18th century American kitchen

18th century American kitchen Early American Kitchen – one of the Thorne Rooms made on a scale of 1 inch to a foot in the 1930s-40s. Photo by Knoxville Museum of Art

This model of an 18th century kitchen in New England should appeal to people who like historic kitchens, and to people who like doll’s houses. There are lots of “authentic” things in it, and care was taken with historical details. The room is interesting and charming even though it may not be 100% realistic, but see what you think before reading my opinion.

Fireplace and mantelpiece

The fine fireplace has plenty of period detail: an oven set into the soot-stained brickwork (behind the doll-woman), andirons to hold the logs in the fireplace, a chimney crane to the left for hanging cooking pots over the fire. But where are the cooking pots? One brass pan with a long handle for open hearth cooking, but no kettle, no griddle, no spit – not much to make meals for what looks like a reasonably prosperous household. And setting the table so close to the fire – too hot, too dirty, too inconvenient in real life, but it’s the right kind of table and contributes to the overall scene.

early American kitchen Fireplace area in the Early American Kitchen. Knoxville Museum of Art

On and around the mantelpiece are ornaments and domestic bits and pieces. The sailing ship is accompanied by Toby jugs and candlesticks: probably pewter like the tankard, plates and other things in the room. The gun and powder horn are nearby. A bed warmer hangs by the fire, as they did, ready to be filled with embers while also looking fine. Hard to imagine the family would hang a twig besom alongside, nearly hiding the brass heirloom. Even though a broom would have been used for sweeping away ash round the hearth, it surely belongs to some inferior corner. Anyway, it’s good to see this one here, reminding us what 18th century Americans used.

Furniture

A dresser displays plates, pitchers, and another Toby jug. The seats are not upholstered, but two have traditional draught protection with their high backs and sidepieces: a shape that inspired the more comfortable wing chairs gradually coming into use. With their longlasting design, the stools could have come from Elizabethan England or been made brand new by a local carpenter. A candlestand adds portable, adjustable lighting for close craftwork in a room that is already equipped with candles on walls and mantelshelf. The spinning wheel for flax would have been in frequent use in many households, making linen thread for weaving cloth. The miniature furniture here was made by professional cabinetmakers. Originally it would have been pine or maple.

Doorway

Hanging near the door is a pierced tin lantern, ready for anyone going out into the dark. The glass balls in netting remind me of fisherman’s floats and, the museum suggests, echo the “witch balls” that people hung in doorways or windows for protection against dark forces entering the house. What are the strings of little dark things hanging next to the broom? Probably food being preserved by drying – apples, perhaps? What do you think?

Windows

1700s American kitchen Spinning wheel for flax in New England kitchen. Knoxville Museum of Art

I admit to knowing nothing about how New Englanders used indoor plants in the 18th century, but I can’t help wondering if the pretty curtains and flowers are typical of hard-working kitchens of that era. Even though this room is the kind of kitchen that doubled up as a family living room, to me the window area seems more like pretty parlour than kitchen.

Date

Is it possible to date this kitchen? My guess is that Mrs. Thorne, the woman who masterminded this and many other wonderful model rooms, probably had a date in the late 1770s or 1780s in mind. The clothing suits this period well enough, as do the furnishings, and the model ship has a (post-independence) US flag. Without the flag, it could be somewhat earlier, perhaps.

Even with “real” historic kitchens, we aren’t necessarily seeing things exactly as they were. In this carefully-staged one, the period seems pretty consistent, but we’re probably looking at everything through a lens that makes the room more attractive than the original reality.

More

If you like to ID old kitchen items, try the things in a 16th century English kitchen, 1920s ranch kitchen, or a German kitchen around 1930. Also see this list of what was in a Scottish farm kitchen (and house) in 1789.

Photos

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: First picture, second picture, third picture. More picture info here.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Douglass January 9, 2014 at 12:12 am

Hello,

This is an interesting model, and your comments well taken.

One thing to bear in mind is the common artistic device of putting an old musket or rifle with powder horn above the fireplace. If truth be told, of all the objects in this model kitchen, the rifle might easily have been the most expensive and valuable. So it hardly makes sense for the owner to place it where it is exposed to extremes of temperature, soot, cooking greases and the like.

Further, in the 18th century the rifle may very well have been kept loaded while in the house, and the powder horn surely was. To place gunpowder in the vicinity of the flames and heat of the fireplace would have been foolhardy in the extreme. My guess is that this would almost never been done.

I do not know when placing the rifle and powder horn above the fireplace became a popular thing to depict in art. It would make an interesting study. I suppose it has survived because it looks like it belongs – until one thinks about it.

There are other things as well that have survived in art that are totally false. Lewis and Clark are usually depicted with 18th century tri-cornered hats. Even the road markers on the Lewis and Clark Trail show them this way. But the fact is that long before their famous expedition tri-cornered hats had completely fallen out of fashion favor and were no longer worn by anyone. It is unfortunate that there was no artist along with Lewis and Clark to show their true manner of dress.

Richard Douglass

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