The story of modern kitchen cabinets is full of historical tangents, linked as it is with the emancipation of women, a series of time-and-motion studies, and an early 20th-century quest for efficiency in all things. By modern standards, 19th-century kitchens didn’t have cabinets. The rooms were large, open, and utilitarian with a simple worktable, sink, and stove all borne on legs. For most average homeowners, the center worktable and some wall shelves had to suffice for storing all of the cooking implements. In upscale houses, where teams of servants toiled over cooking and serving meals, a pantry provided additional storage. There, an expanse of built-in, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry, called a pantry dresser, was designed to keep pots, china, and food out of sight. While pantry dressers were handy, they were uncommon in the kitchen proper and appeared in more fashionable houses.
The winds of cabinet change started blowing with Catharine Beecher in 1869. A sister of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was a doyenne of 19th-century domesticity who wrote several self-help books for women to create smooth-running households. According to Klaus Spechtenhauser, author of The Kitchen (2006), Beecher saw perfect working conditions for a housewife manifested in the functionally minimized galleys of Mississippi steamboats, and in 1869 she designed an ideal kitchen based on that model.
Beecher’s kitchen featured built-in bins for staples, such as flour and corn meal, thoughtfully placed to help ease the preparation of food. While her revolutionary ideas didn’t immediately take hold, by around 1890 they had become the model for large, freestanding, legged cabinet units full of organized storage compartments, integrated racks, a small counter for food preparation, and a large half-round drawer designed for raising dough. These baking cabinets took American kitchens by storm.