Monday, June 3, 2013

Of Hearth and Home

Quick: what’s your favorite room in the house? If you’re like 30 percent of Americans, you probably responded: “the kitchen.” As it turns out, the average family spends nearly 175 hours per month in their kitchen (compared to only 31 hours in the living room).[1] This raises the question: what’s so special about the kitchen? And has it always been at the center of American domestic life?

Joshua Hempsted House | Image courtesy of Locations Hub
Kitchens from the colonial period to the present have served families in myriad ways, acting as integrated household work quarters, separate sanitized outbuildings, and – more recently – all-purpose living areas for the modern twenty-first-century family. Yet, the current fad for open plan kitchen-cum-living rooms is not novel: in fact, this arrangement harks back to the very earliest cooking spaces used in colonial America.

Throughout much of the seventeenth century, the kitchens of middle-class homes were integrated components of the ground-floor hall (or living area). By the early 1700s, however, many homeowners began building lean-to kitchens onto the rear of their houses, prompted by the need to distance fire hazards from centralized living spaces and the desire to remove the implied odors, rubbish, soot and smoke inherent in colonial food preparation.

How can we map this shift away from hearth and home? One approach is to read the buildings themselves. At the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut, for instance, the kitchen slowly extended outward as the needs of the family changed. The house therefore presents a fascinating case study for the development (and disassociation) of the colonial kitchen.

The Joshua Hempsted House was built in 1678 by Joshua Hempsted I (1649–1687). In its earliest iteration, the building contained one room on each floor, including a ground-floor hall and an upstairs chamber. The hall was a large, multi-purpose family space used interchangeably for cooking, eating, entertaining and sleeping. By the time Joshua’s only son Joshua II (1678–1758) had moved into the family dwelling, however, the expectation for a separate, contained kitchen had taken hold.

Just when this change occurred remains a mystery. Despite a thorough architectural analysis of the building in the 1950s (when restoration work was completed), the question of when still plagues the addition of the lean-to kitchen. Conflicting records note the presence of a kitchen lean-to added by Joshua I sometime in the late 1600s, and a kitchen annex added in the year 1709. What is certain is that the house had a separate kitchen by the year 1711, when Joshua II began his now-famous diary, reprinted in 1901 as The Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut (1711–1758).

In 1958, Frederic Palmer, the restoration architect, stated that there was a lean-to kitchen added to the hall in the 1600s. “Unique among surviving houses,” he wrote in the Connecticut Antiquarian, “is the Kitchen placed in the single story leanto behind the block of the two story building containing the Hall.”[2] In more detail, Palmer noted that structural analysis at the time of restoration had revealed the remains of a base cooking fireplace with its bake oven in the normal seventeenth-century location in the rear wall of the fireplace, along with the exterior wall of the kitchen lean-to.[3] Current thinking supports this suggestion, with the home’s present Site Manager and Municipal Historian for the City of New London, Sally Ryan, hypothesizing that the lean-to kitchen adjoining Joshua’s hall dates to the same period as the hall, due to the presence of a bake oven in both spaces – perhaps suggesting that the two openings and ovens were constructed at the same time.

While the exact development and age of the kitchen at Hempsted House remains uncertain, this case study illuminates the fascinating migration of the kitchen away from the hearth and into the extremities of the home – and highlights the vital need for careful, circumspect investigation of all available evidence.

[1] Marni Jameson, “The Kitchen as Command Center,” Hartford Courant, October 8, 2010. 

[2] Frederic Palmer, “Hempsted House in New London” (The Connecticut Antiquarian, July 1958), 32.  

[3] Frederic Palmer, “Report of the Structures Committee” (Vol. VIII, December 1956, No. 2), 9-10.

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

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