The detached kitchen in context : architectural and social significance in eighteenth-century Tidewater Virginia

Leach, Sara Amy, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Lay, K. Edward, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia
Williams, D. Alan, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Verheyen, Egon, Johns Hopkins University

The kitchen as a recognizable room unit, where food preparation and cooking occurs, is characteristic of only the past eighty or so years of domestic room use and organization. Before the advent of plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems, and coal or wood stoves, cooking occurred in a shared space in the dwelling or in a detached outbuilding--each identifiable by a massive hearth and chimney block. It is here that washing, spinning, dying, eating, candle making, storage and often sleeping occurred. This arrangement was typical of most planter homes in the Tidewater region of the Virginia colony during the eighteenth century.

The kitchen in Virginia was not a new space, buts its evolution from multi-use space to an almost uniformly single-purpose building was particularly well-suited to the Tidewater colonies; one whose demise would come with the invention of the stove in the nineteenth century. The kitchen was divorced from the typical hall-and-parlor dwelling in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century concurrent with an increase in the number of slaves and slave labor, as opposed to that of indentured white servants.

The reasons for this were social and practical. The "Georgian world view" of order, hierarchy and specialized spaces was manifested in the gentry's creation of a carefully planned plantation with the dwelling at the center and nearby clusters or avenues of dependencies--kitchen, dairy, henhouse, barn, quarters, etc. The second reason was to remove the smoke, odors and risk of fire associated with the cooking hearth away from the dwelling. To this end, most detached kitchens were at least 20 feet from the house, although they were also usually the closest of secondary buildings.

Information about colonial kitchens is gleaned from various sources. The structural information that implies they had many uniform features is based on parish building orders, Mutual Assurance Society Declarations and sale announcements in The Virginia Gazette. Collectively, kitchens were predominantly frame with a loft above used for storage or inhabited by slaves, probably including the cook. Interiors were plastered and featured shelves and potracks for the organization of implements. Built-in dome-shaped ovens were common later in the century.

Social rituals--dinners, balls and barbeques--as well a Virginia policy of hospitality, encouraged the gentry, and to some extent the middling planter, to serve increasingly complicated and structured meals. Not only did food that was once simply a homogenous stew-like concoction evolve into multi-dish courses, but these were set on the table in symmetrically balanced arrangements. Some preparations--like puddings, cakes and syllabub--were molded into sculptural and volumetric forms.

It is difficult to determine what a typical colonial kitchen "staff' would have consisted of, though slaves certainly did most of the work. Yet, the white plantation mistress was still involved with the details of every meal--through the aid of cookery texts--and overseeing domestic activities as a whole. This realm was under her control (after her husband) and through the organization of the house and related dependencies she proved herself an effective woman.

The kitchen within the scheme of the plantation plan was also significant. In many cases it was part of a formal geometric scheme; some of the most dramatic plans connected the house to flanking dependencies by way of hyphens or a covered walkway. The latter type, like Mount Airy, provided the most elaborate and reliable path for the dinner platters and those bearing them en route to the dining room. In other cases, a brick or oyster-shell path was laid out, which led to a door specifically planned to facilitate access to the kitchen.

In sum, the detached kitchens addressed m this study belonged to the very wealthy planters, men who sought to organize their social, natural and man-made surroundings. The detached colonial kitchen in Virginia--as a building type and for its production of increasingly refined food--was confined to the eighteenth century and reflected the Tidewater culture.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Kitchens -- History, Architecture, Domestic -- Virginia -- Tidewater
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