Summer Kitchens

Sam Moore reminisces on summer kitchens, a staple of many homes back in the day.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An Iowa summer kitchen. I don’t know why there are two entrance doors on two different levels, but one may be a later modification as these buildings were often re-purposed in later years.

The 1850 western Pennsylvania farmhouse I grew up in didn’t have a summer kitchen, but many homes did during the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. A friend of mine once lived in such a house and he used the erstwhile summer kitchen as a workshop. In those days of wood or coal burning cookstoves and no artificial cooling, the reason the summer kitchen was popular was not only the belief that it would be cooler, but that the main house would be as well. The following article by a woman in the May, 1907, The American Threshermen, heaps scorn on the idea of a summer kitchen having any advantages.

“Too many women are getting ready to move to the summer kitchen about this time. If any one thing is responsible for overworked women in the country during summer, it is the miserable summer kitchen.

“A good housekeeper once told me while the snow was still on the ground that she was ‘just wild’ to begin cooking in the summer kitchen. She would go out to the smoke-house/wood-house/tool-house where her summer toil kept her and look about longingly. Then when spring arrives, she spends a week scrubbing and whitewashing the rough building, polishing the rusty old stove with its cracked lids and broken legs, washing the two small windows, cleaning the dirty floor, putting the tools in order and tacking mosquito netting over the windows. Then she gazes with pride at her work and concludes she will take life easy this summer.

“And does she? Well, you can judge for yourself. She walks forty feet to get to her permanent kitchen door, endures all the agonies of a smoky old stove, fights flies, ants and other insect pests, as well as mice, climbs up and down three steps every time she makes a round trip to the house, misses hearing the telephone ring, rests on an old stool during odd moments because there’s no room for a comfortable rocker, and takes countless extra steps every day. But her main kitchen is immaculate! The blinds are closed and everything is in spotless order and her tired body is driven day by day to the unhandy summer kitchen in order to keep it so.

“Another summer kitchen that is slowly killing the mistress is located some little distance from the permanent kitchen and the meals are eaten in the house. Back and forth this ambitious woman runs–literally runs, from morning till night, to save work, she says! The flour, sugar and dry groceries must be kept in the pantry because the summer kitchen roof leaks, so every time she bakes her tired feet must hurry back and forth collecting materials. And most summer kitchens have decrepit old stoves that are fit for only for the junk pile, and this one is no exception. Her bread is burnt on the top and soggy in the bottom. But every one of the neighbors has a summer kitchen, so she must be in style regardless of comfort.

“In one summer kitchen I’ve seen, the floor is of loose boards and to turn one over reveals whole colonies of earthworms and insects. Most summer kitchens possess only one or two tiny windows and on a dark day cooking is guesswork. It’s impossible to keep out mice and one woman said she had to carry every bit of food to the house every night to keep it from from the hungry rats that infested her summer kitchen.

“Why do housewives want to leave their permanent kitchens? It is the delusive idea that the rough building, with its unplastered walls, will be cooler that lures unsuspecting women from their comfortable kitchens in summer. It seems to them that it will be less work to have less space, only a few utensils in a rough cupboard, and a board floor that calls for little work, but that notion is a snare and delusion. In summer, food must be cooked, fruit and garden truck canned and preserves made, so the housekeeper needs all the conveniences and step-savers possible.

“Don’t spend a lot of time cleaning up an old outbuilding and a lot more running back and forth all summer, but stay in your comfortable kitchen and save your strength. Give up forever the idea that the summer kitchen is a boon to the busy woman in the country. Stick to the house and you will have fewer flies, fewer steps, fewer backaches and more comfort in general for the hot weather.”

In those days the old rhyme, “Man works from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done” was really literal.

Sam Moore

Farm Collector Magazine
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