Most of us are so used to our kitchens being spaces full of sleek and shining equipment that quietly goes about its task of heating food or washing dishes, we’ve become rather spoiled. It wasn’t always so. Little more than one hundred years ago, kitchens were a vastly different place.
A hearthy place to be.
Victorian kitchens revolved around the hearth, or central fireplace of the house. In poorer homes, this space might serve not only as a kitchen, but also function as the dining room, lounge, workspace, and even guest room. It was usually smoky, dimly lit, and contained a table and possibly shelves or a few cupboards to hold dishes and supplies.
Most cooking in poorer homes was done over an open flame. Victorian fireplaces might have an iron swing-arm hook embedded in the structure, on which a pot was hung. Moving the hook closer to the fire or further away could adjust the exact temperature, and make the contents in the pot either boil, or merely stay warm. Victorian wives cooked lots of stews and soups, but most fireplaces also contained a small nook where bread could be baked. Heated by the fireplace, but not exposed to open flame, these small spaces were perfect for baking bread, or for roasting meats. Stoves resembling our modern cookers were just coming into vogue at this time, but not everyone could afford them.
Blacksmiths made most of the equipment used in Victorian kitchens. Spits and rotisseries for slowly turning meat over an open flame were popular, as were flat skillets for making drop scones, and implements that would hold sliced bread close to the flame in order to make toast.
While many of us now have machines that will wash and dry our clothes right in our kitchens, Victorian-era women had to endure a long process of boiling clothing in large kettles with lye, scrubbing them on washboards, rinsing, and then hanging the finished clothing on a line to dry. It was such a long and difficult process that most women devoted an entire day to it once a week.
Good cup of tea
Most of us don’t think twice about making a pot of tea. Electric kettles or microwave ovens reduce the time needed to make “a cuppa” to a few minutes. In Victorian times, the kettle was heated over a fire, and poorer homes might not have tea at all. They made do with less expensive alternatives, like herbal teas. Wealthier homes might keep tea in a chest, locked away so the servants could not pilfer it.
Into the larder
Refrigeration was unknown, but most houses had access to a cellar or larder underneath the house that could store things at a cooler temperature. Most meals were meant to be eaten immediately and not preserved for a later time. There were no foils or plastic wraps to use in order to keep food fresh. Instead, food was placed in a bowl and covered with a cotton or linen cloth, or wrapped with brown waxed paper.
So while many of the things required in the kitchen are the same as today, it's a different way of going about achieving the same results.