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Step-Saving Kitchens

To help homemakers reduce time and work involved in kitchen activities, the Bureau is designing and preparing construction drawings for kitchens, with different arrangements of equipment — the U, L, broken U and L, and parallel-wall types of arrangement. They are designed to reduce walking, stooping, and stretching to a minimum, in accordance with accepted principles of work simplification.

Stiebeling, Hazel K. (1948). Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, Agricultural Research Administration. U.S. Department of Agriculture, p. 13.

Throughout its existence, the USDA's Bureau of Home Economics used principles of systematic research to devise the best designs for efficient kitchens and farmhouses. This post showcases several of the more prominent results of this work.

Floor plan of the Beltsville Kitchen-WorkroomFloorplan of the kitchen design described in Howard, Mildred S., Thye, Lenore Sater, and Tayloe, Genevieve K. (1958). The Beltsville Kitchen-Workroom With Energy Saving Features. Home and Garden Bulletin, Number 60, p. ii.

The National Archives has digitized a 1949 film from the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics: A Step-Saving Kitchen. The USDA home economist who appears in and narrates the film is Lenore E. Sater Thye, the co-author of "A Step-Saving U Kitchen."

The film showcases several features of this kitchen design including the Planning Center, the Mixing Center, the Vegetable Preparation Center, the Cooking and Serving Centers, the Dishwashing Center, and the Dining Corner. All features were designed to facilitate a "smooth production line, comfortable work heights, and handy storage" with "good natural light and cross ventilation."

The professionals at the Bureau of Home Economics used established work principles and practical experience gained in their laboratories to develop kitchen design plans that would be efficient and functional for the public.

"A Step-Saving Kitchen" documented some of the steps taken in this process.

Different kitchen counter heights were tested by Bureau staff to determine which ones were optimal for comfort and performance:

home economist mixing bowls at various counter heights


Lenore E. Sater, Housing and Equipment Specialist at the Bureau of Home Economics is shown here with a USDA carpenter conferring on a kitchen cabinet design:

Lenore E. Sater with a USDA carpenter

Bureau staff would produce drawings of kitchen designs that would be transformed into working plans and fully realized in working models at their USDA laboratories in Beltsville, Maryland:

Working model of a USDA-designed kitchen

Bureau staff would then test the models as they engaged in the normal kitchen tasks of food preparation, cooking, and cleaning. Design changes would be made based on the findings of the work done in the laboratory.

Many housewives actually walk miles while doing their kitchen work because the stove, sink and work table are far apart in their great big kitchens. That was the way especially with many old-fashioned kitchens. But recently the housewives and the architects and the engineers and the home economics specialists got at it and began talking and planning convenient kitchens. So modern kitchens in general are better workshops and kitchen jobs can be done in less time, and with less effort.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Office of Information. Radio Service (1932). Easier Kitchens. Housekeepers' Chat.

Even before the work was done in the mid 1900s by the Bureau of Home Economics, the USDA produced publications to help rural citizens as they planned kitchens to be built or remodeled within the farmhouse.

Here are a few examples of these publications:

Farm Kitchen as a Workshop cover

Barrows, Anna (1921) The Farm Kitchen as a Workshop. Farmers' Bulletin, Number 607

Convenient arrangement of the kitchen and its equipment means lighter work and shorter hours for the housekeeper and her helpers.

Plenty of light and good air are essential to good results in the kitchen and to the comfort of those working there.

Running water and a drain for carrying off waste save the housekeeper many steps and many hours.

Convenient location of pantry, dining room, and storeroom with reference to the kitchen and, so far as possible, on the same floor level will also save many steps.

A separate laundry, which may be combined with an entry and wash room for the men and children coming in from out of doors, is more sanitary than using the kitchen as a "general-purpose" room.

Washable surfaces for floor, walls, ceiling, and woodwork, obtained by oiling, painting, or covering with suitable material, makes them easy to clean. Unfinished wood floors, moldings, and table tops are poor economy; they are hard to clean and soon show stains and signs of wear.

Durable, convenient equipment is most economical and should be so placed that there is the least possible strain on the worker's muscles as she performs her tasks. Many of the tired backs are the result of improperly placed kitchen equipment, pp. 17-18

Floor plan of a kitchen

Floor plan of a kitchen showing (A) scattered equipment wasteful of worker's time and energy, and (B) rearrangement into a compact unit. The dotted lines represent the paths traveled in the preparation, service, and cleaning-up of a meal, the heavier lines being those most frequently traveled, p. 10

Convenient KitchensGray, Greta (1926) Convenient Kitchens. Farmers' Bulletin, Number 1513

First, last, and all the time, in planning and equipping a kitchen, think about the work to be done in it.

If building or remodeling a kitchen, make it oblong and with no more floor space than actually needed. A kitchen is a workroom. Spaciousness is paid for in miles of extra steps.

Study the relation of the kitchen to the rest of the house. Make a direct connection from kitchen to dining room in the common wall between them. See to it also that there is easy access to front and back doors, to the telephone, to the stairs, to the cellar, and to the second floor.

Arrange for adequate ventilation in all weathers and for good lighting at all work centers at night as well as during the day.

Choose finishes for floor, walls, and woodwork that are durable, suitable in color, and can be kept clean easily.

Select furnishings that fit the needs, suit the wall and floor space, and will pay for themselves in usefulness. Weigh the pros and cons of built-in or movable furnishings for your own kitchen and compare prices carefully. p. II

Three kitchen designs

"A comparison of square and oblong kitchens showing the greater convenience and saving of floor space in the oblong," p. 2

-- Emily Marsh, Ph.D., MLS

The National Agricultural Library holds copies of many historical and current materials on the best ways to design kitchen spaces for efficiency, comfort, and convenience. Here are the Bulletins and Reports used in this story: