A Look Around the Early Country Kitchen

“IN the primitive days of our grandfathers’ time,
When the fire-place, genial and bright,
Its cavernous recesses glowing with flame,
Filled the old-fashioned kitchen with light;”
Taken from a poem by Lizzie Clark Hardy 1877

Kitchens have changed dramatically since the early days of the 19th century. They were simple and often very plainly furnished. This simple mentality is reiterated in the statement ‘A fat kitchen maketh a lean will’. So simplicity was the key to kitchens in the early days, even in food selection. This is how the kitchen was summed up in the 1830’s, “…the kitchen furnished with clean wholesome-looking cooking utensils, good fires, in grates that give no anxiety lest a good fire should spoil them, clean good table linen, the furniture of the table and sideboard good of the kind, without ostentation, and a well-dressed plain dinner, bespeak a sound judgment and correct taste in a private family…” With that said here are some details of life in and about the kitchen.

If a housewife was properly advised then she did not waste an article of food, clothing, or other resources. One of these items for holding “scraps” was known as the grease-pot. In the 1830’s it was said that the housekeeper should look in this grease-pot to ensure there was nothing that could be used to feed her family or even a poorer family than their own. Then they had pails which were for leftover or rotten foods that should be thrown to the pigs or other animals.

Also rags, such as mop-rags, lamp-rags, ect, that were used would not have been thrown away because they were dirty, but instead would have been boiled with dirty suds water, after the washing. For door mats they used old coats, pantaloons, ect that when wore out would be cut into strips and then braided into door-mats. This job was usually employed by the children of the house.

Just like today the early kitchens would have used napkins, rags, table mats, and floor mats. I discovered some interesting information about these items which rarely if at all have survived to our day. Towels made from a coarse fabric of linen or a blend of linen and cotton called crash were to be reserved for kitchen use so that the white napkins for the table would not be used instead. There were four kinds of cloths to be used in the kitchen if you ran a larger and more well to do house. They had knife cloths, dusters, tea cloths, and glass cloths. Eight of each of these types were considered a sufficient amount. The knife cloths would have been made from a very coarse brown cloth called harsh cloth. The shops of those days styled it as sheeting and would have been “ell” wide. A yard worth would have made six knife cloths, three in width and half a yard in length. The dusters were made from checked manufacture of cotton and flax, the cotton being considered better since it seemed to do a better job at picking up the dust than the linen. It was half a yard square in width and one yard in length. For tea and glass cloths it was better if made from bed sheets, which at this time most were made of linen. Some perhaps being of cotton. A “wash leather”, made of leather, was reserved for the purpose of the last wipe of cleaning glass to rid of lint. Interestingly one book noted that the “pretty looking ‘sleesy’ cloth which is sold under the name of glass-cloth, is a perfect nuisance, and wears out incredibly soon.“. So they could buy glass cloths but it seemed from the perspective of at least one woman that sheets were better, and economical too. In addition to the above most women kept knife tray cloths, house cloths (for general cleaning), pudding-cloths, and cheese-cloths which were described as clear and gauze like linen to be thrown over dishes of food to keep the flies off, and lastly round towels.

Moving onto the subject of table and floor mats I found it interesting to learn that the oil flasks came covered in some type of material and it was suggested that this could be sewed together with strong thread, lined and bound neatly together so as to make a good table mat. Once again we can see how resourceful the women were of those times.

Now a floorcloth put at the end of the kitchen table helped to keep that area clean since it could be more easily wiped over as dirt and grease fell upon it.

And to keep the table from scorching a woman would have made little round mats about an inch thick of plaited straw, with a straw ring to hang it by, which was used to set the pots and pans onto.

In the rustic kitchens we find glass, earthenware, china and wood were used to store foods. Earthen ware was used for both storing and for cooking. The brown earthen ware was suggested to have a handful of rye, wheat or bran thrown in while boiling to preserve the glazing from being damaged by acid or salt. Many pottery wares were considered to have been badly glazed and since the glaze was made with lead it was advised to not put anything acidic like vinegar into them. If it were an unglazed earthen ware, which was quite popular, or its glazing were cracked it was said that neither acid or greasy contents should enter into them, therefore ruling out salted meat or pickles. A good strong stone ware was the exception however. Glass or china were the preferred method for storing those types of goods.

Wooden storage vessels were quite acceptable, some at the time were even being lined with lead, which during the 1830’s it was preferred not to use those. But if the food or liquid had fermented then nature of wood could cause it to taint future contents. So to counteract that they would have charred the insides of the wooden vessel by burning wood shavings in them so as to coat the insides with layer charcoal.

For sauces or preserves the preferred vessel was a hollow iron ware that was lined with enamel.

Most all early kitchens only came with a fireplace to do all the cooking. The use of a tin roaster could be placed in front of the fire and used to cook meat. It was considered a better way to cook the meat. But in the early times when the cast iron stove came along it was met with fierce opposition. Most believed the fireplace was the only way to cook a good meal or to heat their house. I read one memoir where the man of the house had no liking whatsoever for the cast iron stove and on arriving home that day and finding his wife had one bought and delivered he was going to sent it back immediately. Some more sentiment on this subject is as follows, “To say the truth the inventors of cast-iron kitchens seem to be to have had every object in view, but that of promoting good cooking. It is certainly desirable and proper that every possible saving should be made in the consumption of fuel; but I am sure it is not possible to have cooking in perfection, without a proper degree of heat, and, as far as my observation has gone, meat cannot be well roasted unless it be before a good fire.“. Obviously this view changed over time and by the 1870’s and 1880’s most homes were cooking with some sort of a cooking stove.

Well all kitchens at some time or another suffer from pests such as mice, ants, cockroaches, ect. Many times over it was suggested to use green paint and “stuff” or paint the the cracks of walls and baseboards with it to keep away mice. The reason for this is because arsenic was used in a particular green paint, which when eaten by the mice it would do away with them. For ants one suggestion was to sprinkle cayenne pepper in the pantry to keep them from coming in. Then for cockroaches one piece of early advice was to take poke-root and boil it in water and then mix with molasses in deep dishes to rid of them in “great numbers”.

The next article will be all about the cooking utensils of the early days. There is a great amount of information on those items, which is why I am saving it for a whole new article. Also I’ll discuss some interesting information about certain foods of this early period of the 19th century.