Food and the home are central to the lived reality of people, both historically and presently. Thus domestic kitchens – as spaces within the home in which food is cooked and prepared for consumption by the household – are fruitful sites of analysis for examining historical experience and ideology. The kitchen within a home holds a multitude of significances; it is a site of consumption; conversation; and technological innovation. The kitchen can be infused with overlapping and sometimes contradictory meanings that span from familial and emotional, to political and national. Indeed, while referring to “the kitchen” with the definitive article is convenient, it is also hiding a more complex historical truth: the kitchen is not always a single, separate room in the private home. As both articles in this special section address, what the kitchen is, and what it means, is bound to a particular time and place.
Claudia Kreklau’s article makes a major contribution to our understanding of how class and gender intersect in kitchen spaces. Focusing on nineteenth-century German kitchens, Kreklau begins by problematising what a kitchen actually is. Kreklau shows that the definition of “kitchen” was rooted in contemporary ideas of class and status, and describes the range of spaces and places which were kitchens across the social spectrum. While in a Royal palace “the” kitchen might span over several rooms, in middling homes it would likely be a room on the ground floor. At the lower end of the social spectrum in a working home, it might only be a small area in a room with multiple functions. Furthermore, Kreklau’s article considers how this class specificity in the type of kitchen impacted how they were gendered. Royal kitchens, for instance, were typically staffed with male chefs, who had better pay and opportunities than their female colleagues. Kreklau argues that the social conception of a single-room kitchen associated with women was not well established until around 1900, and derived from the cultural dominance of the middling classes and their male fantasies of female domesticity. All in all, this article refreshingly unpicks and questions the familiar idea of the feminine kitchen and draws attention to the need for an awareness of class-specificity in how domestic spaces are gendered.
Laika Nevalainen’s article charts the rise and fall of central kitchen buildings in 1910s and 1920s Finland. Using a microhistory approach, Nevalainen focuses on approximately thirty central kitchen buildings constructed in Helsinki and Turku. These buildings were apartment blocks with one central kitchen, where residents’ meals were prepared by professional staff, with the intention of making cooking cheaper, quicker and easier. By examining the intentions behind central kitchen buildings, and positing reasons for their ultimate decline, Nevalainen sheds light on the imagining of family life and home, and their relationship with food. These central kitchen buildings, Nevalainen points out, threatened contemporary ideas of “homeliness,” which often rested on gendered and classed norms, as well as disrupted people’s preferences for taste and routine. This article marks a shift away from scholarly focus on the private domestic kitchen, and offers a fascinating example of the dynamics at play when the kitchen serves as a communal space. Moreover, this article demonstrates the value of considering ultimately unrepresentative styles of building and living to reconstruct domestic and social values of the past.
Together, these articles demonstrate that historically kitchens can both reflect and challenge contemporary ways of living. Kitchens, when historicized, are dynamic sites of analysis to further study a range of issues related to food and home.
The articles in this special section are the proceedings of a conference, “Kitchens in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950” held in London, January 2017. It was hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Body and Material Culture in the department of history at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Notes on contributors
Katie Carpenter is a social and cultural historian of Britain. She completed her PhD in the department of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, 2019. Her thesis, entitled “The Scientific Housewife: Gender, Material Culture and the Middle-Class Kitchen in England, c. 1870-1914,” explored the relationship between science and housewifery in the middle-class kitchen in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.