Perhaps it is because I’m new at this, but I’m beginning to look longingly forward to the day I finish this book and move on to my next novel. It isn’t because I’m growing tired of my topic, or that I’m weary of my protagonist. Far from it. I love my little story and all its flawed inhabitants. But you see, they live in 1915, and no matter how much research I think I’ve done, and I’ve done quite a bit, I still find myself stumped by the simplest of things. It would be so lovely to be able to just write without worrying about How Things Were Done in the Early 1900s.
Last week “Mama” was in her kitchen, slicing tomatoes, and I got to wondering… what did she slice them on? I’ve done enough research to know that most people in 1915 did not have built-in cabinets with counter-tops. I know they had a big, black cookstove and an ice box (cooled with actual ice). I know they kept fresh meat in a “cold room” in the winter and that the location of the egg case varied depending on the time of year. But, what did they do their basic food preparation on? And how could I have failed to stumble across this during all of my research?
Another frustrating interruption to the flow of my writing yet again turned into a worthwhile detour. I may never get my first draft done, but I’m sure having fun on the journey! Here is what our pre-countertop sisters used for food preparation, and darn it–I want one for my kitchen!
I keep noticing how focused that generation was on completing their tasks in the most scientifically efficient way. They were such a society of improvers. I’ve found numerous bulletins from “agricultural experiment stations” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that all detail ways to increase yields while reducing labor on the farm. It was no different in the kitchen. Indeed, the author of the pamphlet pictured above conducted her research in the Applecroft Experiment Kitchen, and, according to the booklet, “contributed immensely to the advancement of Domestic Science.”
The purpose of the Hoosier Cabinet was to reduce the number of steps a housewife took during the day, thus saving her strength. And when you think of all the things those ladies had to accomplish on any given day, you can see the attraction. Doing the laundry involved heating water on the stove, scrubbing clothing on a washboard, laboriously wringing them out, and hanging them up to dry. Ironing was an actual heavy iron heating on the cookstove. Making lunch meant killing a chicken, plucking the feathers, cutting it up and preparing it to fry. Then there was the vegetable garden, baking, childcare, and often farm work, as well. You can see the attraction of any kitchen device that would save a woman’s time and energy.
Mrs. F.T. Noeson, of Bear Lake, PA, wrote
I have no piece of furniture in my well equipped home that helps as much to make the housework easy as my Hoosier Cabinet. My baking days are enjoyed instead of dreaded. Everything is at hand ready for use and it is a pleasure and satisfaction to use them.
The Hoosier cabinet really was a marvel of organization, sort of the iPhone of the era. The inside of the upper-left cabinet door contained a clock-style shopping list. When an ingredient was needed, you pointed one of several arrows at it as a reminder on shopping day. A swing-out cookbook holder kept recipes at eye level and out-of-the-way of spills. Flavorings and extracts had a special rack on the inside of the upper-right cabinet door, while spices were placed in specially made jars that fit in their own rack on the lower right door. A built-in flour sifter is on the left, and, next to the rolling-pin rack is a built-in sugar bin. Tea, salt, and coffee are neatly contained in the mid-height door on the left, and a slide-out aluminum work surface meant that the baker could sit down comfortably on a stool to mix her cakes. Just underneath that (and shown in the picture) a cutting board could be pulled out to slice bread or anything else. A drawer underneath the cutting board contained eating utensils and had a special compartment for string. The upper-right drawer (beneath the work surface) was for tea towels, the drawer under that was a metal lined grain bin. The lowest drawer was lined with ventilated metal (and a heat-resistant asbestos bottom) providing mouse-proof cake and bread storage. At the very bottom, space was provided for pots and pans. All of this ensured that nearly all of a housewife’s daily cooking tools were contained in one handy location.
Recently, I decided to re-organize my kitchen. I rather publicly predicted that I could get it done in two hours. But two days later I was still up to my elbows in various kitchen machinery–mixers, blenders, food processors. I think our great-grandmothers had it right. Create a workspace with everything you need in reach and keep it simple.
I was so charmed by the Hoosier Cabinet, that I found and purchased some antique spice jars that supposedly came from one. While I would love to have a Hoosier of my own, I cannot think of a single place I could put it. All those darn counter-tops!
What do you think? Did we lose a good thing when built-in cabinets came into fashion?