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A History of Kitchen Lighting

Looking at the evolution of kitchen illumination can offer bright ideas for picking period fixtures today. By Gordon Bock

    Par for the 1930s, this sink relies primarily on natural light from a window, with a single incandescent fixture in a white glass shade for backup. The sink incorporates an early dishwasher. (Photo: Carolyn Bates)

    Par for the 1930s, this sink relies primarily on natural light from a window, with a single incandescent fixture in a white glass shade for backup. The sink incorporates an early dishwasher. (Photo: Carolyn Bates)

    Some say that the force behind the evolution of modern design is aesthetic—specifically, the drive to eliminate ornament and historical references—while others make the case that it’s all a matter of science: New materials and new technologies inspire novel designs. Though such a debate may sound chicken-and-egg, it does help make sense of the regular shifts in lighting kitchens over the past century or so and the apparent see-saw between looks and utility. More important for old-house owners, a backward glance at these shifts can also offer ideas about lighting placement and appearance that are compatible with an old-house kitchen today, as well as guidance for choosing from the many historically accurate light fixtures on the market.

    Oil and Gas (1880-1915)

    Along with the hand force pump for running water, the task-specific placement of the gaslight bracket indicates that this sink, at Billings Farm in Vermont, is in a state-of-the-art kitchen for the 1890s. (Photo: Carolyn Bates)

    Along with the hand force pump for running water, the task-specific placement of the gaslight bracket indicates that this sink, at Billings Farm in Vermont, is in a state-of-the-art kitchen for the 1890s. (Photo: Carolyn Bates)

    Artificial light was little more than an afterthought for kitchens until the latter part of the 19th century. For generations, the kitchens of houses large and small were workspaces inhabited by a handful of fixtures—a hearth or cookstove, a worktable or two, and maybe a sink and small cabinet—and typically the domain of servants. Food preparation took place during daylight hours so the kitchen space was designed (if that could be the word) to take full advantage of natural light through windows. Artificial light, if needed, could come from a movable source, such as the kerosene lamps available to most of the country after the first oil well in 1859.

    For kitchens, dedicated lighting in the modern sense was not really possible until centralized gas lighting systems became widespread in the 1880s. The mechanics of piping a house for gas service meant that a typical installation was a single fixture suspended from the center of a room or hall ceiling. If blessed with ample space or budget, walls might be lavished with one or two bracket fixtures—and that was it. Kitchens, which were typically never public places in the gaslight era, would be low on the pecking order for gas lighting, and if they did get service it would be in the form of a double drop-pendant, essentially a pipe in the shape of an inverted T fitted with burners and little or no shades. As late as 1912, gas alone was still a viable lighting option, and one tastemaker recommended that “for the kitchen ceiling an inverted gas light is very practical, finished in dull black.” Though many kitchens of the era were the last spaces to get lighting upgrades, forward-thinking owners invested in gas-electric fixtures that were equipped with the up-and-coming power source, electricity.

    One of the legendary Newport mansions and now a popular museum, The Elms (1901) was spared no expense in construction, down to the commercial size kitchen with its then-novel electric lighting. anote the bare-bones fixtures with clear-glass lamps. (Courtesy of the Preservation Society of Newport County)

    One of the legendary Newport mansions and now a popular museum, The Elms (1901) was spared no expense in construction, down to the commercial size kitchen with its then-novel electric lighting. Note the bare-bones fixtures with clear-glass lamps. (Photo: Courtesy of the Preservation Society of Newport County)

    Early Electric (1900-1915)

    When it came to kitchen lighting, the breakthroughs that were brought by the incandescent electric lamp, colloquially called a light bulb, were twofold. Although the light output of the first generation of lamps perfected by Edison in 1879 was indeed a great improvement over candle and oil light, it was not by orders of magnitude. When all was said and done, the pioneering carbon filament lamp was roughly equivalent in service to the new, brighter Welsbach mantle lights that were breathing new life into gas lighting in 1885, as they were no less expensive or reliable than the old stand-by, gas. What electricity could offer over gas was a world of flexibility. Released from the fixed energy sources of rigid pipes and the need to vent combustion byproducts a safe distance from walls and ceilings, electric lights could be placed wherever they were most convenient or most needed—the dawn of the concept of task lighting.

    This subtle improvement shows up in the progressive kitchens from the decade just before World War I. Historic photos and original kitchens show spaces set up very similar to gaslit kitchens of the previous era—that is, with one or two no-frills pendant lights suspended from the center of the ceiling to augment a room that was still designed with sinks and work surfaces near windows. The most advanced kitchens of the era, however, also incorporated wall fixtures in a few key spots along walls, not an uncommon concept with gaslights of course, but much more practical with electric light around say, the flame of cooking ranges. The fixtures themselves were invariably as functional as pots and pans: pipes or cords suspending naked carbon lamps, often in clusters of twos or threes and sometimes shielded by green glass or prismatic shades to help direct and soften the light cast through clear-glass envelopes.

    The Model T Age (1915-1930)

    While the postwar period brought a sleek, industrial look to kitchens and an influx of appliances and continuous-steel cabinets, it also embraced anachronisms such as overhead lights looking much like oil lamps. (Courtesy of Shelburne Museum)

    While the postwar period brought a sleek, industrial look to kitchens and an influx of appliances and continuous-steel cabinets, it also embraced anachronisms such as overhead lights looking much like oil lamps. (Photo: Courtesy of Shelburne Museum)

    Though light fixtures in general continued to evolve through the 1910s and early 1920s, as manufacturers worked to wring ever increasing bits of light out of a succession of new and improved lamps, it was the advent of the tungsten filament lamp in 1909 (unfrosted until about 1924) that sparked a new era in light fixture design. With an output that was twice as bright as any previous lamp and stunningly whiter than the orangey glow of a carbon lamp, the tungsten lamp kicked lighting to new levels and with it new ways of use.

    By the 1920s, engineers and designers devoted to the new specialty of lighting could now pronounce that this wealth of lumen opportunity might be separated into three functions: direct lighting (light directed or reflected in one direction, typically downward), indirect lighting (light reflected into the room from a hidden light source in a specialized fixture, such as an inverted bowl), and semi-indirect lighting (combinations of the two). Though direct lighting was ideal for “comfort rooms,” such as living rooms, dining rooms, and dens, it was deemed inappropriate for work areas because of the potential for shadows. Architects and fixture manufacturers alike immediately seized upon the possibilities of indirect and semi-indirect lighting, designing applications and fixtures to take advantage of them in ways that are commonplace today but were excitingly scientific then and widely promoted.

    The 1930s kitchen at the 1843 Knott House in Tallahassee, Florida, shows the average impact of electrification: a central white-shaded light with another over the sink, plus a plug-in refrigerator. (Photo: Andrew Cotellis)

    The 1930s kitchen at the 1843 Knott House in Tallahassee, Florida, shows the average impact of electrification: a central white-shaded light with another over the sink, plus a plug-in refrigerator. (Photo: Andrew Cotellis)

    Depression Era (1930-1945)

    Nonetheless, at the beginning of the Depression the average residential kitchen still clung closely to the notion of a central light source. “The best kitchen light is an all-enclosing white glass ‘kitchen lighting unit’ mounted close to the ceiling,” announced one pair of author-architects in 1932. The white glass, as well as the single 100-watt or 150-watt ‘daylight’ lamp it housed, was intended to approximate as closely as possible natural light to keep food looking appealing and the kitchen itself cool and clean. The only other fixtures recommended were a lone “50-watt, inside-frosted bracket” at the sink and, at most, a pendant of similar size near the stove.

    In 1933, an article about household kitchen planning, published by the American Architect magazine in collaboration with the Good Housekeeping Institute, cited that for work in kitchens, “a central fixture alone will seldom suffice as it casts the shadow of the operator upon the work before her.” The solution then, according to the authors, was to add a coved ceiling at the cabinet line that would reflect light down to the counter or table level. Other more specific work areas could take the same tack, such as lighting the range with a fixture under or inside its own cove or a ventilating hood. Soffit lights, an idea well ahead of their time, were endorsed for broadcasting light directly over a counter and could be placed either under upper cabinets or in a box strip where the upper cabinets met the ceiling.

    Whatever the practice, the imperative was to avoid using any exposed fixtures within normal view unless they were shielded by shades or glass. By the end of the decade, many sages of domestic planning had changed their stripes, recommending that “adequate lighting for the kitchen should include, in addition to a semi-indirect, central ceiling fixture, a shaded light over each working area,” as well as “soffit lights on the underside of cupboards.”

    Postwar (1945-1955)

    Fluorescent fixtures flourished in kitchens after 1945, where the advantages of cool, copious light overcame fluorescent's lack of stylistic panache. (Photo: Courtesy of Shelburne Museum)

    Fluorescent fixtures flourished in kitchens after 1945, where the advantages of cool, copious light overcame fluorescent's lack of stylistic panache. (Photo: Courtesy of Shelburne Museum)

    As happened earlier in the 20th century, the post-World War II period brought with it the futuristic opportunities made possible by new materials and technologies, as well as a swell of nostalgia for earlier, less advanced times, at least as far as aesthetics were concerned. Both left their mark on the kitchen lighting of the era.

    While the abstract, freeform, and “atomic” fixture shapes that began to light avant-garde living and dining rooms in the late 1940s and early ’50s influenced kitchens somewhat, the real impact was from a new light source: the fluorescent lamp. Like plastics and other new technologies that matured quickly in service of the war effort, fluorescents really came into their own for residential use after World War II, especially for kitchens.

    First attempted in the early 1930s, the fluorescent lamp was touted as being as much a lighting revolution as the carbon filament incandescent lamp and the light source of the future, given that it was “an electronic device, at one with radio, television, x-ray, and the electronic eye,” according to literature of the day. Indeed, industrial tube and ring shapes were quick to find a home in the postwar kitchen, with its laboratory look of manmade counter and cabinet materials. “Fluorescent lighting is especially well adapted to the kitchen,” suggested a 1947 guide, “avoiding the heat of incandescent lamps, and easily placed under wall cabinets.” Though tastemakers lamented the fluorescent’s limited adaptability in shapes and sizes for decorative rooms, in a kitchen empty of ornament, that was a minor trade-off compared to the advantages of copious amounts of cool, soft, economical light that intensified blues, greens, and yellows, some of the favorite colors of the day.

    At the same time that many kitchens embraced the clean, continuous machine appearance of America’s industrial image, others, in direct contrast, turned the clock back to the innocence of an earlier handmade age. The unprecedented housing boom of the postwar period reignited America’s long-running love affair with all things Colonial but in new forms adapted to the social needs of the era, such as the developments full of identical Cape Cod houses. By this logic, kitchens could naturally be fitted with wrought-iron chandeliers or sconces that shed the light from electrified candles on cabinets of knotty pine and resilient tile floors of faux brick. Or, in some permutations, the light over the kitchen table, where the family was now more likely to eat, could be a wagon wheel emblematic of that other lost American Eden: the Old West. It was a can-do time, and no matter what stylistic message you wanted to send in a kitchen, lighting manufacturers were ready to help make it happen.

    Published in: Old-House Journal March/April 2006

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