The Layout of an 18th-Century Kitchen


Colonial and post-Revolutionary American kitchens borrowed ideas from European kitchens and adapted layouts to local conditions. A great hearth was a constant feature, and accommodations for kitchen workers often figured into placement and design. Lower-class families merged living and kitchen space. Upper-class families had proper kitchens designed for tough, efficient food preparation and adjusted for convenience over time.

Separate Prep and Pomp

  • In the early part of the 18th century, most kitchens in upper-class homes were part of the main house -- typically occupying the basement space below the formal dining room. Larger kitchens might run the length of the house, and more modest kitchens were contained in the footprint of the dining room above. The kitchen areas incorporated food preparation and preservation, cooking, plating and garnishing, and frequently storage, household baking and dinnerware cleaning -- scullery. Cooking and fine dining were sophisticated endeavors for upper-class families, who modeled their kitchen locations and layouts on the kitchens of the great houses in Britain and the Continent. Humbler families made do with a kitchen that was part of the living area of the home, with a hearth that functioned as the main heating source.

The External Kitchen

  • By about 1724, kitchens were migrating from the basement to a separate building, often not even attached to the house, reports Michael Olmert, writing for the "Colonial Williamsburg Journal." The separate kitchen might be the "summer kitchen," with the cold-weather "warming kitchen" still beneath the main house, or it might be the sole food prep center year-round. The main reason to distance the kitchen from the house was the smell, extremely pungent in the heat, that could permeate the entire home. Another reason was slave housing. The sooty, stinky game and animal slaughter and cooking headquarters was moved to its own building and the upstairs became a dormitory for the property owner's slaves. If the bake oven was part of the kitchen building and not an individual structure elsewhere on the property, it was a completely brick domed hearth with no massive wood lintel to hold hooks for pots.

Room-Sized Hearth

  • The fireplace was the focal point of many 18th-century rooms; the hearth, a far more utilitarian and imposing brick alcove, was the main attraction in the kitchen. A hearth might take up a whole wall and be large enough for several people to walk in, but even a medium-size hearth had room to cook stews, porridge, roasting game and other victuals that sat on tripods, turned on spits, hung over or nestled directly in the flames. Kitchens were hot -- really hot -- all year. They were ventilated by narrow windows with splayed openings and the smoke that didn't escape pooled around the low ceilings. Large cupboards and chests, generous wooden tables, a few low stools for tending the fire, and packed dirt, brick or stone floors completed the decor. There might be hanging game, dried herbs, jars of spices, sacks of grain, tubs and pots of lard or butter, fireplace utensils, iron pots, cooking spoons and tongs suspended from a massive timber beam over the hearth.

The Modern 18th-Century Kitchen

  • Contemporary renovations of 18th-century kitchens work well when care is taken to incorporate the charm of the old layout with the convenience and efficiency of modern appliances. Charm doesn't hold up well in the presence of smoke, soot and offal, but brick hearth alcoves fitted with brushed stainless cook stoves don't always work either. If you want the sense of a centuries-old layout, consider a brick hearth at one end of the room, an open plan that includes a wood dining table and chairs, plenty of cupboards and work surfaces, wooden counters rather than gleaming synthetic surfaces, and a few well-placed relics that evoke the romance, if not the reality, of days gone by. A rough weathered beam instead of a mantel can support big hooks for cast-ironware. A pump handle makes a decoration beside the sink. Bunches of drying herbs and big wood cutting boards are useful and hark back to a simpler time.

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