kitchen vintage american design
Frederic Lewis Staff-via Getty Images

Then & Now: Unique Photos of American Kitchens Throughout the Decades

Interesting

| LAST UPDATE 09/13/2022

By Benedict Swirsky

While the function of our kitchens remains roughly the same as it was 100 years ago, the same can’t be said for its style. Let’s look at how the design and feel of our kitchens have changed since the 1910s!

1913: No Cabinets

For as long as anyone can remember, a large dining table has been the centerpiece of any busy family kitchen. Just look at the two young men who can be seen tucking into a large breakfast circa 1913.

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Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

When we take a closer look, we can see something unusual by today's standards. This kitchen has no cabinets! In the early 20th century many kitchens had shelves for appliances and ingredients, instead of cupboards and cabinets. But one thing is the same - family photos decorate the walls, just as they do in many kitchens today!

1915: DIY Kitchen

How’s this for culinary creativity? Looks like this family was part of the DIY tiny house movement all the way back in 1915, as they built this cozy little kitchen out of an abandoned boxcar! You could hardly ask for a more creative way to keep your family housed and fed.

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Archive Farms / Contributor via Getty Images

Though too long ago to be 100% confirmed, it’s likely that the box-car structure was once used as a railroad car, and it would have carried freight from city to city. The family would probably have lived in the rest of the box car, with this corner fitted with a freestanding stove and countertop for their cooking needs.

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1922: Logic Before Looks

In the early 1920s, families had to cook most of their meals, unable to rely on the luxuries of fast-food and Uber Eats. From breakfast to lunch to dinner, these meals could include such gourmet delights as chops, roasts, meatloaf, soups and stews, and more. Not to mention salads, vegetables, pickles for sides, and a beverage.

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Minnesota Historical Society / Contributor via Getty Images

Meals were elaborate enough that the average family had to prioritize functional appliances over pretty décor and furniture. Just take a look at this chunky cast iron oven-cum-stove top, where the mother or cook would spend much of their day preparing meals for the household.

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1924: What’s In The Fridge?

While not everyone in the 1920s would have been cooking and organizing the kitchen with this fabulously classic wave hairdo, there’s a good chance they would have had a refrigerator like this. Also known as an ice box, this appliance would have been a must-have for storing kitchen essentials.

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor via Getty Images

We can see the model in the picture looking into the ice box while she places a grocery order over the phone. But what would a typical grocery list include back in the 1920s? Well, it’s likely any well-stocked ice box would contain exactly what you can see in the picture - milk, eggs, assorted vegetables, and even a bottle of wine!

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1928: A Sink For Any Situation

These days we are so used to our kitchen sinks taking up a small amount of our bench space that this 1920s-style freestanding sink looks rather strange. As it turns out, this long sink standing separate from the rest of the cooking space was a fairly standard trend during this decade.

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Underwood Archives / Contributor via Getty Images

While the freestanding sink doesn’t offer much in terms of prep space, the Monarch electric stove standing beside it more than makes up for that. The Monarch was one of the earliest electric stoves in the US, radically changing how many families across the country prepared their everyday meals.

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1931: The Perfect Kitchen

As can clearly be seen in the photos below and above, the style and layout of the classic American kitchen changed dramatically between the 1920s and 1930s. This may have been due to the stock market crash of 1929, where many families suffered financially and the kitchen became by and large the most important room in any house.

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GraphicaArtis / Contributor via Getty Images

While not all 1930s kitchens looked like the image above, it was no doubt a representation of the “ideal” American kitchen that many people dreamed of building. Due to the many difficulties faced in this period, bright colors and cushy seating areas added some much-needed comfort and lightness to the space.

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1933: "Kitchen Trousseau"

While the kitchen trousseau may not be the most relatable kitchen-adjacent feature for the average American woman these days, it was undoubtedly essential back in the 1930s. The picture below shows a married woman introducing a bride-to-be to a standard kitchen trousseau.

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PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The trousseau was a set of kitchen essentials that every bride-to-be was expected to own and be familiar with - it was one of the most important ways to prepare a woman for marriage. The original photo included a sign below saying "A Home Science Club Girl and Her Practical Kitchen Trousseau."

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1935: Bold '30s Decor

By now we can see the layout of the typical '30s kitchen beginning to resemble the kitchen spaces we are familiar with today. Of course, the same can’t be said for the bold art deco design features and geometric wallpaper, all of which clearly belong to the era.

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Douglas Miller / Stringer via Getty Images

But despite the elaborate architecture and decorations, this kitchen was making great strides toward being a more open, accessible, and functional space. It includes plenty of storage, a separate nook for the stove, and more countertop space than family kitchens typically had prior to this decade.

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1940: Introducing The Modern Kitchen

Despite the innovation of the 1930s kitchen, it was the 1940s that truly revolutionized the kitchen space and laid the groundwork for the kitchens we all know and use today. As can be seen below, this photograph displayed the future of the “modern electric kitchen.”

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Chicago History Museum / Contributor via Getty Images

This particular setup was a model set used to display kitchens designed by Marshall Field & Company, complete with a refrigerator, electrical oven and stovetop, and a toaster oven! These three appliances are still kitchen staples today but were considered a life-changing and ultra-modern look in the post-Depression era 1940s.

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1947: Baby Boomers and Post-War Patriotism

By 1947 World War II was over, and a new kind of patriotism had arisen due to America’s involvement in the war's end. This patriotism was even reflected in the décor of a typical American household, with red, white, and blue appliances being implemented in many kitchen remodels of the time.

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Chicago History Museum / Contributor via Getty Images

Though the above photo is in black and white, the three colors of the flag would likely have been reflected in the decor of this particular kitchen. It also shows the layout of many middle-class American households in the 1940s. Kitchens were built bigger during this time due to the post-war baby boom - everyone needed more space!

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1955: Day In The Life of a '50s Housewife

Let’s fast forward to the '50s when the diligent housewife was a staple for any middle-class American household. For most families, the kitchen was the woman’s domain, and the mother and/or wife were tasked with managing any and all cooking, cleaning, and minor maintenance of the family home.

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Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

As can be seen above, most of the housewife's daily tasks were carried out in the kitchen, the communal and administrative center of the home. As such, the kitchen had to be carefully organized and maintained - just look at the color co-ordinated kitchenware and tidy drying racks and hangers!

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1956: Liveable Kitchens

As America progressed through the 1950s, the middle class began to expand and many families had enough disposable income that they could begin renovating and “beautifying” their homes. Now kitchens were no longer solely functional spaces - they also became comfortable, attractive rooms that families enjoyed spending time in.

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Apic / Contributor via Getty Images

Designers and interior decorators began experimenting with new colors, patterns, and designs for the contemporary kitchen, as can be seen in this 1956 magazine for Glendura, which promoted the benefits of color, open plans, and mixed living spaces in the kitchen area.

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1958: Mrs. Maisel’s Kitchen

Fans of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will recognize this kitchen from the hit show. Set in 1950s America, the story centers around a “typical” 1950s housewife named Mrs. Maisel, who finds her life as a wife and mother in Manhattan upended by her discovery of a special talent.

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IMDB-The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017) via Amazon Prime Video

Though the show presents a fictionalized version of 1950s New York, the set design of the show is a realistic representation of what a 1950s kitchen would have looked like for some, including the majority-white decor with red accenting and linoleum floors - though the Maisel family kitchen may have been particularly trendy.

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1960: An Education in Cooking

This next kitchen isn’t exactly the average 1960s household kitchen - though it sure looks like one! However, this kitchen setup was used to teach home economics, a staple of the 1960s US school curriculum. It was seen as a necessary course to teach young girls about cooking, clothing, home management, family economics, and more.

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor via Getty Images

These girls in the photo and millions of others like them were taught how to set up a dinner table and manage a kitchen. Though this kitchen is more functional than anything, it also has the comfort and convenience of a breakfast bar/dining nook. By the 1970s, home economics classes would become mandatory for girls and boys - which sounds fair to us!

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1965: Modern Dutch-Style

Throughout the 1960s America began to face the realities of cultural upheaval as new concepts, and ideas became mainstream, and the younger generation leaned toward a more modern outlook. This was reflected in the increasing transition from more traditional styles and functions of kitchen decor to more cutting-edge innovation.

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F. Roy Kemp / Stringer via Getty Images

Most of all, kitchens became spaces for entertaining as well as cooking. The Dutch-style kitchen model above shows how new designs focused on making the furniture and appliances more compact to maximize space and make the room feel more open. It even had an ultra-modern (for the times) electric dishwasher!

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1969: An Earthy Shift

By the late 1960s, a new stylistic choice had entered the modern American kitchen lexicon - wood! Many families began to incorporate wood furnishing into their kitchens to complement a more simple and minimalist style, and they even began opting for wooden appliances over iron, metal, and plastic.

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Chaloner Woods / Stringer via Getty Images

It also made it easier to integrate the style of the kitchen with the rest of the house, instead of having cold linoleum, whitewashed decor, and bright accenting. Just look at this '60s housewife showing off her earthy, neutral-toned kitchen, with large windows and wooden accents.

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1970: Groovy Kitchen Baby

As the counter-cultural revolution and anti-war protesting began to die down, the US entered the 1970s - a decade that was a little freer and a little more fun! As everyday Americans no longer had to worry about wars and cultural clashes, they could instead focus on creativity and expression, one of the hallmarks of this era.

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Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor via Getty Images

And nowhere was this more obvious than the kitchen, where many people no longer felt obligated to have a toned-down, cohesive kitchen design. Just take a look at this haphazard '70s kitchen, with clashing floral decals and several different colors and styles all in one room!

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1976: That '70s Kitchen

That '70s Show was a hugely popular '90s sitcom, due to its touching and hilarious portrayal of a friend group navigating the trials and tribulations of teenage life. But it was also beloved for its iconic and authentic representation of life in 1970s America, from pop culture references to eclectic fashion sense to set design.

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IMDB-That '70s Show (1998) via Fox

One of the most memorable set designs (aside from the family basement where the kids got up to most of their mischief) was the Forman’s kitchen. To many people, this kitchen was the quintessential glimpse of domestic life in the '70s, including its earthy color palette, geometric wallpaper patterns, and funky furniture.

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1976: More Wood For All

Though some trends come and go with the decades, others simply move from strength to strength. In the late '60s, a touch of the wood décor was a must-have for any kitchen design, but over the next ten years, wooden furniture became the predominant feature of most '70s kitchens!

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor via Getty Images

The most obvious aesthetic choices were tables, chairs, cabinets, cupboards, and drawers in a variety of shades. But it didn’t end there - many families were also keen on wooden appliances to match their furniture! And of course, the linoleum was often dumped for warm, wood-paneled floors.

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1980: The Pastel Dream

By the 1980s, the obsession with wooden kitchens had phased out, and a new palette preference had taken its place. Namely, pastels! Though this Barbieesque miniature model of a pastel kitchen may be a little over the top, there truly were many families implementing this look in their homes.

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Frederic Lewis / Staff via Getty Images

This particular palette was known as “dusty pastel” and it was massively on trend in the 1980s. But the US kitchens of the '80s weren’t quite ready to let go of past styles - as you can see, some people still held on to the clashing colors of the '70s and even put a pastel twist on the plaid wallpaper of the '60s.

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1980: Islands Arrive

Next, we’ll swing across to a very different side of the '80s kitchen. Not everyone found the “in-your-face” pastels palette appealing, and some chose to go in the opposite direction. The photo below is a great example of the more minimal and traditional look that many '80s families adopted.

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Frederic Lewis / Staff via Getty Images

This tasteful kitchen harkened back to the plain white backdrops of the 1950s, adding blue accents, plenty of windows, and a touch of greenery to liven up the space. Perhaps the most notable feature of this kitchen is the island with its Formica countertop! A great way to maximize the kitchen workspace and seating.

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1985: A Kitchen Fit For "Golden Girls”

Anyone alive in the '80s will remember the hit TV show Golden Girls, which centered around a group of middle-aged and older divorcees who shared a home in Miami. The show was a touching and funny look into female friendship, but it was also loved for its authentic set design such as the kitchen pictured below.

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Touchstone Tv/Whitt-Thomas-Harris Prod/Kobal via Shutterstock

Blanche’s famous kitchen combined several different aspects of '80s interior kitchen design. This included the aforementioned “dusty palette,” bright and stylized floral patterns, patterned wallpaper, and of course - plenty of wooden cabinets and cupboards!

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1989: Monochrome Modernism

Here we come to the end of another decade, and this next kitchen might be the biggest stylistic leap we’ve documented so far! As the US entered the Information Age, interior design and personal style begin to more closely reflect the technological innovations of the period.

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Paul Harris / Contributor via Getty Images

For example, monochrome was now in and pastel and wood were out! People were turning to highly modernized kitchen designs, with an emphasis on stainless steel, stark white cabinetry and furniture, and neatly contrasting dark marble floors. This style was far less cozy and homey, and more sophisticated.

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1990s: Rustic Memories

But not everyone was embracing the sleek, neo-futuristic look of the late-'80s kitchen. In fact, many '90s kitchens clung tightly to tradition, with families preferring the warmth of the classic wood-style kitchen décor of the '70s. By the 1990s the all-wood look gave kitchens a more rustic, vintage atmosphere.

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Bob Thomas via Getty Images

A look like this gave the kitchen a compact, “cabin-style” feel that was more humble and unassuming than the monochromatic look of the previous kitchen. This particular kitchen was designed with pine fittings, carefully chosen splashes of color, and a few pieces of antique kitchenware that truly complemented the room's classic style.

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1990s: The TV Revolution

The first television was actually created all the way back in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that the TV became the essential household item we know today. By the '90s, TV sets were so ubiquitous that many people were taking them from living rooms and bedrooms to… the kitchen!

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Ed Bock via Getty Images

As you can see below, it wasn’t uncommon to have small tv sets on breakfast bars, where children and parents could catch their favorite cartoons while they ate breakfast and prepared for school and work. With its brown countertops and plastic plants, this kitchen is a little dated, but the TV was quintessential '90s décor!

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1993: Fruit And Geometry

Think back to the classic sitcoms and soap operas of the 1990s and this kitchen will be a blast from the past! TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air normalized these spacious, open-plan kitchens as the go-to kitchen style of the era, so much so that you’ll still see kitchens like it today!

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ClassicStock / Contributor via Getty Images

This kitchen's geometric, symmetrical design belies the casual, homey feeling of the colors and décor. Lots of cream and off-white shades also complemented the expansiveness of the room, working in unison with the large windows to create a bright, airy feel. It’s even complete with the picture-perfect apple bowl on the counter!

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1994: The Friends Look

Back in the 1990s, everyone wanted to emulate the style of the characters from Friends, one of the most popular TV shows of the decade (if not the century!). And when it comes to the show's set design, most people coveted Monica’s “shabby chic” apartment, a stylish relic of the past decade.

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Getty Images / Handout via Getty Images

And while you’ll be paying a fortune for a Manhattan apartment like this today, it’s not too hard to style your own home in a similar way! Just look at the Friends kitchen, with its slightly faded wallpaper, muted colors, mismatching furniture, and thrifted look. Its effortlessly casual look is peak '90s!

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2000: A Simple Kitchen

Despite the many stylish and expressive kitchens we’ve looked at so far, not everyone was looking to spend hours designing a custom kitchen. For some, a very simple, conventional design was all they needed. In some ways, this traditional and spare kitchen hearkens back to the early 20th century kitchens which prized function over form.

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Portland Press Herald / Contributor via Getty Images

But there were some new additions introduced in the new millennium. For example, the granite countertops and backsplash typical of early-2000s kitchens. The angular island also created an extra cooking space and a place for children to do homework and eat breakfast without interrupting the flow of the space.

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2002: Opening Up

The new millennium had some changes in mind for the contemporary American kitchen. Most notably the use of space, as many families began to adopt open floor plans. This was perfect both for families who like to eat on the go and for hosting parties.

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Polka Dot Images via Getty Images

And it wasn’t just the furniture that made the space more flexible. Homeowners and architects were beginning to initiate a more cohesive kitchen design, where the kitchen and living room shared the same space, flowing into each other and making for a more open and connected feel.

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2004: Kitchen Tech

We know that in the '90s some American families were bringing their TV sets into the kitchen. But in the early 2000s, some families took it a step further… by buying their refrigerators complete with a TV set installed in the door! It’s no surprise that many wealthy families jumped at the chance to snag this new piece of kitchen tech.

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Glenn Asakawa / Contributor via Getty Images

Stainless steel was still all the rage, and many people were eager to get their hands on the latest technology. Modern designs and cutting-edge appliances were all the rage at this point, as the more cozy and rustic style began to fade. No doubt the average kitchen will continue to transform as technology continues to develop.

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