The Thoroughly Modern Kitchen of the 1950’s

As I search through our modern kitchen looking for something I know we have but for the life of me can’t remember where we house it, I’m amazed by the vast amount of storage space and the number of electronic wonders we have to help us prepare our meals. My mother would be in awe of that stove that cost twice what we paid for my first car. And how about that gigantic French-door refrigerator that tells me everything except which team won last night after I nodded-off during the game? The pantry holds four extras of everything we could possibly need for the next six months, and the wine fridge can keep three dozen bottles of white cool and ready to consume should each and every one of our friends show up at precisely the same time. Definitely not the kitchen that my dear departed mom would recognize.

As I look back, the kitchen in my parents’ first house was no more than a third the size of the one we have today. And the electrical appliances could be counted on one hand – two fingers actually: a stove and a refrigerator. Others would come later, but when they bought the house in 1950, that was it.

When we moved in, the kitchen had zero cabinets, just an old metal Hoosier that could hold a few cooking utensils along with a rather small porcelain coated working surface on which to prepare meals. The refrigerator that came with the house was an early General Electric Monitor model that had the motor on the top. It had likely been there since the house was built in 1932. There was no real freezer, just an open metal cabinet close to the top where the cooling coils were located. Items placed inside would freeze and the entire metal surround would become encrusted in a heavy layer of frost created by the condensation. Beneath the cabinet sat a glass dish to collect any dripping water. The entire interior wasn’t more than four or five cubic feet in size – about one sixth the size of the one sitting in our kitchen today.

The General Electric Monitor refrigerator didn’t hold very much and the tin box at the top acted as the “freezer” since it was surrounded by the cooling tubes.
The one and only option for making ice were these miserable little aluminum trays that froze to your hands when you took them out of the freezer.

The stove was also an antique. It was operated by bottled propane gas that sat in twin cylindrical tanks outside on the patio. There was no pilot light. To ignite the gas, the dial was turned, and a match was lit, although it was safer to light the match first, as any match that took two or three strikes to produce a flame could cause a rather startling boom when the gas finally lit. Changing out that old stove was high on my dad’s list of priorities.

The sink was attached to an outside wall with the plumbing exposed. It was the standard white porcelain model that was deep enough to hold whatever pots and pans that needed scrubbing.

That was it. Considering virtually no one in that era went out to dinner except for special occasions such as a birthday or anniversary, and that fast food and pizza take-out didn’t exist, it’s amazing that anyone could survive for more than a few weeks using such a primitive setup. Yet most families did.

That kitchen was the first room to be remodeled. My dad built enough overhead cabinets to hold the family’s dishes, and enough under-the-counter ones to store mom’s baking dishes. The counters and floors were covered with linoleum that was no doubt heavily laden with asbestos, as asbestos was a great binding material that kept the linoleum from cracking. Mesothelioma wasn’t a big concern in 1950. Nearly every adult smoked, so ordinary lung cancer and early heart disease would likely take their toll before something as hard to pronounce as mesothelioma killed them.

The electrical outlets on the console of this GE pushbutton stove were at the top left and the only area to place an electrical appliance was at the right, so the cords were quite likely to drape across the burners. It’s hard to believe this could have been UL approved.

A new General Electric stove soon arrived with twin ovens and a unique set of pushbutton controls to adjust the heat on the four burners up top. Two drawers under the ovens held the frying pans and metal pots used to boil the veggies. If you look closely at the photo, you will notice two electrical outlets on the control panel that allowed the average housewife to plug an additional appliance or two into the stove. The power cord could then lay across one of the hot burners and melt before shorting out. Isn’t that why they invented fuses?  In our kitchen, a metal coffee pot was a standard fixture on the left rear burner. There wasn’t an automated coffee maker in those days, so you brewed your java the same way you would have when you were camping.

The old GE fridge was eventually replaced with a brand-new Kelvinator dad purchased from his old employer, Wiehl Nash in Bridgeport. In the 1950’s, appliances and automobiles were often displayed in the same showrooms, and the Nash Automobile Corporation manufactured and sold Kelvinator appliances. Our new machine was nearly double in size of the old one and had a real freezer compartment that could hold a couple of ice trays, a quart or two of ice cream, and a can of frozen orange juice concentrate. If you wanted to freeze multiple items, you needed to buy a separate, stand-alone freezer. They were usually large enough to hold a side of beef should your local butcher have a sale on one. They also took up so much space that most people had to keep them in the basement or the garage. I actually remember seeing a few freezers sitting on the back porches of some houses.

While a big improvement over the GE Monitor model shown the first photo, this Kelvinator was still limited in its ability to hold much food.

My parents likely received their first toaster as a house-warming gift. That was the norm, and most young couples ended up with two or three of them, the extras getting returned and exchanged for Corningware baking dishes or an electric can opener. The toaster they kept was made by Sunbeam. It held two slices of bread, had an adjustable browning dial, and a spring-loaded mechanism that sometimes popped the toast up before it became two chucks of smoldering charcoal. While it produced a lot of smoke, it never caught on fire.

My dad was someone who appreciated innovations, and whenever something new appeared on the market, if it fit our needs and budget, he was one of the first to purchase one. One of his best customers was Lederer’s Appliances on Broad Street in Bridgeport, so in appreciation, my dad became one of theirs. Among other brands, they sold Bridgeport built General Electric appliances, so other than our Kelvinator refrigerator, the majority of the new household appliances that made their way into our home came from Easton resident Joe Lederer’s store. In 1957, when GE introduced its first Toast-R-Oven, we were likely the first in our neighborhood to have one on our kitchen counter.

Unlike today’s version that can practically cook an entire meal, the first version simply made toast on top and heated bagels, buns, or could produce a melted cheese sandwich in the bottom drawer – the “oven” part in Toast-R-Oven. It sold for $29.95. One neat feature was the unit’s ability to keep toast warm in the “oven” at its base so that the whole family could enjoy breakfast together with warm toast served at the same time.

General Electric’s very first Toast-R-Oven from 1957. The following generation of this appliance was designed and patented by future Easton resident Paul O. Rawson in 1962.

Our dishwasher was the manual variety. We called him dad. Electric dishwashers had been around since the 1930’s, but there were very few built-in models because most early twentieth century kitchens simply didn’t have that much extra space available. Along with other manufacturers, GE built a portable unit that could be wheeled into the kitchen and parked in front of the sink where a water supply hose could be connected to the faucet. A separate drain hose went from the dishwasher to the sink. The thing looked like a large white metal barrel, and the dishes, glasses, and flatware were stacked in layers – kinda like a lobster-bake at the beach, but inside your kitchen in the middle of the floor. The ads claimed the machines could hold 100 pieces – unless a couple of the glasses broke during the wash cycle when that number ballooned to about 1,000. Where this thing was stored when not in use is the $64,000 question. Maybe on the back porch next to the freezer? Nobody in our neighborhood had one, despite the fact that the $169.50 price tag wasn’t all that steep.

Can you imagine wheeling one of these goofy looking machines up to the sink every evening after dinner?

There were no home microwave ovens in the 1950’s. Although patented in 1952, it would take a while to convince homeowners that microwaves weren’t going to turn the family cat into a lion and junior into a werewolf. When Amana introduced its “Radarange” in 1967 it was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. Our first microwave oven was almost as big and heavy as our regular oven – it was just a faster way to overcook your meal. In addition to cooking, it was also entertaining. Place a raw egg inside, turn the machine on, watch the egg begin to sweat, then shake, and finally explode. Fun for the whole family! But the machine took so darn much power to run that the lights dimmed while it was operating. When the lights in the kitchen got bright again, you knew your food had been sufficiently nuked.

Playing Perry Mason’s trusty secretary, Della Street, certainly qualified Barbara Hale as being an expert in cooking appliances.

Mixing ingredients for breads, cakes, and pie crusts was accomplished using a rather bulky electric mixing machine that took up half of one of the under-the-counter cabinets. Mom had a Sunbeam Mixmaster, complete with a juicer for making fresh orange juice during the two months of every year when fresh oranges would make their way north from Florida. This thing was so heavy that had it been dropped from a plane flying over our house, it would have created a three-foot deep crater in the back yard. Sunbeam must have transitioned from building armored tanks during WWII to manufacturing household appliances in the 1950’s using the same gauge steel.

Moms needed to workout at the gym in order to hoist one of these Sunbeam Mixmasters up onto the counter to mix the batter for your Toll-House Chocolate Chip cookies

Cleaning clothes was a chore made easier with an electric washing machine. Closely resembling their stupid-looking portable dishwasher, the GE model was also mounted on wheels so that it could be maneuvered close enough to the kitchen sink to make similar water and waste hose connections. While these machines were fairly large in size, they couldn’t clean all the clothes of a family of four in one load. Washing clothes was pretty much an all-day affair if you were also doing towels and linens. All day with the kitchen sink tied up. Very convenient.

General Electric must have assumed everyone had a spare room to store their “portable” appliances when they weren’t blocking access to the kitchen sink.

To make things easier on “the little woman” these washers had wringers that squeezed the excess water from the clothes after both the wash and rinse cycles. Early ones were hand operated making them easier to stop when a wayward finger guiding the garment got too close to the wringer. Later ones had electric wringers that better crushed those same fingers. According to General Electric, “Progress is our most important product.”

Luckily, our house had twin sinks in the basement, so our GE beauty sat down there out of sight except for laundry day.

Drying clothes in 1950 required a day without rain in the forecast, since laundry was strung outside in the fresh air. Clean clothes smelled really “outdoorsy” after being removed from rope lines that strung across every yard in our neighborhood. Other than rain, wind could cause some degree of havoc should one or more of the wooden clothes pins fail to keep the drying garments and sheets secure. But cold was biggest issue. Frozen laundry might have been comical in appearance, but not being able to fold something that was stiff as board made it difficult to bring inside and put away.

Our first electric clothes dryer appeared in the mid-fifties. While mom no longer had to hang our laundry outside, the dryer presented her with a brand-new problem: clothes that went in often came out two sizes smaller. As I recall, our first dryer had a single control on the front: a timer that could be set to accommodate the size of the load. The temperature setting was preset at the factory to “Screaming Hot.” Touching a metal button as soon as the clothes stopped spinning was not a pleasant experience. Neither cotton nor rayon fabrics seemed to resist shrinking when dried at high temperatures. After replacing several of our wardrobe items, mom decided certain pieces either needed to spend less time in the dryer or none at all.

Ironing most laundered items was a must. Again, GE manufactured a monstrosity of a machine that made that chore easier, but it required so much space to store and operate that almost no one bought one. By my estimation, if you were to have purchased GE’s complete line of “portable” household appliances, you would have had no room left in your house for any furniture.

Television personality Art Linkletter hawking the new GE “easy to store” electric ironing machine.

Mom had a real, old fashioned ironing board and an electric handheld iron. Early electric models didn’t have steamers. Instead, a Coke or Pepsi bottle was filled with fresh water, a stopper with several small holes installed, and it became a sprinkler that dampened the clothes just enough to help the iron remove the wrinkles.

Today, a compactor next to the sink in our modern kitchen takes those items we can’t recycle or compost and compresses them into a manageable package to take out in the trash toter on pickup day. But in 1950, we didn’t have someone who picked up our household waste. Instead, we incinerated much of it by burning it in a 15-gallon drum in the back yard before periodically placing the same drum in the back of the station wagon and taking it to the landfill on North Street – back then it was simply called the “town dump.” We did that until the day my dad was rolling the drum off the tailgate and a rather large rat jumped from the barrel as it hit the ground. I had to promise dad that I wouldn’t relate that story to my mother, as he knew her well enough to realize she would never drive that car again.

In 1952, homeowners who didn’t want to deal with burning their trash in the back yard had another alternative. Sears & Roebuck offered a home garbage incinerator that could be used inside the house. I kid you not!!!! With the smoke exhausting outside, garbage could be eliminated anywhere in the home according to their advertising. For example: “Right in the kitchen,” the company promised. “You save steps by on-the-spot disposal. Dump your food scraps, sweeper dirt and rubbish–anything burnable–into the Kenmore garbage burner. Simply light it and leave. No more trash-burning sessions outdoors, no more bother with garbage cans. The heavy-gauge steel body has a smooth, metallic brown baked-on enamel finish. Top, grate, and burner are made of sturdy, warp-resistant cast iron” The cost for residential trash incineration – along with the increased probability of burning your house down: a mere $31.50. Installation, smoke piping, air freshener, and fire extinguisher not included. Along with the lack of safety concerns, it appears that liability issues were also unimportant to the folks at Kenmore.

What could possibly go wrong with this “Do it Yourself” installation?

So, there you go. Anyone looking to go back and live in the good old days when life was far less complicated might want to consider why it was less complicated. Perhaps all the work needed to simply get by didn’t leave our parents with enough time to complicate their lives with much of anything else. Just saying…

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