Oversized islands may be everywhere these days, but they didn’t exist in early kitchens. Still, the concept of a separate workspace started showing up as early as the 18th century, which means it is possible to design an island for today's needs while hewing to historical examples.
Successful islands can take many approaches in vintage homes: They can be modeled on early worktables and remain on the simple side, or appear as a a more solid piece of woodwork with turned legs or bun feet, as though evolved over time from a piece of furniture. They can integrate numerous bins, drawers, and cabinets, reminiscent of early Hoosier baking cabinets. They can even be comprised of a repurposed antique like a candy-store counter, pharmacy built-in, or dresser.
In the 18th century, kitchens often had a simple dry sink, a rectangular cabinet used to wash dishes before indoor plumbing, and a central worktable. Worktables began as fairly plain objects standing on open legs, and were used to knead dough, prepare foods, and store cooking accessories. Because kitchens were not family spaces at the time, worktables really weren’t used for sit-down meals.
As kitchens marched toward more efficient designs during the late 19th century, innovative designers like Austria’s Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky began integrating storage and working features into every nook and cranny (efforts that led to modular kitchen cabinets). The simple worktable transformed, too, becoming a space with drawers and cabinets, or even built-in bins.
By the mid-20th century, larger homes and an increasing emphasis on entertaining added stools and snazzier designs to kitchen islands. Within a couple of decades, kitchens were boasting solid built-in center islands that were the belle of the kitchen ball, conversation pieces in their own right, and the precursors to today's hub-of-the-home kitchen islands.