This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
Kitchen renovation is one of the largest markets in the remodeling industry. In this month’s exploration of the BTHL, we trace the evolution of the residential kitchen from the simple cupboard of the early 20th century to the unified cabinetry and coordinated finishes of today. Our story begins with the Hoosier cabinet, a free-standing cupboard that incorporated storage space and a working countertop. Its name derives from the marketing reach of the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of Indiana. At the time, a typical kitchen had a series of separate cabinets and appliances. By the mid-1920s, several manufacturers of kitchen cabinets were marketing cabinets and other millwork that could be joined to create a more unified appearance.
The major breakthrough leading to the kitchen of today occurred in the 1930s with the introduction of modular kitchen cabinets and continuous countertops. That era also corresponded to design changes and innovations within the Modern movement in materials, appliances, and plumbing fixtures. The period was a truly remarkable decade of residential transformation and the kitchen was the place where many Americans got their first chance to express their Modern design sensibilities.
The following documents in the BTHL offer a look back at kitchen design from the early-to-mid 20th century.
Kalamazoo Kitchen Kabinet, 1917, Kalamazoo Stove Co., Kalamazoo, Mich.
The freestanding kitchen cabinet preceded the unit cabinetry we use today. This metal cabinet was painted white for a more sanitary look, a dramatic contrast to its wood predecessors. The preference for painted kitchen cabinetry rather than natural wood finishes is a trend that would continue well into the 20th century.
The Kitchen Plan Book, c. 1920, Hoosier Manufacturing Co., Newcastle, Ind.
In the 1920s, the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. sponsored a design competition to create a prototype kitchen for a small family, which it then published in The Kitchen Plan Book. The winning designs show a unified approach to wooden cabinetry.
Colorful I-XL, 1929, I-XL Furniture Co., Goshen, Ind.
The I-XL Furniture Co. produced free-standing kitchen cabinets as well as other furniture. Adding broom closets or utility cabinets to the standard Hoosier cabinet was a first step to the unit cabinetry of today.
The Story of Five Dream Kitchens, 1935, Hazel Dell Brown for the Armstrong Cork Co., Lancaster, Pa.
This flooring catalog features five kitchens with painted wooden cabinets, continuous countertops, and dramatic flooring. There is a strong Art Deco look to the linoleum flooring, which made the floor a central part of the design. The last kitchen design shows new flooring in an older kitchen, an incremental approach to kitchen renovation.
Modern Work-Saving Steel Kitchens, 1938, Modern Steel Equipment Co., Geneva, Ill.
The 1930s saw the evolution of unit kitchen cabinets in metal and wood, topped with smooth continuous countertops. Metal kitchen cabinets were a major innovation of this decade and would remain popular until the 1950s. Major players in the Chicago area in this design transformation included St. Charles Kitchens, Geneva Kitchens, and the Modern Steel Equipment Co.
Sellers Kitchen Furniture, 1939, G. I. Sellers and Sons Co., Elmwood, Ind.
This Sellers kitchen furniture catalog features free-standing wood kitchen cabinets with an updated look responding to the Modern design movement of the 1930s. A restyling of an already out-of-date approach, this was the last era for the Hoosier cabinet. At the end of the catalog is mention of the company’s new line of built-in cabinets—the format most commonly used today.
It’s Fun to Plan Your Own Kitchen … with Curtis Cabinets, 1946, Curtis Cos., Clinton, Iowa
By the 1940s, the modern era of kitchen design, complete with unit cabinets, continuous countertops, and coordinated finishes and fixtures, was well underway. Cabinetmakers promoted this new approach, as did plumbing companies, appliance manufacturers, and flooring companies.
Your Kitchen and You, 1950, St. Charles Manufacturing Co., St. Charles, Ill.
The era of the pink kitchen cabinet was fairly short-lived, but the pastel hue could be found in both metal and wood cabinetry. Although white was the most popular color treatment for kitchen cabinets from the 1930s through the 1960s, other color options were available.
Sears 1958 Kitchen Book, 1958, Sears Roebuck & Co., Chicago
This Sears Kitchen Book features the range of products required to complete a kitchen transformation—cabinets, countertops, appliances, and finishes. The changing styles in laminate surfaces and cabinet faces were central elements of achieving a new look.
How to Plan Trend-Setting Kitchens, c. 1960, Revco, Deerfield, Mich.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House was featured in this catalog of popular midcentury-Modern kitchen trends. The home's layout offered the perfect means through which to show off the open-plan kitchen, whose rise to popularity in the 1960s has continued to this day.