Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

History revisited – the kitchen becomes the heart of the household

I am not sure how old we were. We must have been young, for we travelled in the Morris Minor that was Gran’s car, although it always seemed to be driven by my aunts who were then living at home. In this case, Aunt Kay was going to see Great Aunt Sarah and brought us along for the ride.

I do not know how old Sarah was, although cousin Arnold might be able to tell me. Certainly she seemed very old to us. The house had a slab kitchen separated from the main house as many kitchens once were. While I can no longer remember all the details, I do remember how quaint and old fashioned it seemed.

Geoffrey Blainey in his fascinating study of early Australian domestic life, Black Kettle and Full Moon, notes that as late as 1850, less than half the dwellings in Australia had a kitchen. People cooked out doors or, if they had a sizeable hut, on open fires at one end of the room. Many huts had huge fireplaces running almost the width of the building. Cooking took place in pots or billies placed on or just above the open fire.

Camp Oven Powerhouse museum By 1850, the camp oven (image, Powerhouse Museum) was already a popular way of cooking. Essentially a small cast-iron box with a lid on top and often set on three legs, the camp oven could be placed in the open fireplace and ashes heaped over it, allowing for a more even distribution of heat. Bread could be cooked, puddings made or meat roasted.

As kitchens spread, they were (as in Sarah’s case) built separate from the house at the back, often linked by a covered pathway. They sometimes included the laundry, a store room and, in wealthier households, a servant’s room just off the kitchen, creating a back wing. You can still see signs of this configuration in some older houses.

This layout reduced the risk of fire, an ever present problem in colonial New England. It kept food smells away from the main house and, in hot areas, the heat of the constantly burning kitchen fire. In colder areas such as the high Tableland, it also made the servant’s room the warmest room in the house.

From the 1880s, houses even in the bush began to include an interior kitchen. The reasons for this shift are unclear.

Blainey surmises that it may have been due to acclimatisation. People were more willing to accept kitchen heat in summer, less willing to accept winter cold. My own feeling is that the shift was simply practical, it was easier to get hot food to the table.

The shift to an inside kitchen combined with another change from the 1860s, the introduction of the kitchen stove in place of open fire and camp oven. This greatly aided cooking while reducing the risk of fire.

The new kitchen and especially the kitchen table had become the heart of the household, a central workplace and point of family gathering.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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