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A kitchen is a room used for food preparation. A modern kitchen is typically equipped with a stove or microwave oven and has a sink with water on tap for cleaning food and dishwashing. Modern kitchens often also feature a dishwasher. Some installations to store food usually also are present, either in the form of an adjacent pantry or more commonly cabinets and a refrigerator.

Although the main function of a kitchen is cooking, it can be the center of other activities as well, especially within homes, depending on its size, furnishing, and equipment. If a washing machine is present, washing and drying laundry is also done in the kitchen. The kitchen may also be the place where the family eats, provided it is large enough. Sometimes, it is the most comforting room in a house, where family and visitors tend to congregate.

A modern western kitchen offers a , , and among other amenities.
A modern western kitchen offers a stove, sink, and cabinets among other amenities.

The evolution of the kitchen

The development of the kitchen has been intricately and intrinsically linked with the development of the cooking range or stove. Until the 18th century, open fire was the sole means of heating food, and the architecture of the kitchen reflected this. When technical advances brought new ways to heat food in the 18th and 19th centuries, architects took advantage of newly-gained flexibility to bring fundamental changes to the kitchen. Water on tap only became gradually available during industrialization; before, water had to be collected from the nearest well and heated in the kitchen.

Early history

The houses in Ancient Greece were commonly of the atrium-type: the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard. In many such homes, a covered but otherwise open patio served as the kitchen. Homes of the wealthy had the kitchen as a separate room, usually next to a bathroom (so that both rooms could be heated by the kitchen fire), both rooms being accessible from the court. In such houses, there was often a separate small storage room in the back of the kitchen used for storing food and kitchen utensils.

In the Roman Empire, common folk in cities often had no kitchen of their own; they did their cooking in large public kitchens. Some had small mobile bronze stoves, on which a fire could be lit for cooking. Wealthy Romans had relatively well-equipped kitchens. In a Roman villa, the kitchen was typically integrated into the main building as a separate room, set apart for practical reasons (smoke) and sociological reasons (operated by slaves). The fireplace was typically on the floor, placed at a wall, sometimes raised a little bit (one had to kneel to cook). There were no chimneys.

The roasting spit in this medieval kitchen was driven automatically by a propeller—the black cloverleaf-like structure in the upper left.
The roasting spit in this European medieval kitchen was driven automatically by a propeller—the black cloverleaf-like structure in the upper left.

Early medieval European longhouses had an open fire under the highest point of the building. The "kitchen area" was between the entrance and the fireplace. In place of a chimney, these early buildings had a hole in the roof through which some of the smoke could escape. Besides cooking, the fire also served as a source of heat and light to the single-room building. A similar design can be found in the Iroquois longhouses of North America.

In the larger homesteads of European nobles, the kitchen was sometimes in a separate sunken floor building to keep the main building, which served social and official purposes, free from smoke.

The first known stoves in Japan date from about the same time. The earliest findings are from the Kofun period (3rd to 6th century). These stoves, called kamado, were typically made of clay and mortar; they were fired with wood or charcoal through a hole in the front and had a hole in the top, into which a pot could be hanged by its rim. This type of stove remained in use for centuries to come, with only minor modifications. Like in Europe, the wealthier homes had a separate building which served for cooking. A kind of open fire pit fired with charcoal, called irori, remained in use as the secondary stove in most homes until the Edo period (17th to 19th century). A kamado was used to cook the staple food, for instance rice, while irori served both to cook side dishes and as a heat source.

The kitchen remained largely unaffected by architectural advances throughout the middle ages; open fire remained the only method of heating food. European medieval kitchens were dark, smokey, and sooty places, whence their name "smoke kitchen".

In European medieval cities around the 10th to 12th centuries, the kitchen still used an open fire hearth in the middle of the room. In wealthy homes, the ground floor was often used as a stable while the kitchen was located on the floor above, like the bedroom and the hall. In Japanese homes, the kitchen started to become a separate room within the main building at that time.

In castles and monasteries, the living and working areas were separated; the kitchen was moved to a separate building, and thus couldn't serve anymore to heat the living rooms.

With the advent of the chimney, the hearth moved from the center of the room to one wall, and the first brick-and-mortar hearths were built. The fire was lit on top of the construction; a vault underneath served to store wood. Pots made of iron, bronze, or copper started to replace the pottery used earlier. The temperature was controlled by hanging the pot higher or lower over the fire, or placing it on a trivet or directly on the hot ashes.

Leonardo da Vinci invented an automated system for a rotating spit for spit-roasting: a propeller in the chimney made the spit turn all by itself. This kind of system was widely used in wealthier homes.

Using open fire for cooking (and heating) was risky; fires devastating whole cities occurred frequently.

Beginning in the late middle ages, kitchens in Europe lost their home-heating function even more and were increasingly moved from the living area into a separate room. The living room was now heated by tiled stoves , operated from the kitchen, which offered the huge advantage of not filling the room with smoke. Freed from smoke and dirt, the living room thus could become to serve as an area for social functions and increasingly became a showcase for the owner's wealth and was sometimes prestigiously furnished. In the upper classes, cooking and the kitchen were the domain of the servants, and the kitchen was set apart from the living rooms, sometimes even far from the dining room. Poorer homes often did not have a separate kitchen yet; they kept the one-room arrangement where all activities took place, or at the most had the kitchen in the entrance hall.

The medieval smoke kitchen remained common, especially in rural farmhouses and generally in poorer homes, until much later. In a few European farmhouses, the smoke kitchen was in regular use until the middle of the 20th century. These houses often had no chimney, but only a smoke hood above the fireplace, made of wood and covered with clay, and used to smoke meat. The smoke then rose more or less freely, warming the upstairs rooms and protecting the woodwork from vermin.

Colonial American kitchens

In the Colonial American kitchen, the same distinction as for the medieval European kitchen is visible. The early settlers in the north often had no separate kitchen; a fireplace in a corner of the cabin served as the kitchen space. Later, the kitchen did become a separate room, but remained within the building.

The development in the southern states was quite different, but then, so were the climate and sociological conditions. In southern estates, the kitchen was often relegated to an outhouse, separated from the mansion, for much of the same reasons as in the feudal kitchen in medieval Europe: the kitchen was operated by slaves, and their working place had to be separated from the living area of the masters by the social standards of the time. In addition, the area's warm climate made operating a kitchen quite unpleasant, especially in the summer.

Completely separated "summer kitchens" also developed on larger farms further north to avoid that the main house was heated by the preparation of the meals for the harvest workers or tasks like canning.


Technological advances during industrialization brought major changes to the kitchen. Iron stoves, which enclosed the fire completely and were more efficient, appeared. Early models included the Franklin stove around 1740, which was a furnace stove intended for heating, not for cooking. Benjamin Thompson in England designed his "Rumford stove" around 1800. This stove was much more energy efficient than earlier stoves; it used one fire to heat several pots, which were hung into holes on top of the stove and were thus heated from all sides instead of just from the bottom. However, his stove was designed for large kitchens; it was too big for domestic use. The "Oberlin stove" was a refinement of the technique that resulted in a size reduction; it was patented in the U.S. in 1834 and became a commercial success with some 90,000 units sold over the next 30 years. These stoves were still fired with wood or coal. Although the first gas street lamps were installed in Paris, London, and Berlin at the beginning of the 1820s and the first U.S. patent on a gas stove was granted in 1825, it wasn't until the late 19th century that using gas for lighting and cooking became commonplace in urban areas.

The urbanization in the second half of the 19th century induced other significant changes that ultimately would also change the kitchen. Out of sheer necessity, cities began planning and building water distribution pipes into homes, and built canalisations to deal with the waste water. Gas pipes were laid; gas was used first for lighting purposes, but once the network had grown sufficiently, it became available also for heating and cooking on gas stoves. At the turn of the 20th century, electricity had been mastered well enough to become a commercially viable alternative to gas and slowly started replacing the latter. But like the gas stove, the electrical stove had a slow start. The first electrical stove had been presented in 1893 at the Chicago world fair , but it wasn't until the 1930s that the technology was stable enough and began to take off.

Industrialization also caused social changes. The new factory working class in the cities was housed under generally poor conditions. Whole families lived in small one or two-room apartments in tenement buildings up to six stories high, badly aired and with insufficient lighting. Sometimes, they shared apartments with "night sleepers", unmarried men that paid for a bed at night. The kitchen in such an apartment was often used as a living and sleeping room, and even as a bathroom. Water had to be fetched from wells and heated on the stove. Water pipes were laid only towards the end of the 19th century, and then often only with one tap per building or per story. Brick-and-mortar stoves fired with coal remained the norm until well into the second half of the century. Pots and kitchenware typically were stored on open shelves, and parts of the room could be separated from the rest using simple curtains.

In contrast, there were no dramatic changes for the upper classes. The kitchen, located in the basement or the ground floor, continued to be operated by servants. In some houses, water pumps were installed, and some even had kitchen sinks and drains (but no water on tap yet, except for some feudal kitchens in castles). The kitchen became a much cleaner space with the advent of "cooking machines", closed stoves made of iron plates and fired by wood and increasingly charcoal or coal, and that had flue pipes connected to the chimney. For the servants the kitchen continued to serve also as a sleeping room; they slept either on the floor, or later in narrow spaces above a lowered ceiling, for the new stoves with their smoke outlet no longer required a high ceiling in the kitchen. The kitchen floors were tiled; kitchenware was neatly stored in cupboards to protect them from dust and steam. A large table served as a workbench; there were at least as many chairs as there were servants, for the table in the kitchen also doubled as the eating place for the servants.

The middle class tried to imitate the luxurious dining styles of the upper class as best as it could. Living in smaller apartments, the kitchen was the main room—here, the family lived. The study or living room was saved for special occasions such as an occasional dinner invitation. Because of this, these middle-class kitchens often were more homely than those of the upper class, where the kitchen was a work-only room occupied only by the servants. Besides a cupboard to store the kitchenware, there were a table and chairs, where the family would dine, and sometimes—if space allowed—even a fauteuil or a couch.

Gas pipes were laid only in the late 19th century, and gas stoves started to replace the older coal-fired stoves. Gas was more expensive than coal, though, and thus the new technology first was installed in the wealthier homes. Where workers' apartments were equipped with a gas stove, gas distribution would go through a coin meter.

In rural areas, the older technology using coal or wood stoves or even brick-and-mortar open fireplaces remained common throughout. Gas and water pipes were first installed in the big cities; small villages were connected only much later.


The trend to increasing gasification and electrification continued at the turn of the 20th century. In industry, it was the phase of rationalisation, where work processes were attempted to be streamlined. Taylorism was born, and time-motion studies were used to optimize processes. These ideas also spilled over into domestic kitchen architecture due to a growing trend that called for a professionalization of household work, started in the mid-19th century by Catharine Beecher and amplified by Christine Frederick 's publications in the 1910s.

The was designed after principles.
The Frankfurt kitchen was designed after Taylorist principles.

Working class women frequently worked in factories to ensure the family's survival, as the men's wages often did not suffice. Social housing projects led to the next milestone: the "Frankfurt kitchen". Born in 1926, this kitchen measured 1.9m by 3.4m, with a standard layout. It was built for two purposes: to optimize kitchen work to reduce cooking time (so that women would have more time for the factory) and to lower the cost of building decently-equipped kitchens. The design, created by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, was the result of detailed time-motion studies and heavily influenced by the railway dining car kitchens of the period. It was built in some 10000 apartments in a social housing project of architect Ernst May in Frankfurt.

The initial reception was heavily critical: people were not accustomed to the changed processes also designed by Schütte-Lihotzky; it was so small that only one person could work in it; some storage spaces intended for raw loose food ingredients such as flour were reachable by children. But the Frankfurt kitchen embodied a standard for the rest of the 20th century in rental apartments: the "work kitchen". Too small to live or dine in, it was soon criticized as "exiling the women in the kitchen", but the post-World War II conservatism coupled with economic reasons prevailed. The kitchen once more was seen as a work place that needed to be separated from the living areas. Practical reasons also played a role in this development: just as in the bourgeois homes of the past, one reason for separating the kitchen was to keep the steam and smells of cooking out of the living room.


The idea of standardized dimensions and layout developed for the Frankfurt kitchen took hold. The equipment used remained a standard for years to come: hot and cold water on tap and a kitchen sink and an electrical or gas stove and oven. Not much later, the refrigerator was added as a standard item. The concept was refined in the "Swedish kitchen" using unit furniture with wooden fronts for the kitchen cabinets. Soon the concept was amended by the use of smooth synthetic door and drawer fronts, first in white, recalling a sense of cleanliness and alluding to sterile lab or hospital settings, but soon after in lively, friendly colors, too. A trend began in the 1940s in the United States to equip the kitchen with electrified small and large kitchen appliances such as blenders, toasters, and later also microwave ovens. This trend was adopted in many other industrialized regions as well following World War II, in particluar in Western Europe and Japan.

Parallel to this development in tenement buildings went the evolution of the kitchen in homeowner's houses. There, the kitchens usually were somewhat larger, suitable for everyday use as a dining room, but otherwise the ongoing technicalization was the same, and the use of unit furniture became a standard also in this market sector.

General technocentric enthusiasm even led some designers to take the "work kitchen" approach even further, culminating in futuristic designs like Luigi Colani's "kitchen satellite" (1969, commissioned by the German high-end kitchen manufacturer Poggenpohl for an exhibit), in which the room was reduced to a ball with a chair in the middle and all appliances at arm's length, an optimal arrangement maybe for "applying heat to food", but not necessarily for actual cooking. Such extravaganzas remained outside the norm, though.

In the former Eastern bloc countries, the official doctrine viewed cooking as a mere necessity, and women should work "for the society" in factories, not at home. Also, housing had to be built at low costs and quickly, which led directly to the standardized apartment block using prefabricated slabs. The kitchen was reduced to the max and the "work kitchen" paradigm taken to its extremes: in East Germany for instance, the standard tenement block of the model "P2" had tiny 4  kitchens in the inside of the building (no windows), connected to the dining and living room of the 55 m² apartment and separated from the latter by a pass-through or a window.

Free for all

Starting in the 1980s, the perfection of the extractor hood allowed an open kitchen again, integrated more or less with the living room without causing the whole apartment or house to smell. Before that, only a few earlier experiments, typically in newly built upper middle class family homes, had open kitchens. Examples are Frank Lloyd Wrights House Willey (1934) and House Jacobs (1936). Both had open kitchens, with high ceilings (up to the roof) and were aired by skylights. The extractor hood made it possible to build open kitchens in apartments, too, where both high ceilings and skylights were not possible.

The re-integration of the kitchen and the living area went hand in hand with a change in the perception of cooking: increasingly, cooking was seen as a creative and sometimes social act instead of work, especially in upper social classes. Besides, many families also appreciated the trend towards open kitchens, as it made it easier for the parents to supervise the kids while cooking. The enhanced status of cooking also made the kitchen a prestige object for showing off one's wealth or cooking professionalism. Some architects have capitalized on this "object" aspect of the kitchen by designing freestanding "kitchen objects". However, like their precursor, Colani's "kitchen satellite", such futuristic designs are exceptions.

Another reason for the trend back to open kitchens (and a foundation of the "kitchen object" philosophy) is also to be found in the changes in the food alimentation. Whereas in the 1950s most cooking started out with raw ingredients and a meal had to be prepared for real, the advent of frozen meals and pre-prepared convenience food has changed the cooking habits of many people, who consequently used the kitchen less and less. For others, who followed the "cooking as a social act" trend, the open kitchen had the advantage that they could be with their guests while cooking, and for the "creative cooks" it might even become a stage for their cooking performance.

Domestic kitchen planning

Beecher's "model kitchen" brought early principles to the home.
Beecher's "model kitchen" brought early ergonomical principles to the home.

Domestic kitchen design per se is a relatively recent discipline. The first ideas to optimize the work in the kitchen go back to Catherine Beecher's A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843, revised and republished together with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe as The American Woman's Home in 1869). Beecher's "model kitchen" propagated for the first time a systematic design based on early ergonomics. The design included regular shelves on the walls, ample work space, and dedicated storage areas for various food items. Beecher even separated the functions of preparing food and cooking it altogether by moving the stove into a compartment adjacent to the kitchen.

Christine Frederick published from 1913 a series of articles on "New Household Management" in which she analyzed the kitchen following Taylorist priciples, presented detailed time-motion studies, and derived a kitchen design from them. Her ideas were taken up in the 1920s by architects in Germany and Austria, most notably Bruno Taut , Erna Meyer , and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. A social housing project in Frankfurt (the Römerstadt of architect Ernst May ) realized in 1927/28 was the breakthrough for her Frankfurt kitchen, which embodied this new notion of efficiency in the kitchen.

While this "work kitchen" and variants derived from it were a great success for tenement buildings, home owners had different demands and didn't want to be constrained by a 6.4  kitchen. Nevertheless, kitchen design was mostly ad-hoc following the whims of the architect. In the U.S., the "Small Homes Council", since 1993 the "Building Research Council", of the School of Architecture of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was founded in 1944 with the goal to improve the state of the art in home building, originally with an emphasis on standardization for cost reduction. It was there that the notion of the "kitchen work triangle" was formalized: the three main functions in a kitchen are storage, preparation, and cooking (which Catherine Beecher had already recognized), and the places for these functions should be arranged in the kitchen in such a way that work at one place does not interfere with work at another place, the distance between these places is not unnecessarily large, and no obstacles are in the way. A natural arrangement is a triangle, with the refrigerator, the sink, and the stove at a vertex each.

This observation led to a few common kitchen forms, commonly characterized by the arrangement of the kitchen cabinets and sink, stove, and refrigerator:

  • A single file kitchen has all of these along one wall; the work triangle degenerates to a line. This is not optimal, but often the only solution if space is restricted.
  • The double file kitchen has two rows of cabinets at opposite walls, one containing the stove and the sink, the other the refrigerator. This is the classical work kitchen.
  • In the L-kitchen, the cabinets occupy two adjacent walls. Again, the work triangle is preserved, and there may even be space for an additional table at a third wall, provided it doesn't intersect the triangle.
  • A U-kitchen has cabinets along three walls, typically with the sink at the base of the "U". This is a typical work kitchen, too, unless the two other cabinet rows are short enough to place a table at the fourth wall.
  • The block kitchen is a more recent development, typically found in open kitchens. Here, the stove or both the stove and the sink are placed where an L or U kitchen would have a table, in a freestanding "island", separated from the other cabinets. In a closed room, this doesn't make much sense, but in an open kitchen, it makes the stove accessible from all sides such that two persons can cook together, and allows for contact with guests or the rest of the family, for the cook doesn't face the wall anymore.

Modern kitchens often have enough informal space to allow for people to eat in it without having to use the formal dining room. Such areas are called "breakfast areas", "breakfast nooks" or "breakfast bars" if the space is integrated into a kitchen counter. Kitchens with enough space to eat in are sometimes called "eat-in kitchens".

Other kitchen types

A chef can prepare fresh food for hundreds in this 20th century canteen kitchen.
A chef can prepare fresh food for hundreds in this 20th century canteen kitchen.

Restaurant and canteen kitchens found in hotels, hospitals, army barracks and similar establishments are generally (in the Western world) subject to public health laws. They are inspected periodically by public-health officials, and forced to close if they don't meet hygienic requirements mandated by law.

Canteen kitchens (and castle kitchens) were often the places where new technology was used first. For instance, Benjamin Thompson's "energy saving stove", an early 19th century fully-closed iron stove using one fire to heat several pots, was designed for large kitchens; another thirty years passed before they were adapted for domestic use.

Today's western restaurant kitchens typically have tiled walls and floors and use stainless steel for other surfaces (workbench, but also door and drawer fronts) because these materials are durable and easy to clean. Professional kitchens are often equipped with gas stoves, as these allow cooks to regulate the heat quicker and more finely than electrical stoves. Some special appliances are typical for professional kitchens, such as large installed deep fryers, steamers, or a Bain Marie. (As of 2004, steamers—not to be confused with a pressure cooker—are beginning to find their way into domestic households, sometimes as a combined appliance of oven and steamer.)

The fast food and convenience food trends have also changed the way restaurant kitchens operate. There is a trend for restaurants to only "finish" delivered convenience food or even just re-heat completely prepared meals, maybe at the utmost grilling a hamburger or a steak.

The kitchens in railway dining cars present special challenges: space is constrained, and nevertheless the personnel must be able to serve a great number of meals quickly. Especially in the early history of the railway this required flawless organization of processes; in modern times, the microwave oven and prepared meals have made this task a lot easier. Galleys are kitchens aboard ships (although the term galley is also often used to refer to a railroad dining car's kitchen). On yachts, galleys are often cramped, with one or two gas burners fuelled by a gas bottle, but kitchens on luxury liners or large warships are comparable in every respect with restaurants or canteen kitchens. On passenger airplanes, the kitchen is reduced to a mere pantry, the only function reminiscent of a kitchen is the heating of in-flight meals (where they haven't been "optimized" away altogether) delivered by a catering company. An extreme form of the kitchen occurs in space, e.g. aboard a Space Shuttle (where it is also called the "galley") or the International Space Station. The astronauts' food is generally completely prepared, dehydrated, and sealed in plastic pouches, and the kitchen is reduced to a rehydration and heating module.

Outdoor areas in which food is prepared are generally not considered to be kitchens, although an outdoor area set up for regular food preparation, for instance when camping, might be called an "outdoor kitchen". Military camps and similar temporary settlements of nomads may have dedicated kitchen tents.

Kitchens around the world


  • Andritzky, M. (Ed.): Oikos: Von der Feuerstelle zur Mikrowelle, Anabes, Giessen 1992; ISBN 3-870-38669-X. In German; out of print.
  • Beecher, C. E. and Beecher Stowe, H.: The American Woman's Home, 1869. The text is vailable at Project Gutenberg at [1].
  • Harrison, M.: The Kitchen in History, Osprey; 1972; ISBN 0-850-45068-3; out of print.
  • Lupton, E. and Miller, J. A.: The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste, Princeton Architectural Press; 1996; ISBN 1-568-98096-5. The introduction is available online. In English.
  • Miklautz, E. et al. (Ed.): Die Küche — Zur Geschichte eines architektonischen, sozialen und imaginativen Raums, Verlag Böhlau, Vienna 1999; ISBN 3-205-99076-5. In German.
  • Snodgrass, M. E.: Encyclopedia of Kitchen History; Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers; (November 2004); ISBN 1-579-58380-6.

External links

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2005 18:34:38
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