Friday, February 22, 2013

The lost 50 years of kitchen history, where did it all go?

There seems to be this huge gap of available knowledgeable from the turn of the last century to about 1954.  I spent hours searching for books or ephemeral from that time period with very little luck.

It all started when I wanted to learn about the icebox.  

I thought it would be a rather easy thing to learn about, but the internet is suspiciously mute when it comes to this subject.  Sure there are tutorials on how to put a block of ice in a non-functioning fridge, or how to use a camper cooler, but that's about it.  The wiki page has about the most useful info I've found so far, and this rather nice picture:

From the wiki page on iceboxes linked above

The icebox arrived as people moved to the cities from the country   Before the icebox, houses had cellars and larders, usually a room dug into the ground to keep food cool.  As population density in the cities increased, there was less and less room for cellars, but that's okay because there was always someone wiling to sell you something, and you could buy your food fresh daily.  Although buying food daily cost more than buying it when there was a surplus and keeping it in your home.  The idea of iceboxes sprung up, and were easy enough to make yourself or buy as your economic predicament dictated.  Having a place to store your perishables really helped save money and time.  

I've seen mentions of versions of the icebox pre-dating the Victorian period, but basically they took off during the middle of the 19th Century.  But the icebox has a rather short hayday.  It wasn't till the twentieth century that they really took off, and then as electricity moved across the nation, and houses were being wired into the grid, the icebox lost it's charm in favour of the electric refrigerator.  So, it seems that the rice and fall of the icebox corresponds to the same period of history that I'm having trouble finding information on.

You think about the time between 1900 and 1950.  There is a huge change in society in general, and this is reflected in the kitchen.  2 world wars, crop failures, Victory gardens, ration stamps, wide spread acceptance of industrialized agriculture, and industrialized pre-packaged foods. Go from the pantry to the icebox, to the electric ice box.  We moved from the country grocery store where you shop at least once a day and often had food delivered to your back door, to the once a week supermarket.  Microwaves were invented, a side effect of the atomic bomb I'm sure.  TV dinners.  Electric Freezers.  From wood, to coal, to gass, to electric stoves.  Mas transportation  highways, railroads, airplanes moving food not only across the country by around the world!  Perfection of canning techniques that no longer poison people with lead, and the creation of aluminium which allows lighter weight cans.  SPAM!  The fact that people were hungry enough to eat SPAM!  

Sure, we've had agricultural revolutions before that, and the major shift from rural to urban dwelling brought about by the 1800s, but I don't know of a time in history when so much changed in the way that people approached food.  It really surprises me that there aren't any books written on this topic.  At least I haven't found any.  I cornered the librarian and asked her to do a search, with no luck.  The next step for me is to brave the local archives and see if I can locate some ephemera from back then.  

Although I only started out wanting to know how people use to build and use an icebox, now I want to know more!  Project Gutenberg has a few wartime household manuals put out by the government (both US and UK) so I think I'll start there.  

Another place I'll start is asking old people about what life was like back in the day.  I bet there is a lot of good know how there that could be useful today, especially as a way to save energy in food storage.  

Taken at Fort Rod Hill park last summer.
A bit before the time in question, or maybe not,
electricity arrived quite late in many parts of North America.
I wonder how weird it would be if I went to the local old people home and asked 'hey, you got anyone old enough to remember what it was like to be a housewife pre 1950, but still with-it enough to tell me about it?' Probably be turned out on my arse, but it would be a bit of a lark to try.  Maybe I should put an add up on UsedAnywhere, "anyone got an old person who was a housewife pre 1950 who I can borrow for a few hours and listen to stories about how life was like back then?"  

It is my goal to build a working icebox, using old timey knowledge and modern materials.  I'm very curious about how efficient can we make it and what the temperatures are for different parts of the icebox.  Using an icebox requires a whole different mindset and approach to food safety which I'm curious to learn about.  

Anyone have any ephemera or household manuals, or experience with the kitchen between 1900 to 1950, please let me know know (to donate or for sale at a reasonable price - or even scan in to share with me?). Any good links or books you can recommend?  Just leave a comment here, I would love to hear from you.

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't a housewife before 1950, but I was a young person living at home, and I remember much of how we lived. We had an icebox, though most everyone around us had refrigerators. We couldn't afford one, but people were getting rid of iceboxes and they were cheap. The ice man came up the back stairs twice a week with a huge block of ice in his tongs, and our food stayed (mostly) cold. But we also lived by the seasons. In the summer, we didn't buy the volume of perishables that people take for granted now, like gallons of milk and large quantities of meat. Our milk was delivered by truck every morning and during the hot months we would drink most of it that day. Any that soured was turned into yoghurt or cottage cheese. And without air conditioning, we didn't have the same appetite for heavy meals in the summer that people do now, so we ate mostly vegetables and fresh salads. Greens were kept in the icebox, but other vegetables were kept in boxes in a spare room that also served as an icebox in the winter. It wasn't heated, so keeping things from freezing was more of a problem than keeping them cold.

    My mother had a kerosene stove (the kind with the oven on the top on one side) and cooked everything from scratch. She thought cake mixes (which were just becoming popular then) were for lazy people. There were no cabinets or "labor saving devices"--she had a table, a stove, the ice box, and a sink with a cupboard over it. My grandmother had a huge cast iron coal-fired range, and also a kerosene stove for cooking in the summer. Her kitchen was straight out of the 1920's--a Hoosier cabinet, the two stoves, a sink and a table, and that was all. All the food and dishes were stored in the adjacent pantry, and all the preparation was done on the table. That's pretty much what my kitchen consists of too--stove, fridge, table and a mobile cart (I don't even have a sink in the kitchen). I look at what people consider to be essential in a kitchen nowadays and just smile. My daughter wanted me to come to her house for Thanksgiving because she just knew I couldn't turn out a holiday dinner in my kitchen--was she surprised!

    There's a Yahoo list on refrigeration alternatives that has had some references lately to mid 20th century publications from the refrigeration industry. I'll see if I can find some links to send you. It was interesting to see how strongly the industry affected how people thought about refrigeration--most of what we see in fridges now (ever larger capacity, no defrost, larger freezers, etc.) were industry driven, not something that housewives wanted.