Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618, Diego Velazguez

There was a time when the kitchen was so much at the heart of family life that it invariably was included in memoirs and reminiscences through the 19th century.  It is regretable that for many Americans the kitchen is now the least used room in the home.

Gideon Hollister wrote about the early homes of Connecticut in 1857.  Of the kitchens, he said, “their table furniture was plain.  Pewter was the more ordinary metal in use, but silver was often seen glittering upon the same table with the baser metal.  Silver tankards and beakers were to be found in the houses of nearly all the wealthy planters of good family”. 

Julia Ward Howe remembered tables of her youth set with three-pronged steel forks for everyday use, and silver forks reserved for dinner parties.

The pewter vessels Hollister found in estate inventories included spoons, platters, pitchers, cups, plates, pans, bottles, etc.  There were silver flagons, beakers, tankards, spoons and cups.  He made little mention of tin and crockery.

Though sparse by today’s standards, the accounts are quite lavish compared to pioneers who moved to the frontier, often arriving with little more than a frying pan and pot.  “A spider skillet with lid and an earthen pot were more than the average cooking utensils possessed by a family”.  – Esary.

Mary Livermore’s autobiography was published in 1899.  She was born in Boston in 1820 and had a traditional New England upbringing.  Of the kitchen of her youth she recalled:

The kitchen was my favorite room.  It was lighted by four windows, its floor was scoured white and sanded with beach sand in summer, and carpeted with home-made rugs in winter.  It served as a dining-room both winter and summer, the cooking being done in the summer in a little basement room made for that purpose.  At that time there were no stoves, nor ranges, neither gas nor coal, and the cooking was done in the open fireplace by means of cranes inserted into the chimney, from which there suspended hooks for pots and kettles.  There were ‘bake-kettles’ for the baking of biscuit and gingerbread over beds of live coals, which also were heaped on the cover.  There were ‘tin-kitchens’ for the roasting of meats and poultry before the fire,–potatoes were baked in the hot ashes,–steaks were broiled over hot coals, and tea and coffee steeped on the hearth.  The ashes were carefully raked over the bed of coals on the hearth at night to preserve the fire.  If we ‘lost fire’, we fell back on the tinder-box, and struck a steel ring with a flint till a spark fell on tinder when it was blown into a flame.  Or, if the tinder-box was out of order, we went to a neighbor’s kitchen and begged a shovelful of coals.  The kitchen conveniences of those days would drive to despair our housekeepers of today.

The associations of the always clean and orderly kitchen of my home were very pleasant to me and are so to-day.  My chief delight in the spacious room was the freedom I found there.  We could play, shout, run, jump, stand on the substantial chairs to look out the windows, play housekeeping, and set out the kitchen table with our little pewter dishes and tiny porringers, bring in our individual chairs, stools, and crickets (low stool) and build up establishments in every corner of the room, and then inaugurate a series of calls and visits to one another, take our rag-babies to ride in an overturned chair, which we dragged over the floor, sing to no tune ever written, or ever dreamed of, till my patient mother would beg a respite from the ear-splitting discord, that ‘we might rest our throats’, cut out dresses for our hideous rag dolls, botch them into shapelessness, and then coax the dear mother to make them ‘look like something’, which she did, hold prayer-meetings, preach sermons, tell stories of our own invention,–what was there that we were not at liberty to undertake in that kitchen, if we would not quarrel or get into mischief.

Bishop Morris observed the style of living in western states for over 40 years and left a description of the middle class home in the early years of settlement.  [I’ve left his spelling as it was

There were six split-bottomed chairs, one long bench, and a few three legged stools…half a dozen pewter plates, as many knives and forks, tin cups, and pewter spoons for ordinary use, and the same number of delf plates, cups, and saucers for special occasions; also, one dish large enough to hold a piece of pork, bear meat, or venison, with the turneps, hommony, or stewed pumpkin.  All this table ware was kept in the corner cupboard, and so adjusted as to show off to the best advantage, and indicated that the family were well fixed for comfortable living.  When the weather was too cold to leave the door or window open, sufficient light to answer the purpose came down the broad chimney, and saved the expense of glass lights; and as for andirons, two large stones served as a good substitute…It is true the cooking was usually done in the presence of the family, but was soon dispatched, when the Dutch oven and skillet were nicely cleaned and stowed under the cupboard, and the long handled frying-pan hung upon a nail or peg on one side of the door, while the water pail was situated on the other, and the neat water gourd hanging by it.  For mantle ornaments they had the tin grater, used in grating off the new corn for mush before it was hard enough to grind, and the corn-splitter, being a piece of deer’s horn, very useful in parting large ears of Indian corn for the cattle.

Bib:

Morris, Bishop, The Ladies Repository.  Western Style of Living.

Livermore, Mary.  The Story of My Life.  1899.

Howe, Julia Ward.  Reminiscences 1819-1899.  1899.

Esarey, Logan.  A History of Indiana.  1915.

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