Bright copper kettles to chrome goosenecks
You may have needed serious muscles to access drinking water in days of yore, but today’s appliances are marvels of good design and you can access filtered boiling, sparkling or chilled water with no more than a feather light touch. ADRIAN CUGNETTO delves into history.
Have you ever visited an Australian National Trust property? One that perhaps still has an extant kitchen from the Victorian era or perhaps even the Old Colonial period? Somewhere like Como House (built in 1847) or Ripponlea (1868) if you’re in Melbourne. Or even the Commandant’s house at Port Arthur in Tasmania, which was originally built in 1833, but evolved and grew from a simple four-room cottage to a much larger residence overseeing the whole settlement with a then brand new kitchen by 1837.
If you have visited any of these kitchens and been fascinated by them, one thing you will have noticed is that, whether the room itself is small or, indeed, one of the largest in the property, the fixtures and fittings in there tend to be considerable. There’s the huge coal- or wood-fired grate and hearth, used for both heating and cooking, perhaps with side ovens and lethal-looking iron roasting spits.
Colossal wooden tables often take up the centre of the space, with dishes and platters the size of today’s TV screens filling the shelves. On the dressers there may be bright copper kettles (and cream coloured ponies, if you’re Maria von Trapp) and utensils that you can only imagine being wielded by stout armed cooks – Upstairs Downstairs’ Mrs Bridges (or, for the younger folk, Downton Abbey’s Mrs Patmore) – in full flight.
Of course there were no such things as refrigerators when these kitchens first saw the light of day, but meat safes were prevalent from the 1880s, followed by iceboxes, before Australia’s first commercially available domestic refrigerator that worked without ice was produced by Edward Hallstrom in 1923.
You may find boilers or copper water heaters, as these were the only way to obtain large amounts of hot water. They were often brick lined and came with a wooden lid and space beneath for a fire to heat the water. Then in the attached scullery you may discover separate great cauldrons for washing clothes, perhaps with a washboard and sizeable mangle attached. And, if not tubs, perhaps for the washing (of both laundry and dishes) you’ll find sinks. But these sinks will be big enough to float a small boat. Well, bathe the triplets at least…
Perched high above such sinks, you’ll invariably see taps so weighty and solid, you’d need three Mrs Bridges to turn them on…
And where did they get the water from to fill those sinks? To begin with, pumps and wells. From 1840 in Melbourne, for instance, it came from a series of pumps installed on the northern bank of the Yarra River. It was then sold from water carts, door to door, for three shillings a barrel.
How times have changed. As space has become premium and new materials and designs have evolved our kitchen and bathroom spaces, the fixtures and fittings have shrunk, adapted and streamlined. Could you imagine a contemporary office space with a kitchenette featuring a plate rack that takes up a whole wall? Sleek, stylish and discreet are the drivers for contemporary design. So how did we get there? How did we get from appliances and fittings that required the heft of Hulk Hogan to operate them to the delicate and functional featherweight fancies that you can practically operate by thought control alone? And from water from carts to sleek appliances that serve it to us boiling, chilled or sparkling at the flick of a switch?
Evolution. That grate gave way to the cast iron stove, a close relative of the Aga cooking range, still so beloved by purists
and traditionalists across the globe. The end of the Victorian era through to the 1920s was a period of great modernisation in Australian and other first world domiciles. Gas ranges appeared, sometimes alongside their huge coal-burning predecessors. These required less floor space but also didn’t require ventilation hoods.
And – cue the trumpet fanfare – plumbing evolved to bring drinkable water into buildings as well as take wastewater out. This increased access to running water meant that sinks began to shrink – presenting almost as pieces of furniture, mounted to the wall, but with legs and built-in draining boards. Space was left beneath the sink to allow air circulation and prevent moisture from accumulating, and the taps were integrated into the fitting.
By the 1930s kitchens had begun to take on a familiar form, with the changes in design since that time being more cosmetic and about fashion than fundamental differences in technology.
Fridges became increasingly common by the 1940s, starting small but growing to eye-catching status symbols in the 1950s and
60s. The freezer compartment took on greater significance as the demand for ice cubes (all those cocktails, after all) grew. Kettles mutated from those gloriously polished copper varieties with the curly spout via stovetop aluminium affairs with Bakelite handles via the first electric versions to plug-in versions that meant boiling water was available on demand… well, about three minutes after that demand.
And then, somewhere along the line in the 1960s, the on-demand tap saw the light of day – the space- and time-saving appliance
that provides boiling, chilled or sparkling at the touch of a fingertip, from a beautifully fashioned fitting. Currently, there is a range
of beautifully sleek designed options, from the familiar gooseneck mixer via the round or square slimline dispensers to the levered, remote or touch dispensers. The extensive Billi range, for example, even offers a vandal proof version that is the very last word in seamless design. And while shiny chrome will never go out of fashion, matte black or rose gold certainly make their own stylish statement.
Today’s water filtration systems are a long, long way from bright copper kettles, but we’re sure Mrs Bridges would approve.
Adrian Cugnetto is the marketing manager for Billi Pty Ltd.
This article also appears in the February/March issue of Facility Management magazine.
Image: nikkytok © 123RF.com