Enamel cookware, dishes and candlestick, a black stove with a flat iron and skillet on top, a nice old wooden high chair – nothing too surprising for a 1930-ish kitchen. But if you live in an English-speaking country, there may be things in this German kitchen that seem slightly, or very, unfamiliar.
Do you recognise the little shelf on the left-hand wall with three pots of sand, soda and soap: a characteristic German way of organising cleaning materials in the early 20th century? Nearby is a “modern” touch: an electric outlet. (The wooden apparatus next to it is a puzzle. Could it be glass-making equipment from the workshop on the other side of the wall? Please tell us below if you know.)
The coffee mill on the wall has a glass cup to catch the ground coffee and a jar above the grinder to store the roasted beans. This type was used in other European countries too – but not in Britain, where you were far more likely to see a tea caddy than a coffee mill. There was a variety of wall mills in the US, another coffee-drinking country.
There’s a mould hanging on the wall for baking ring cakes. If you’re American you’ll call this a Bundt pan, but they were uncommon in the USA of the 1930s. In Germany and Austria Kranzform (wreath-shape) pans for baking Bundkuchen aka Gugelhupfer have been known for 300 years: ceramic, copper, or iron before the days of enamelled steel or aluminium.
Just to the right of the cake pan is a collection of long-handled utensils. At first glance you may think it’s just a set of spoons and spatulas, but these are slightly different. The meat tenderiser in a poor household surely reflects a “schnitzel-oriented” style of cooking, and would not have been owned by a working-class family in England, for example.
And then there are four quirls. Three of them haven’t changed much from when they were part of a tree. Quirl is often translated as whisk but that could be misleading. These are wooden beating and mixing implements and are not used for whisking up snowy peaks of egg-white or cream. German-speaking households would have a schneebesen (snow-broom) for that, a wire whisk, if they didn’t have an electric or hand rotary beater.
A quirl is essential for making some kinds of traditional dumpling! It can also be used for mashing potatoes, making doughy or porridgy mixtures, stirring liquids, and it’s handy for other things too. You can make one from your Christmas tree when the seasonal festivities are over. Quirl means a “whorl” on a plant.
German kitchens used to have a decorative shelf with a set of pots, neat and tidy, filled with three essentials for a clean home: soap, sand, and soda. Although English-speaking countries never had a special storage unit like this, and didn’t think of the “three esses” as a trio, they also made much use of sand and soda as well as soap.
Antique wall-hung shelves with their three containers appeal to collectors in the USA, not just parts of Europe. The most attractive to me are the ones ornamented in folk art style with full-petalled pink roses and curving outlines. Traditional German lettering adds character too.
They all seem to be made of enamelled sheet metal and belong to the first half of the 20th century, or possibly the late 19th too – the heyday of enamelware. If you know when these first came into use please do add a comment. The early 20th/late 19th century dates would match with cleaning and washing methods in that period.
Washing soda in the late 19th century was factory-made and quite affordable. Among other things, it helps with laundry and with taking out stains from wood, and is simple enough to be seen today as a “green” product. Soap, like soda, was quite plentiful by 1900, not too expensive, and was available in powder or flakes suitable for filling a nice enamel pot.
Sand had been a basic cleaning agent for centuries: for scrubbing floors, scouring iron cooking pots, and much more. This is easier to remember in German-speaking countries where the word Scheuersand, meaning scouring sand, is still recognised. Fine sand for cleaning gradually morphed into white abrasive cleaning powders with hygienic-smelling chemicals. There was an intermediate stage with sand and soda scouring mixes. One brand of “sand”, ATA, was remembered with nostalgia by some older people from former East Germany, after it vanished around 1989.
Household advice books from 100 years ago tell us about using the three esses. There’s one in German that recommends mixing soda and sand for cleaning wood – no soap as that makes wood look grey. Use all three for metal utensils but be sparing with the sand or you will damage tinned surfaces. Enamel is best cleaned with a soap and soda mixture, after soaking.
Or you can buy some detergent at the supermarket…..
Hand-operated rotary egg beaters were invented just before 1860, but at that time it wasn’t yet clear what the best design for the job would be. Different inventors had different ideas for labour-saving ways of whisking eggs. The first beaters with rotating parts were probably an American design patented in 1856 (below right) and, in England, Griffiths’ Whisk patented 1857 (below left). A very different “egg-beater” invented in 1849 is illustrated near the bottom of the page.
Rotating beaters with a handle were always going to work best, but they came in different forms. Some early ones were fixed inside a pot, and couldn’t be used with the cook’s own choice of mixing bowl. Some were developed by the same inventors who designed small hand-cranked butter churns.
By the 1880s, mechanical egg beaters were usually the shape we know now. In the US they were called Dover egg beaters after being popularised by the Dover Stamping Company. The company acquired patents from a series of inventors, starting with the Monroe egg beater (below right), patented in the US in 1859. This design got a UK patent soon after and was manufactured in London by George Kent who also marketed the Griffiths model.
Some inventors focused on whipping egg whites and emphasised how much air they could get into the mix. Others wrote about batter and other mixtures as well as eggs.
Eggs prepared by beating are thoroughly charged with atmospheric air… (Collier patent, 1856)
Who used the new egg beaters?
The 1856 patent, like others after it, said how useful the new invention would be for hotels and restaurants as well as for ordinary households hoping to speed up a “laborious and fatiguing operation”. But some people may have been influenced against the new egg beaters by cookery experts who didn’t think highly of new-fangled devices.
…beat…with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen[ware] pan. The coldness of a tin pan retards the lightness of the eggs. For the same reason do not use a metal egg-beater…..put…the egg-beater always down to the bottom of the pan…Continue till the surface is smooth as a mirror, and the beaten egg as thick as a rich boiled custard… (Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847)*
However, by the 1890s The “Dover” egg beater was well-established in the US and was often mentioned in recipes and ads. In the 20 years between 1870 and 1890 Dover made 4 million egg beaters. Almost all were “family size” but they also sold 1000 “hotel size” and 10,000 “extra family size”.**
There’s less evidence of rotary beaters getting a firm grip in Victorian Britain, although some people certainly used them. With no well-known brand like Dover, they were advertised as “one-minute” or “ten-second” beaters, or with fanciful names like Biatrope or Archimedian. Advice on cooking and equipping kitchens mostly assumed an ordinary wire whisk would be just fine. Rotary hand mixers seem to have been even less popular in continental Europe.
To clamp or not to clamp?
Holding the beater by screwing it onto something fixed seems like a good idea, rather like an electric mixer set firm on a stand. The Monroes’ clamp was part of the original design, but you do wonder how it would work in an ordinary kitchen. Was the bowl held below a table? In 1859 a UK business demonstrated an “egg whisk, fitted with arrangement for screwing to table”.
The later 1800s saw numerous US patents for original clamping devices, presumably trying to improve on what we may call a “normal” clamp. But how many people really used egg beaters like this? Not many have survived. Most antique egg beaters are clamp-free.
Perhaps a hand egg beater is more versatile without a screw fitting? Perhaps the clamp has to be solid and strong to be effective? But then it would be more nuisance for washing and storing. The advertising I’ve seen doesn’t mention clamps.
EGG-BEATER: We have tried five different kinds in Boston, before a large audience and on the demand of an inventor of one, but none could beat eggs as well as a common hand-beater. The whites of the eggs could not be raised with any of the others much more than half as much as with the common one; and besides, could not be beaten stiff……Any tinsmith can make an egg-beater. It is generally made with tin-wire, but may be made with brass-wire.
1867, Handbook of Practical Cookery, Pierre Blot
Cradle designs have changed, but are parents’ concerns any different? 200 years ago people were writing about the well-known dilemma: how much can I let my baby sleep in the day without stopping it from sleeping well at night?
It only remains…to say something of the cradle…I believe there is no doubt but the custom of laying children down awake, and rocking them in a cradle in the day time, or…in the evening when they are to go into their night’s sleep, as it is called, may [make] them sometimes more wakeful in the night… From: A Treatise on the … Management of Infants, 1784*
Two of the cradles pictured on this page are 300-400 years old, but they look much the same as cradles from only 100 years ago. For centuries, babies in Western Europe and North America were put into small baskets or boxes raised slightly off the floor, on rockers, with or without a hood. Rocking cradles like these have gone out of fashion, and we have different customs now.
Rockers, hoods, drapes, handles, straps
Babies could be strapped in, either with strips of cloth tied right round the whole thing, threaded through holes, or attached to wooden knobs or basketry handles. The child was protected from draughts and damp floors, especially in a hooded cradle. Wicker cradles often had fabric drapes over the hood for extra warmth and daytime darkness.
A small cradle can be rocked by an older sibling or a busy adult with a foot to spare for rocking while her hands are busy with other tasks. It can be lifted to another place using handles or convenient bits of wood-carving. Overall, the baby was fairly safe but questions remain. Was it left alone? What about mice in a world without chemical pest control? Would a busy carer tie the baby in and neglect it?
I had made it an invariable rule always to dress and undress my infant, never suffered it to be placed in a cradle, nor to be fed out of my presence. A basket of an oblong shape with four handles (with a pillow and a small bolster) was her bed by day: at night she slept with me. I had too often heard of the neglect which servants show to young children, and I resolved never to expose an infant of mine either to their ignorance or inattention. From: Mrs. Robinson’s Memoirs, looking back at the 1770s*
Materials and styles varied regionally, though the basics stayed the same. Planks of wood from big trees were available inmuch of Britain and Scandinavia. Numerous paintings of Dutch domestic life confirm that wicker cradles were common in the Netherlands. Cradles were ornamented with colourful folk art in areas with strong traditions of painting on wooden furniture.
The last word goes to the 18th century “expert” quoted earlier:
I cannot help thinking, there is something so truly natural, as well as pleasant, in the wavy motion of a cradle, and so like what children have been used to before they are born, ….that, always wishing to follow nature as I do, I cannot, on the whole, but give an opinion rather in favour of the cradle. From: …Management of Infants, 1784*
* Michael Underwood, A treatise on the diseases of children, with directions for the management of infants from the birth; especially such as are brought up by hand, London 1784 * Memoirs of the late Mrs. Robinson, written by herself. With some posthumous pieces. Edited by her daughter, M. E. Robinson, London 1801
* More about the American wicker cradle picture here.
Drinking strong coffee made in a small pot called a briki, ibrik, cezve or rakwa, has become quite popular in English-speaking countries in the last few years. If you have an old briki – from an antique shop, relative’s attic, or an old souvenir – you may wonder if you can put it on the kitchen stove and prepare intense, concentrated coffee in the Greek or Turkish style.
If it’s a copper briki – and many are – you must check the inside. An unscratched tin lining is important for both taste and health reasons. Copper can give a nasty metallic taste to coffee. Even if it tastes OK, there’s a question mark over the safety of unlined copper cookware, especially for acidic drinks and foodstuffs. Using copper for cooking could lead to toxic levels in the body. Brass contains copper so it can’t be seen as a safe alternative.
You should be able to find a tin re-lining service if you want to get a vintage briki back in use, but be aware that having copper cookware re-lined is not cheap. Try to estimate the surface in square inches or centimetres before asking about price.
Making Greek or Turkish coffee
To prepare coffee in any briki, start with Greek or Turkish roast beans ground to a fine powder. You can buy a traditional spice mill to grind the beans by hand if you want to do it the old-fashioned way. Otherwise buy the coffee ready-prepared or use an electric mill or food processor. It’s possible to buy Greek coffees with special flavouring – like rose petal – but this is not for everyone.
Use at least a teaspoon of coffee, an optional teaspoon of sugar, and about 3oz (85g) of water per person and heat the mixture till it boils and froths. Many cooks like to remove the coffee from the heat, stir it, then boil it once or twice more. Pour or spoon out the froth (kaimaki “cream”) so everyone gets some in their demitasse cups. Next share out the liquid, trying to leave the coffee sediment in the briki. Sip slowly, hoping any grounds will stay settled at the bottom of the cup. Do not stir!
Other names for the briki include the Turkish cezve, and ibrik, a word related to briki. Brikia is the Greek plural, but ‘brikis’ sounds more natural to English speakers. Arabic speakers may say raqwa, rakweh or similar. Whatever the pot is called, coffee is made this way in many countries around the eastern Mediterranean.
Food served with a cold spoon may cool down too quickly for some tastes. Even worse, a dish with rich, fatty gravy may congeal unappealingly on its way to your plate. A decorative container filled with hot water to keep serving spoons and sauce ladles warm seemed like the perfect solution in Victorian England. The earliest spoon warmers date from the 1860s.
This makes more sense when we remember how cold British houses could be for much of the year. Until the later 20th century rooms were often poorly heated, even in wealthy homes. Households with servants urged their staff to hurry from kitchen to dining room so food could be served hot, or at least warm, on heated plates. (Keeping the plates hot was a big deal, but that’s another story.) Hot food was appetising and proof of a well-run home too. Spoon warmers played their part in the effort to serve food at the right temperature – and fitted in with all the other paraphernalia in a fashionable late 19th century dining room.
Shapes and materials
A silver nautilus shell, open end upward, was a popular shape for a spoon warmer. Antique shell types are not hard to find today. Presumably they’re appreciated as decorative items and not used much.
Silver and silver plate warmers were common, but spoon warmers were also made from majolica, bone china and other pottery, and sometimes from brass or copper. As well as the favourite shell style, often on a seashore-themed base, there were frogs and fish with open mouths, helmets, or hunting horns on their side.
Designs ranged from elegant pieces of silversmithing and ceramics to absurd novelties. You could buy a neatly lidded spoon warmer to match your Royal Worcester dinner service, or a boat-shaped warmer or bright blue toad made by Minton. The best warmers kept the hot water mostly covered, with an opening just big enough for convenience.
Some were designed to double up as something else, like this one which could also be an egg coddler.
Not everyone was whole-heartedly enthusiastic about spoon warmers and other fancy dining accessories:
His table was a torment by reason of its patented aids to enjoyment. What with his radial carver, iris spoon-warmer, and folding cruets; his self-acting gravy-helper, excelsior asparagus-tongs, and duplex plate-warmer; his royal potato-parer, imperial cucumber-slicer, and oriental digester, to say nothing of patent wine-lifts, corkscrews, oxygen-generators, appetite-stimulators, and the rest of it, dining became a burden, and dessert a weariness of spirit.
M.E. Braddon, A Victim of Patents, July 1869 Belgravia
They went out of fashion early in the 20th century. It wasn’t long before magazines were suggesting you could use them as “novel” flower holders.
Tea first arrived in Europe in 1610, when Dutch traders brought some back from Asia to the Netherlands. It reached England in the 1640s and soon became a fashionable drink in London, but it was not something you made at home. If you wanted to drink it in private you had to order a cup from one of the smart coffee-houses where all the new beverages – coffee, chocolate, and tea – were served.
To begin with tea was kept in porcelain jars that had travelled with it from China. Storage for tea became more and more varied once people were able to buy the leaves to brew at home. They had to be wealthy. Tea was so expensive that it was protected from pilfering. One pound (450g) could cost more than a skilled workman’s weekly wage. By 1700 well-to-do households had lockable wooden tea chests holding canisters full of the precious leaves. The lady of the house kept the key, and servants had no access.
A few tea canisters – not yet called caddies – travelled across the Atlantic with early Dutch and British migrants to North America. Matching pairs of canisters were popular for keeping a choice of teas to hand – usually green tea and black tea. Later tea chests sometimes had a third canister and/or a mixing bowl for creating your own blend.
Silver, fruitwood, and other caddies
English silversmiths soon started to make very fine caddies along with beautiful teapots, trays, caddy spoons, and other silver teaware reflecting the owners’ wealth and status. Antique silver and silver-gilt tea caddies attract high bids at auction today, with prices in tens of thousands of dollars for the best of them.
The earliest silver caddies in America were made in the first part of the 18th century – not long before a historic interruption to the growth of tea-drinking in that part of the world. Tea taxes imposed by the British government led to the Boston Tea Party, and, not surprisingly, all this discouraged American craftsmen from making caddies and other tea paraphernalia.
Today’s tea caddies belong in the kitchen, but earlier ones were for public display. A tea table was brought to the drawing room and set beside the lady of the house. A fine tea service with caddy was laid out for her, and she would take charge of preparing the luxurious beverage. In the 19th century she might have a special three-legged teapoy table or pedestal chest with her caddies stored under a flip-up lid.
Caddy designs proliferated, and most had a well-crafted lock and key. Some were chinoiserie influenced by Asian decorative arts. Furniture designers like Chippendale contributed chests and caddies in Georgian cabinet-maker style. As well as ceramic and silver caddies there were containers made from tortoiseshell, copper, painted papier-maché, glass, and exotic woods lined with foil. Ornamentation might include ivory, mother-of-pearl, enamel, or Regency penwork. Caddies covered in rolled paper filigree work were popular from about 1770 to 1815, some of them professionally finished and some bought ready for ladies to decorate at home.
One enduringly popular type of wooden caddy is carved in the shape of a fruit – often an apple or pear – and these are very sought-after today, fetching high prices, especially the earlier ones. They may be made of the fruitwood appropriate for their shape – like a pear caddy made of pearwood. They were inspired by Chinese containers in the shape of an egg plant or aubergine: a good luck fruit.
The tea caddy got its current name around 1800, from a Chinese and Malay measure of weight (cati) that was slightly more than a pound.
Hanging salt boxes used to be taken for granted in kitchens throughout northern Europe and colonial America. There they were, on the wall next to where you cooked.
The pictures on this page are all European, but salt boxes were an essential part of life for settlers in North America too. They pounded salt lumps with a mortar and pestle to make it ready for culinary use. Salt was important for preserving food as well as cooking it.
In colonial homes, free-flowing grains [of salt] began with placing the salt box near the fire for drying out lumps or removing a brick to make a salt niche.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of Kitchen History
In damp, cool weather salt absorbs moisture from the air. Cooks in colder places used to help it stay dry by keeping it:
near the fire or stove – most important
in an airy place – hanging on the wall kept it away from damp
covered – though not all salt boxes had a lid
The practical Pennsylvania Dutch housewife suspended a patterned and decorated covered salt box on the wall to contain enough crystals for preserving meat or as a granular extinguisher for dousing a kitchen fire.
Snodgrass, Encyclopedia, as above
Wooden salt boxes could be covered with decorative carving, sometimes as an engagement gift, painted, veneered, or left plain. Antique boxes that look simple may be very well crafted. Look at the quality of wood and joints, the hinging of the lid, the hanger, and the overall finish.
A salt box and a welcoming home
The salt box was full of meaning, over and above its practical importance. It was a symbol of hospitality in Germany, and suggested a well-run and comfortable home in Britain and Ireland too. Like salt itself the box might not be noticeable, and yet it was essential for cooking.
…her kitchen was…large, comfortable, and warm. …to the right hung a well-scoured salt-box…Over the door…were nailed, “for luck”, two horse-shoes that had been found by accident. In a little ” hole” in the wall, beneath the salt-box, lay a great bottle of holy water to keep the place purified…
Lianhan Shee, an Irish story collected by William Carleton, 1833
But if the salt box was unavailable the house was miserable and unwelcoming.
It was a very dark miserable place, very low, and very damp…The grate…was…screwed up tight, so as to hold no more than a little thin sandwich of fire. Everything was locked up; the coal-cellar, the candle-box, the salt-box, the meat-safe, were all padlocked…The pinched and meagre aspect of the place would have killed a chameleon.
Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1840-41
Salt box variations
Not all hanging boxes were wooden. You may see relatively modern ones in enamelware or earthenware with a wooden hanger and lid. Also see this highly decorative pewter salt box from before 1600.
Having no bathroom was no problem for people with servants. Using your bedroom for bathing was normal in the 1800s. Even if you were rich enough to install indoor plumbing, and enjoyed a bath or shower in a brand new bathroom, you wouldn’t necessarily want to give up the convenience of a commode near your bed, a washstand with warm water supplied by the maid or even a nice hip bath set near to all the bedroom furniture and accessories you used for grooming and dressing. This was especially true in big houses in cold weather. Keeping everything in one warm room was a good idea, or you could use a connecting dressing-room or boudoir, and still avoid unheated hallways.
As well as wardrobes, dressers, vanity tables, mirrors and so on, a 19th century middle or upper class bedroom serving as a bathroom too needed:
Chamber pot or a wooden commode in form of stool or steps, with pot hidden inside.
Washstand with earthenware bowl and accessories
At least one water carrier like can, pitcher, jug etc.
Free-standing wooden towel rail known as a towel horse
Basin for a sponge bath and/or a hip bath
Other things you might have seen include a bidet, a polished wooden clothes horse to hold clothing overnight, soap dishes, and a foot bath.
Bedsteps may have been useful for climbing into high beds, but from the 18th century people wanted them to conceal a “pan”. The same cabinet-making skills used for clever, folding furniture displayed in public parts of the house, like convertible library steps, were also applied to making bedroom steps double up as a seat and toilet.
The bidet here is not much like the modern idea of a bidet, especially as the box top looks as if it only has space for a very shallow pan inside under the lid. Still, the sales catalogue discreetly describes it as “complete”. See something similar in the second bidet photo here.
BIDET…. Amongst cabinet-makers it denotes a small stool with four legs, sometimes fixed, and at others to screw off, to render them more portable. They contain a pan made of tin, and japanned, or are of earthen ware, made for the purpose….
The simple box shaped ones are about 5 inches deep…
Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary, 1803
The first three pictures on this page are from England in 1875. The last one is from 1874, showing an American inventor’s idea for making a compact piece of furniture that would hide everything away in a kind of convertible vanity table with mirror and doors. No more need for separate washstand and bedsteps or chamber pot.
My invention relates to that class of toilet cases combining a commode, washing facilities, towel-rack, and other devices for use in a chamber or room; and consists in the hereinafter-described parts, combined and arranged in such a manner that the case may, when not in use, present a neat and compact article, capable of being opened out, in its several parts, for several uses incidental to chamber purposes…
Parents planning for a new baby in the 19th century felt some of the same pressures as parents today. From one direction came the voices of “experts” offering advice on safety, health, and hygiene. At the same time magazine writers and furniture salesmen talked up the fun of choosing pretty, fashionable furnishings for a baby’s bedroom, or nursery.
For a young baby’s bed nothing is prettier than the wicker bassinet, trimmed with muslin and lace and with a canopy to match. However, the muslin adornments soon lose their crispness and it is better to purchase a rattan or iron crib…with a frame or rod from which to suspend curtains of China silk or some pretty washing material, held in place with bows of ribbon…Iron cribs painted in white and gold with brass knobs and finishing are very effective.
The Ladies’ Home Journal, Philadelphia, 1893
British magazines as well as American ones described pretty ways of decorating a baby’s room, for families who could give their children a nice space of their own. (The nearest some poorer households got to special sleeping arrangements for children was a trundle bed.)
A furniture store in Bristol, England suggested a “complete furnishing estimate” for a room, or two rooms, where a small child and its nursemaid would sleep and spend much of the day. The total cost was nearly as much as a labourer’s annual wage, but affordable for many successful professional or business families.
The horsehair mattress would have been approved by the American doctor quoted lower down the page. He was one of many 19th century writers criticising featherbeds (feather mattresses) as too warm, too soft, or too unhygienic. This was one topic where health and sales advice generally agreed. The mattresses in that same catalogue for cribs, children’s bedsteads, swing cots, or rocking cradles were offered with these fillings, from cheapest to most expensive:
Best flock [fabric and fibre scraps]
Superior coloured wool
Best white wool, or French
This selection was typical of England. In the USA cotton was a common mattress stuffing. While feather and down were disapproved of for children’s mattresses, down pillows were used for small babies. Doesn’t this seem dangerous and unsuitable by today’s standards?
A fender guard and fire irons were more or less essential. In many houses an open fire would be be the only way of keeping a child’s room warm, but of course this gave rise to lots of warnings and advice on how to manage the fireplace as safely as possible.
The washstands recommended remind us how much nuisance there would be carrying hot water jugs and basins around. Even with indoor plumbing in wealthy homes, a washstand was standard in middle- and upper-class bedrooms.
The furniture of a nursery should be as little in quantity as convenience will permit…It should therefore consist of the beds for the children and nurse, or I would rather say mattresses, as I am of the opinion feather beds are improper, for the following reasons:—firstly, they are too warm for the purposes of health, …thus giving rise to unnecessary, nay, injurious perspiration; secondly, the effluvium from feathers is extremely oppressive, particularly in warm weather…thirdly, they discharge a prodigious quantity of dust, …occasioning cough and other inconveniences.
Dr Dewees of Philadelphia writing in the Monthly Gazette of Health or Medical, Dietetic, Antiempirical and General Philosophical Journal, 1829