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Review: The Hoosier Cabinet in kitchen history

The Hoosier Cabinet by Nancy R Hiller - cover

This title by Nancy Hiller is must read for anyone interested in American kitchens. It works on several levels. There is the story of the kitchen coming out of the closet of domestic slavery into the modern world of sociability and prestige ownership, an example of what happens when capitalism is applied to a domestic room, and the tale of the twentieth-century kitchen seen through the eyes of marketing and advertising, with its media messages and imagery. Finally my favourite – it identifies the precursors of the unfitted kitchen or the joint use of design and furniture-making to create a domestic room that can be comfortable, accommodating and effective.

Nancy Hiller is a rare beast of a cabinet maker, scholar and writer. She uses the Hoosier cabinet as a lens for social history. As a multi-purpose piece of furniture that claimed it could enable you to do almost everything you ever need to in a kitchen without moving a step, even saving up to 1592 steps in one day. Depending on what year you were in or what marketing message was being promoted, it might help the housewife to ‘stay young’, ‘abolish (household) slavery’ or be the best gift a father could give to his daughter to teach her how to cook. Its local setting is Indiana, where they had manufactured over a million cabinets and created hundreds of jobs by 1916. But its really a story of early twentieth-century America and the drive for efficient production, provision of mass furnishing, expectations of consumer comfort alongside the gradual commercialisation of the kitchen industry.

By 1933, the Hoosier cabinet was considered old fashioned and its decline was inevitable. Its legacy is both charming and valuable: antique hunters chase down Hoosier cabinets as desirable gems for their contemporary kitchens, but best of all they remain an iconic reminder that there is an alternative to continuous counters, the American name for the ubiquitous fitted kitchens that most people have had to put up with in Britain and Europe. That is the price you pay for allowing commerce to run or rule the industry rather than designers and householders – in other words, human beings with emotional needs and a desire for comfort.

The Hoosier Cabinet in kitchen history. Nancy R Hiller. Indiana University Press ISNB 978-0-253-31424-6

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