 

Dishwashers also come “fully integrated” with controls on the top edge so the front can be completely covered with wood. I would refrain from putting a wood panel on a regular dishwasher- it draws more attention to the dishwasher than leaving it as is. Dishwasher drawers are also an option. A dishwasher can also be recessed into an extra deep cabinet with a regular cabinet door to disguise it. Compact dishwashers are only slightly larger than a microwave and can fit into small spaces or under old counters that aren’t deep enough for the usual 24” deep unit. 

Obviously they were no microwaves until recently, but it’s easy enough to hide one in a cabinet. 



Electricity was available locally by the late 19th century, so kitchens would have had electric lights and plugs, just not as many as we are used to (or required by code). A ceiling fixture in the middle of the room, a light over or next to the sink, and maybe another over the range would have been usual. These were plain nickel-plated fixtures with simple shades, or even just a bare lightbulb on a cord or chain and are readily available as reproductions. You can have as many visible fixtures as you like, since we are used to higher light levels. If you want to add well-disguised under-cabinet lighting, go ahead. 



Historically, ventilation was passive- a plaster or painted metal hood over the range connected to a vent in the roof, using the chimney effect of rising heat to draw out smoke and steam. Electric fans mounted on an outside wall were also employed. It is possible to buy just the guts of a stove hood- fan and light- to retrofit old hoods or use in new custom hoods. If there are cabinets over the range, there are also retracting hoods, which virtually disappear when not in use. 


Things to Avoid 

There are some things that will make your kitchen scream “twenty-first century”. Recessed can lights, although your architect or designer will tell you they are unobtrusive, aren’t. Stainless steel anything (appliances, sinks, countertops) will be the avocado green of the twenty first century. Granite is totally overdone, as are glass tiles (which replaced with ubiquitous tumbled marble of the 1990s). And fancy art tiles and a copper hood belong on a fireplace, not in a kitchen. 

Although much useful technology came about in the twentieth century, we seem too enamored of bells and whistles we don’t actually use. Many historic kitchens, some of them perfectly functional, have been ripped out and replaced with some decade’s “state of the art” kitchen. Perhaps you’ve had one: plywood cabinets and gold flecked laminate from the Sixties? An avocado and harvest gold nightmare from the Seventies? Or perhaps beige tile, half-inch brown grout and oak cabinets from the Eighties? These once trendy kitchens soon look dated, whereas a period kitchen appears timeless, like it belongs there. Today it is possible to have a kitchen that meets twenty-first century expectations and yet still feels right in an historic house. 


Jane Powell is a restoration consultant and the author of Bungalow Kitchens. Contact her at janepowell@sbcglobal.net. 



Contributed photo.  

A fully-integrated refrigerator disguises modern technology behind coordinating wood panels that help it look like part of the cabinetry.