The Dean House

The Dean House Kitchen

Written by Wanda Nelson

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In today's world of supermarkets, microwaves, fast food, and laundromats, it's hard to imagine what life was like in this farmhouse kitchen before 1900. With no electricity, no running water, no central heat, no grocery store around the corner, how did the woman of the house manage to put food on the table and do other household chores?

The Stove

The little workhorse of a stove was the center of the kitchen. With this ornate cast iron stove, she cooked meals, baked bread, heated water for dishes, baths, and laundry. The stove is low to the ground so that a short woman could lift the heavy cast iron kettles filled with dinner off the stove top and maybe set them on the swing-away trivet attached to the stove. Every day, in both summer and winter, she would make a wood fire in the stove, using the firewood from the wood box in the corner. Probably, it was the children's job to keep the wood box filled with wood. Notice the reservoir for water on the right hand side of the stove. Look into the little oven that she used to bake the daily bread. All of the grates on the top of the stove could be removed to adjust to the size of the pot and allow for faster heating. On wash day she might have heated wash water in huge tubs.

The Water

Before the turn of the 20th century, this house did not have running water. The toilet was in a little house out in the back yard called the outhouse. A well was drilled to reach sanitary drinking water, which was raised by a hand pump and carried into the house in a pail. There probably was a windmill that could be attached to the pump to bring up the water for the stock. The pump on the kitchen sink was hooked up to a cistern in the basement that collected rain water off the roof. This water was good for washing clothes, but not for human consumption.

The Food

Every day on a working farm, the cows would need to be milked. Any of the milk that was not sold would be brought to the house to be made into butter and cheese. To keep the flies out of the milk, the housewife would set the container in a special cupboard with the screen in front-called a "pie safe." With no refrigeration, the housewife probably made butter several times a week and maybe she used the resulting buttermilk to make pancakes on the cast iron griddle.

No doubt there were hens in a hen house that supplied the family with eggs and roast chicken on Sunday. On a farm, the woman of the house planted a large garden in the spring and then spent the summer and fall harvesting food to fill her larder. She probably dug potatoes, carrots and onions and stored them in a cool dry place like the cellar. She probably harvested lots of squash and pumpkins too. She preserved the rest of the vegetables---like tomatoes and green beans--by packing them in glass jars and boiling them on top of the little stove. (This was called "canning".)

The housewife also canned fruits and berries. Berry picking also was a job she could ask the children to do. There was probably an apple orchard on the farm so she could "put up" applesauce and apple butter for the long winter. And she might have purchased peaches and pears and cherries in season for canning too.

Wash Day

Most of the women of the 19th century washed clothes on Monday without fail. The housewife would set up the rack that holds the wash and rinse water tubs and transfer the heated water to them. She used the hand agitator and a scrub board to wash out the soil. Then she would run the clothes through the hand-cranked wringer into the rinse water. After all the soap was rinsed out, she would wring them out and hang them up to dry. In the dead of winter or on a rainy Monday, she would set up the large clothes rack inside. Otherwise, she would hang her clothes outside in the wind and let them blow dry. On Tuesday, she would have to iron all the clothes using the wooden ironing board and the cast iron irons that were heated on the kitchen stove.

The Soap

Of course, the housewife couldn't run to the supermarket for some Tide, so she made her own soap. Maybe she made lye soap--using Granny Huffman's recipe that stands today on the shelf above the kitchen sink. This soap is made from animal fats, lye and water. In a large cast iron kettle outside, would cook the soap ingredients over an outdoor fire until they looked like honey" and no longer stuck to the side of the kettle. She poured the soft mixture into wooden molds to form bars of soap. After the soap had aged from two weeks to one year, it was ready to use.

The Utensils

The woman living in this house would have had several nice pieces of glassware and maybe a set of tea leaf patterned Royal Ironstone chinaware, as is shown in the dining room. Jugs would hold apple cider and pitchers held fresh milk and buttermilk. Notice the cast iron utensils hanging above the stove--a mold for cornbread or muffins, a mandolin for slicing vegetables, and even a wire toaster. Also notice the scale that is hanging by the window. There are no measuring cups. While the housewife probably did little measuring--a handful or a coffee cup of this and shortening about the size of an egg is the way old recipes read--she obviously needed to measure some ingredients and this scale helped her measure up to sixteen ounces.

The Lamps

While the family probably rose at dawn and went to bed with the chickens, there were kerosene lamps to help them get through the short Wisconsin winter days. The hanging lamp over the table lit up an evening meal. Another kerosene lamp with a reflector plate hangs on the wall near the sink. The lamp on the table was probably used to light the way upstairs to bed. And this industrious housewife probably made lots of candles to provide light too.


There are some hints in this kitchen about how a family would live here and how they might spend their time. A child's wooden high chair sits waiting to be brought up to the table. A bowl of-walnuts awaits being cracked and put into some delicious walnut bread. The towels hanging on the rack over the sink waiting to hand dry the dishes were hand embroidered. The floor is covered with rag rugs and braided rugs-most likely made by the women of the house. Empty Ball canning jars are ready for the fall garden harvest. Around the corner, large crocks sit waiting for the cucumber harvest so that the process of making pickles can begin. On the kitchen table, the antique silver revolving stand, called a castor, holds bottles containing oil and vinegar and salt and pepper, just waiting for the man of the house to come in from the barn to a delicious supper cooked on the cast iron stove.

By Wanda Nelson

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