Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 16, 2016. It has been updated with new information.
Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
A little while back, while falling down a Zillow rabbit hole, we happened across a late-1700s eyebrow colonial a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. On the property was something we had rarely seen before: an intact "summer kitchen."
Sitting towards the back of the property, the low-profile brick-and-stone structure has a wood door and a stout chimney. The listing provided no interior photos, but there was mention of a fireplace (which, we’ll note, one could have easily surmised from the presence of the chimney).
We were suddenly overcome with curiosity about the origins of these small structures, how they were built, and if they were truly, as their name implies, only used during the summer. We set out for some answers.
Used primarily in the late-18th and early-19th centuries (though exceptions can be found), the summer kitchen had a number of practical applications in residential life. At its most basic level, the outbuilding physically separated hot kitchen activities from the rest of the house during the warmer months—a key way to survive the summer before the advent of modern air conditioning.
"Often, people would disassemble their coal or wood cookstove and move it into the summer kitchen when the weather got hot," says Nancy Carlisle, senior curator at Historic New England and co-author of America’s Kitchens. "It was all an effort to keep the house as cool as possible."
The summer kitchen also helped to keep cooking smells away from the main living areas of the house. But even more than that, the physical separation of a lit stove or hearth from the primarily wooden house meant that summer kitchens also reduced the risk of house fires. Notice how the summer kitchen in the listing photo is stone while the house wood frame—that difference of material is not an accident, and was likely influenced by the threat of fire.
In our conversation with Carlisle, she noted that in addition to being an auxiliary space for cooking, summer kitchens could also serve as a year-round location to do smelly chores like laundry.
While we’re no strangers to the idea of the kitchen being distinct from the rest of the house—it was a fairly common practice in the Gilded age—the separation of these seasonal kitchens from the main house does not necessarily signal a wealthy household. "Summer kitchens can be found in any type of house, from grand to modest," said Carlisle.
While summer kitchens are primarily found in upstate New York and the Midwest, 18th-century houses in the mid-Atlantic region—like Virginia—often separated the kitchen in a distinct, usually wooden, structure. Unlike summer kitchens of the north, these discrete workspaces were the main kitchens and were used year round rather than seasonally.
The separate kitchen structures of the mid-Atlantic region, which were used by enslaved workers, also held social significance, as it physically separated the enslaved in a space that often was capped by sleeping quarters in its attic. "The new kitchen architecture [of 18th century Williamsburg, Virginia] suddenly had little to do with cooking and everything to do with gender, race, and social space," writes Michael Olmert, Professor at University of Maryland in his essay "Kitchens: Places Apart."
Inside these kitchens of the 18th century—be they seasonal or not—little would actually signify the space as, well, a kitchen—at least to modern-day dwellers. "The whole notion of a kitchen with purpose-built cabinetry and countertops is very modern," said Carlisle. "We don’t see kitchens like the ones we’re used to until after 1930."
It's not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that summer kitchens were set up similarly to the kitchen in the main house. The space was kept quite clear, usually featuring a table pushed against the wall that could be used as either a workspace or a regular kitchen table. There may have been a rack for drying clothes or herbs, but the majority of the furnishings in the space would be entirely portable and temporary.
Food would be prepped in the kitchen, but it would not be stored there. "Herbs could be dried in the attic, flour and vegetables could be kept in a cool cellar—you could be traveling all around the house in order to assemble the ingredients for the evening’s meal," said Carlisle of food production in the late-18th and early 19th centuries. There wouldn’t even be a sink. Instead, water would be brought in and any washing would be done in a wooden barrel that could be emptied afterwards.
If the water needed to be heated, it would be done over the fireplace, one of the only elements of the kitchen built into the space. In houses of a certain age, the fireplace would be deep, practically a walk-in. But those fireplaces were wildly inefficient in their use of fuel, and were quickly switched out at the turn of the 19th century for a significantly more effective design by Count Rumford, a design that is shallow with widely splayed sides.
Aside from the fireplace, there may also be a bake oven directly to the right or to the left of the firebox. If you ever come across an older house with a fireplace that has an oven built next to it, chances are that room was once the kitchen of the house.
As summer kitchens exist today, though, they are completely obsolete. As kitchen technology changed, it no longer became necessary to move food preparation—and various unsightly chores—outside of the house. Although it
But while they now exist as a badge of historic honor on a real estate listing or as a quaint garden folly, we can't help but feel it would be kind of cool to have one of these culinary fossils in your backyard. If you restored it for recreational use, you’d almost be guaranteed to have the most unique cookout of the season.