A Kitchen Cabinet of Curiosities: 200 Years of Cooking in Cayuga County

Historically the kitchen was a purely utilitarian room. It was placed far from the public rooms of the house and used solely to produce meals.

Prior to the invention of the cast iron stove in the early 19th century, cooking was done in a fireplace. The upper class celebrated a disconnection from food and food preparation by placing their dining rooms far away from the kitchen, masking the smell of food. Lower classes also placed the kitchen away from the center of the home, moving it to the back of the house near outdoor work areas.

Spices (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Do you like to smell food cooking?

When you smell a certain dish or spice, what memories does it bring back?

The cast iron stove gained immediate popularity for its efficiency over the fireplace, and by the 1840s a number of stoves were being manufactured in America. Stoves allowed the kitchen area to move inside the house

The Industrial Revolution spurred new inventions, cheaper prices, and new ways of thinking about economic and ergonomic efficiency. People began looking for heat sources beyond wood and coal and once gas was discovered as a viable source for cooking, it became the most popular.

The gas stove made cooking easier and cleaner, allowing the kitchen to move further into the house. However, moving the kitchen to the inside of the house required new sanitary measures for cooking and cleaning. Enameled surfaces, durable oil-based paints, and easy to clean flooring like linoleum became popular with housewives for the ease of cleaning.

Cooking in the Great Depression

As part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, writers and photographers were employed to document regional foodways. They collected recipes, songs, poems, and interviews with cooks and eaters from all over the United States. A large reference book on regional American food was planned, but the program was abruptly ended after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and most of the collected material was never published.

Some of the prized sets of objects collected during this project were community cookbooks. Unlike mass produced cookbooks, these community cookbooks showed what people in different regions were actually cooking and eating because the contributors were sharing recipes they liked and used. They were also valuable sources of information on the types of recipes people were making during the Great Depression years, when lack of income greatly limited what ingredients people could afford to purchase.  Because these community cookbooks were not printed in large numbers and were often of cheap quality, they did not always survive.

After WWII, the housing boom and manufacturing advancements had a huge impact on the kitchen. It became a showcase of economic status and moved to the front of the house. Open floor plans dominated, allowing mothers to see their children while in the kitchen and allowing them to join in dinner and cocktail parties without being stuck preparing food in a closed-off kitchen.

Today the kitchen is seen as the heart of the home, and is used as a place to gather and socialize. Food preparation is celebrated and food is the easiest way for most people to identify with their cultural heritage.  

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Universal Kitchen Tool, 1881 (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Patented by W.H. Thayer, this curious cast iron tool can be used as a bottle opener, candle holder, meat tenderizer, lid lifter for pots, pot and plate holder, jar opener, wood stove lid lifter, and a trivet.

Think about your family traditions. How many of these involve food?

Does your family have a specific recipe for special occasions?

Click on the Recipe Box Below and See What You Can Make in Your Own Home!

Recipe Box (Cayuga Museum Collection)