Most of the books commonly seen about life in the 19th century seem to be British and therefore deal with life in Victorian England.
The following notes, are for the most part, from British books, however there are many similarities between the London kitchen and the American urban kitchen. The main difference, as far as equipment goes, seems to be the range or stove. The British went in one direction, the Americans in another, however, British style ranges were manufactured and sold in America also.
American stove, circa 1885
Below is a British style range manufactured in Philadelphia. The ad is from 1888
The British kitchen range
The open range was invented in 1780. There was a hob grate in the center, where the fire was lit. On one side was an iron oven with a hinged door, and on the other an iron tank for hot water. Fitted to the top bar of the fire grate was a hinged trivet, which could be let down for a pan or kettle to set upon. Unfortunately food cooked in the oven tended to be burnt on one side and underdone on the other, however modifications were made and passages for the circulation of warm air around the oven were introduced. Another disadvantages was that it used a huge amount of fuel and made the kitchen extremely hot. The fire box could become hot enough to melt the fire bars.
British open range, 2 variations.
Below is a picture of the later closed range
The closed range was introduced and was widely available by the 1840’s.
A metal hot-plate covered the fire box and had rings for pans and kettles to rest upon. Movable panels were on the front of the grate, so that a roast could be cooked in front of the fire if desired. Later these panels were replaced with doors. Some models had 2 ovens, one on either side of the fire-box, others had an oven on one side, a boiler on the other. Flues and dampers were used to try and control the temperature somewhat. Pots were placed on the hot metal range top, which could become red hot if desired. Later, holes were cut in the surface. They were usually plugged with hot plates, but they could be removed and a pot placed within the hole so that the direct flames would bring the pot to a boil faster.
GAS COOKERS -----Britain
Gas cookers began to be seen by the 1850’s. They were originally black cast-iron boxes with an oven. a grill and a hot plate. They did not become popular in Britain till the prepayment gas slot machine was introduced in the 1890’s, and lower income families found gas more affordable.
Coal gas was available in British towns and cities by the 1880’s.
Temperatures on gas ranges were much easier to regulate. They took
up less space, and could be installed at less expense in smaller kitchens. They were also much cleaner than the coal stoves,
and required less daily maintenance. Efficient gas ovens were
available by 1900. They were well insulated with shelves, grills
and removable enameled fittings. Thermostats began being included
They were first designed in the 1890’s but slow to catch on because of the slow spread of electricity and their initial high cost. By the 1920’s, however, they were competing with gas.
Sinks were originally made of wood or slate. Later glazed stoneware sinks became popular. They could be filled from a pump, a faucet or a bucket. The dirty water drained into a bucket or a waste pipe that often dumped out into the yard. A slop stone was a wide bottomed, shallow stone sink that was built under a faucet or pump. It was tilted slightly so that waste water would flow toward a drain hole into a bucket or pipe. The sink was shallow enough to be used for chopping meat or boning fish, etc. A bowl or wooden tub was placed in the sink for washing dishes.
The Victorian ideal kitchen was for cooking only. Food was to be stored in the storeroom and larder, much of the food preparation was to be done in the scullery, and cleaning up was done in the scullery or the pantry depending on what type of dish it was and how dirty. In actual life this was not necessarily so. Many middle class homes had only one servant and had only the kitchen for her to sleep in. Even in larger homes, with more staff, lower servants commonly slept there. Less prosperous people used to spend time relaxing in the kitchen themselves. Servants did not sleep in American kitchens, however. The American “hired girl” would never stand for anything like that.
An English kitchen maid washing dishes, late 1800's
When plumbing began being introduced into homes, it was generally only piped to the first floor or wherever the kitchen was. The scullery had running water. This is where any messy food preparation took place and the scouring pots and pans, etc. Generally, American house plans of the period do not show sculleries. I have seen them listed only on occasion and even then, they were in quite large and grand houses.
The scullery would have one or two sinks, the pantry sink would be lined with lead, so that dishes and glassware would be less likely to chip. With the arrival of proper water pressure sinks began to appear upstairs. If the house had a housemaid’s cupboard upstairs it would also have a lead lined wooden sink for washing bedroom ware. There would also be a separate slop sink to empty chamber pots into. After the arrival of indoor sanitation servants often had their own lavatory downstairs to ensure that they didn’t use the family lavatory upstairs.
The pantry was for storing dishes, glassware, etc, it had a sink where these things could be washed. In America, pantries were primarily a storage area. Some did come equipped with sinks for the washing of finer china and crystal, but these came to be known as butler’s pantries. Again, these were a feature of more elegant homes.
A larder was for the storage of fresh food and the store room was for dried goods, cans and cleaning equipment.
In England the kitchen was commonly in the basement level. In America in most country and even townhouses it was often on the first, or ground, floor. American city dwellers tended to have larger lots than those living in Britain. The butler’s pantry, where there was one, was placed between the dining room and the kitchen as a sort of buffer zone. Even the doors did not lead straight onto each other, so that you could not get a view of the kitchen from the dining room. Sometimes the kitchen connected to the dining room by use of a small hallway.
In actuality, the London kitchen was often just a dark damp basement. The scullery might be a passageway off the kitchen with a small lavatory in it. The pantry might just be a china closet, the storeroom a locked cupboard and the larder another locked cupboard in the coolest part of the basement away from the kitchen range. Generally windows were small and high in the London kitchen, sometimes there were none, just some kind of ventilation opening. The gas light would be on all day and the range would be blasting away up to 18 hours a day, as it heated all the water for the household. The basement level also contained a coal cellar.
The closed range was the first big technical improvement in British cookery since the open fire. They were invented early in the century but did not come into wide use for some decades. There were many styles of ranges, but they all shared an oven and a boiler to heat water. By the 1860’s the also had hot plates to simmer things on and keep them warm. It was wonderful in that for the first time the house could be supplied with a constant amount of hot water, but the biggest advantage was that you no longer had to worry about soot falling down the chimney into the food in the oven, it could however, still fall into the saucepans. If you look at old photos you’ll notice a difference in British and American cooking units. The British installed their ranges into the fireplace opening. Americans used freestanding stoves with a stove pipe leading into the chimney.
With all the kitchen ranges and fires for heating throughout the house, and London’s foggy climate the city was filthy inside and out.
From a Sherlock Holmes story……
”He struck a match on his boot and held it up against the wall. Across
the bare space there was scrawled in blood-red letters a single word.”
This took place in daylight. My mother lived in Manchester, England in the late 1940’s. She recounted that one day, while walking home from work she walked past her house and smack into a brick wall, all on account of the fog, which today we would call smog. She could not see her steps or even the brick wall. There was an interesting program on the History channel here in the US about the killer fog that hit London in the 1950’s. Thousands of deaths were attributed to it.
Back to London dirt…
Latches to both inner and outer doors had small plates or curtains over the keyholes to keep out dirt. Plants were placed on window sills to trap dust as it flew in. Muslin was often nailed across open windows to trap soot. Table cloths were laid just before mealtime lest they get dirty. In a large house there would be one servant who only cared for the fires and lights all day long.
An English maid preparing the fire in a stove, 1870's. During much of the 19th century many women continued to have to cook kneeling or sqatting on the kitchen floor in front of the hearth or a low stove.
All fireplaces had to be cleaned daily. The ashes had to be removed several times a day. The grate, fender and irons had to be polished and shining. The kitchen range had to be cleaned completely every day. First the fender and fire irons were removed. Then damp tea leaves were scattered over the fuel to keep the dust down while cleaning. Then the ashes and cinders were raked out. Cinders were pieces of coal that stopped giving off flames, but still were combustible. A housemaid had to sift through the ashes and pick out the cinders to be reused in the kitchen. The ashes were collected by dustmen. The flues were cleaned and
grease was scraped off the stove. The steel parts were scrubbed with powdered brick and paraffin. The iron parts were rubbed with black lead paste and polished. The oven had to be swept out. In a house with only one or two servants, they would sweep the oven and blacklead the front every day, doing the rest once a week. In a larger house this was all done every day. Also the oven would be scraped out and washed with vinegar and water. I read a book written by a woman who was a London cook in the 1930’s. She was still doing many of these things then.
THE MODERN HOUSEHOLDER‘S list for “cheap kitchen furniture” in 1872: (English list, but similar to what was used in US, except for the stove.
Open range, fender, fire irons
1 deal table (deal was a name for a cheap wood, often a low grade pine)
deal bracket to be fastened to wall and let down when wanted
coarse canvas to lay before the fire when cooking
wooden tub for washing glass and china
large earthenware pan for washing plates
small zinc basin for washing hands
yellow bowl for mixing dough (The yellow bowl for mixing dough was a cheap stoneware bowl, the British called them yellow ware.)
wooden salt box to hang up
small coffee mill
earthenware pan for for bread
small wooden flour kit
3 flat irons
an Italian iron and iron stand
old blanket for ironing on
2 tin candlesticks
2 blacking brushes
1 scrubbing brush
1 carpet broom
1 short handled broom
bottle jack (a screen can be made with the clothes horse covered with sheets) A bottle Jack was a spit for roasting meat. The would have set this up in front of the fire of the open range
set of skewers
block-tin butter saucepan
3 iron saucepans
1 iron boiling pot
1 fish kettle
1 flour dredger a sifter
1 frying pan
1 hanging gridiron
salt and pepper boxes
rolling pin and pasteboard
12 patty pans A patty pan was a small pan for making pastries or small pies.
1 larger tin pan
pair of scales
A more extensive kitchen list might include things like
raisin seeders and cucumber slicers.
In the Victorian kitchen there was a constant war against vermin. We tend to but mice and rats in this category, but to the Victorians it was bugs...black bugs, beetles and even crickets. Beatrix Potter’s maids spent a night sitting on the kitchen table on a visit they were making to her grandmother’s home in 1886. At night the floor became “a living carpet“ of beetles. This was not too unusual. One book recommended that you keep a hedgehog to eat the insects. The fight against vermin was fought not only for hygiene but for moral grounds. A dirty house produced immoral people, not the other way around. People had a moral duty to clean their homes. They spent countless daily hours cleaning ( or having their maids do it )Blackleading the grates every day and whitening the front steps each morning made them no cleaner but it was the right and moral thing to do. It showed everyone what an upstanding citizen you were.
Victorians also liked to keep strict accounts of things, there were lists of what clothing you had and when it was cleaned, etc., inventory lists of your possessions, down to the last cup. Whom you visited and who visited you, did they stay, or just leave a card ?
A woman with several servants would check each morning that the house had been properly cleaned that day. If she had only one, she would also clean. She’d go to the kitchen and look over the leftovers and plan the days meals. She would also give out food from the locked storeroom, based on what was needed for the day’s use. Some things were handed to the cook on a weekly basis, like onions, flour, spices, oil, string, etc. Even cleaning supplies were carefully doled out. Many servants resented this kind of treatment, it implied that they were not responsible or even dishonest. One woman’s mother had the same cook for 30 years and still the cook had to go ask for a box of matches or whatever else she needed from the storeroom. In actuality, many women expected that servants would steal from them.
Shopping was often done seasonally, buying things at the time of year that they were cheapest. Housewives would stock up whenever the price of something fell. Rice could supposedly be stored for 3 years if you followed the directions.
Kitchen walls were usually plastered and whitewashed. They often had a scrubbable painted dado or wainscot covering the bottom half of the walls, made of beadboard. This was generally 3 to 4 feet high. Sometimes plain glazed tiles were used instead.
In Britain the floors were normally stone slab or unglazed tiles. Sometimes wooden duckboards were used around the table where the cook stood.. In American kitchens wooden floors were the norm, as they were not in the basement level. British architects of the Victorian era noted that hard stone or tile floors were noisy and advised that in a small kitchen, where it also served as a servants’ hall, a wooden floor would sometimes be preferred.
Kitchen floors in both England and America were covered with floor cloths or oil cloths, which made cleaning easier. After linoleum was invented in 1860 it quickly became very popular. It was used in kitchens, sculleries and passageways, anywhere there was high traffic.