Home and contents: the kitchen

And so we reach the truly ‘private’ part of the house, which guests would never have entered. You could call this part of the house ‘private’, or you could call it a place of work. Both would be equally true and the fact is that the latter led to the former, for the care and maintenance and provisioning of a Victorian home was supposed to be effortless, thanks to the skilled management of the woman of the house. The kitchen (and the associated scullery and pantry) was specifically a place of women’s work, whether it was the women and girls who lived in the house, or the servant(s) employed by them, or both. As already noted, we’ve not found any evidence that the Chalmers employed servants, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t. By the 1890s, though, servants were becoming hard both to find and to retain in Aotearoa New Zealand, as other employment opportunities for women became more appealing (Macdonald 2000: 42).

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the kitchen. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

The ‘private’ nature of the kitchen is key to understanding why the kitchen, the scullery and the pantry were all connected. Yes, it was convenient (and by no means everything about Victorian house layout was), as these spaces were used in tandem, but it also ensured that all the work carried out in these rooms remained invisible, that nobody had to pass through the hall carrying dirty dishes, or an armful of food or, worse still, to bump into a visitor while doing so. This too, is perhaps why the dining room in this particular house was connected directly to the kitchen, which was by no means the norm – in fact, it was not uncommon for the dining room to be some distance from the kitchen. The fact that neither solution was perfect highlights the difficulties of maintaining the separation between public and private.

The kitchen in Priscilla and James’s house, looking pretty much nothing like it did in their day, aside from the basic shape and the position of the doors (although not the tall cupboard just left of centre, which was a later addition). The ceiling profile is also original. Unsurprisingly, give the way that kitchen technology changed over the 20th century, most kitchens in 19th century houses have been heavily modified. Image: M. Hennessey.

The exact uses to which a kitchen was put would have depended on how the rest of the house was used. If Priscilla and James had had more children and had consequently not had a dining room, the kitchen would have been used for the consumption as well as the preparation of food. In a house without servants, it would have been where the woman of the house, and possibly her young children, spent much of the day. In a house with several servants, even family members would probably have spent little time in this part of the house. But it was always a place for preparing food. As such, the room was purely functional, with nothing in the way of decorative features. It would have had a large table in it, for preparing food at, and the walls in Priscilla’s kitchen were probably originally clad in match-lining (given that the walls in the adjacent scullery and pantry were).

One of the non-cooking activities probably carried out in the kitchen was ironing, as illustrated in the sketch to the left. Ironing was both a private household activity (definitely not something you let your guests see) and one that required a fire and/or hot water. The iron on the right was found in Rangiora, made by Jabez and John Whitehouse, Victoria, Tipton and was known as a box iron or charcoal iron. You can read more about how it worked here. Image: C. Dickson.

The cupboards and walls would also have been home to the instruments of cooking and food preparation used by Priscilla and/or her possible servant. Many of these would have been familiar to us today – pots and pans, mixing bowls, baking dishes – although the materials from which they were made differed. No Pyrex or heat-proof glass for the kitchens of the nineteenth century, and probably fewer metal mixing bowls (stainless steel wasn’t a feature of kitchenware until the twentieth century). Those that did exist would likely have been enamelled to protect the metal from the food and vice versa. Pots and pans would have been cast iron in most cases and, again, some would have been enamelled on the inside. Ceramic was still one of the best, most durable and most heat-resistant materials of the nineteenth century, and the baking dishes and mixing bowls of the kitchen would have reflected this. All of these vessels, unlike the ceramics used on the table in the dining room, are likely to have been quite plain, although some examples of decorated mixing bowls exist in the Christchurch assemblage. Most of the utensils used in the kitchen are likely to have been made from wood or metal, and the fragility of those fabrics in the archaeological record means they’re not often found.

Pots and pans. From top left, clockwise: large cast iron kettle; enamelled pot; large iron skillet; enamelled pot. Image: J. Garland & C. Dickson.
Ceramic dishes. Clockwise from top left: plain whiteware baking dish; yellow-ware baking dish; whiteware baking dish with moulded decoration; yellow-ware mixing bowl with banded decoration. Plain white mixing bowls are also quite common. Image: J. Garland & M. Lillo Bernabeu.

There seem to be two main ways in which late 19th century kitchens would have differed from modern kitchens. Well, actually, there are an awful lot of differences, but these two were fundamental and had a significant effect on the women who worked in late Victorian kitchens. They were the coal range and the meat safe. Or, in the case of the latter, the absence of a fridge and freezer. Think of what that means in terms of food storage and the frequency with which you’d need to go shopping, particularly at a time when you couldn’t get everything from one store, that dry goods came from one shop, meat from another, etc, etc. Then start to realise just how much preparing food might dominate a woman’s life. If preparing food dominated a woman’s life, the coal range was probably the most obvious symbol of that. Unlike a modern, temperature-controlled oven, a coal range needed to be carefully tended and fed. Further, it was often used to heat hot water (through a wetback) and was generally used year-round. So you had a fire going in the kitchen all year. The heat in here must have been in stark contrast to that in much of the rest of the house.

A selection of Shacklock’s Orion coal ranges on display at the New Zealand Exhibition in Christchurch in 1905. Image: New Zealand Mail 4/1/1905: 49 (supplement).
Matchboxes! Because so much of the cooking carried out in the Chalmers’s kitchen would have been done over flames or embers, the room would also have contained the material culture of fire – fire pokers, matches, coal shovels and the like. Image: J. Garland.

Katharine & Jessie

References

Macdonald, Charlotte. “Strangers at the Hearth: The Eclipse of Domestic Service in New Zealand Homes c.1830s-1940.” In At Home in New Zealand: Houses, History, People, edited by Barbara Brookes, 41-55. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2000.

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