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Monday, April 3, 2023

A Study of Kitchens From a Popular 1950s Television Show

I've long had an interest in cultural domestic history, in particular the history of traditionally women's spaces. When I watch a period movie, I'm often distracted from the dialog as I study the set. Kitchens and sculleries from pervious generations are especially interesting to me.

You can imagine how my interest might be piqued as I watch reruns of old television series. This winter, I've been watching old episodes of Leave It to Beaver on Tubi. The series begins in 1957. June and Ward are living with their two young boys in an older home, with a kitchen that is reminiscent of the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. Later in the series, the Cleavers move to a newly built house (near the end of 1959, just before 1960). There's a stark contrast between the kitchen in the older home (likely c. 1940) and the modern, newly built (near-1960) home. Women became the beneficiaries of mass-produced modern conveniences and streamlined interior design. Here are some of my observations.

Some of the dating features of a 1940s kitchen include a free standing range and freestanding refrigerator with no countertops and cabinets adjacent to either appliance. These two appliances stand alone on the one wall. Imagine working at a stove with no flat surface adjacent as a landing place for foods coming out of the oven. No counter next to the stove to line up a bunch of plates for serving up the family's meals. 

And no counter next to the fridge to set your bag of perishable groceries so you can unpack and tuck them into the fridge or freezer with ease.

The cabinets and countertops are limited in this earlier kitchen. There's not a lot of space for countertop appliances, nor much space for storage. In the Cleaver's first home, the only counter is an ell-shaped one, behind Ward and June in this photo.

In the following photo, the space to the right of the sink, where June is working, is about 30 to 36 inches wide. She has a longer work space on the other side of the sink, running perpendicular to the sink wall. My guesstimate is the other work space is about 48 inches long, plus the 24 inches that occupies the corner of the cabinets/countertop. It's not a lot of work surface for a kitchen that serves a family's needs.

In a couple of episodes, June uses the pull-out bread/cutting board as a work surface. I imagine this is in part done for camera angles. But also, I would imagine if my kitchen was very small, I'd use every available space possible.

Another design element that dates this first kitchen to the late 1930s or early 1940s is the tile countertop and back splash. Tile was the surface of choice for counters in both kitchens and bathrooms until just after WWII.

The Cleaver's newly-built home, 1959

As I said above, the Cleaver family moved into a newly-built home at the end of 1959. A new home in the late 1950s boasted many innovations in tools and appliances, surfaces, and design. The Cleaver's new kitchen had a peninsula. While this likely provided camera opportunities for the show, kitchen peninsulas did take off in the floor plans of the 1950s kitchens. Adding a peninsula to the kitchen's floor plan increased work surface and storage. Like the Cleaver kitchen, some peninsulas housed the family's built-in cooktop. Not shown in these photos, the Cleaver's kitchen had a wall oven, as well. A wall oven separate from the cooktop provides two major benefits over range ovens/stoves. One, escaping heat from a range oven can overheat the cook standing at the stove stirring a pot; with a separate cooktop, heat from the oven may be feet away from the cook. And two, no more bending over to put in or take out items from the oven, as with a range oven. 

In the following photo, you can see the refrigerator is housed in cabinetry (behind Wally and June). No more fridge free floating on the wall. Adjacent to the refrigerator is ample counter surface for loading and unloading the fridge or freezer.

I made mention of the tile counters and backsplashes in the older home's kitchen. In the Cleaver's 1959 kitchen, the counter surface follows the major trend in post WWII counters -- the use of laminate (Formica). Laminate came in an abundance of colors, was completely smooth (better for rolling out dough than tile), didn't crack as tiles might, and didn't have grout that stained easily, requiring regular cleaning and bleaching.

In addition to changes in these elements of function and design, kitchens grew in size in the 1950s, although I think the Cleaver's new kitchen is much larger than typical 1950s/1960s kitchens. The 1950s was the decade of the growing, suburban family. Homes built in the suburbs were often larger than city homes. As home sizes grew, so did their kitchens. 

A century ago, US residential kitchens were not much more than utilitarian spaces. The 20th century saw an increase in the kitchen becoming a focal point of family life. I remember my grandmother's kitchen in her 1937 home. It was a narrow, galley style kitchen with limited work surfaces and not enough floor space for children to be in the kitchen, too. My grandmother's house had a small room adjacent to the kitchen. This was the breakfast room for informal family meals. The first house of my parents that I can remember was built in 1960. It had a U-shaped kitchen with a slightly bigger footprint overall than my grandmother's. Just beyond the stove was a raised counter/bar eating area. I would sit on a bar stool and talk with my mother and do small tasks for her while she cooked. We moved into a house built in the mid-1960s when I entered elementary school. The kitchen in this new house was quite large compared the other kitchens I had known. There was room for a cook and a couple of young helpers to work and a table for family meals. As family sizes continue to shrink, I wonder if future kitchens will also become smaller?
How will appliances be modernized in the future? Will kitchen spaces be used in new ways? What new conveniences, that we can only imagine now, will future families enjoy? I've always had a good memory for spaces. I only hope I can hang onto my memory capabilities another 20 or so years so I can compare what is to come to what I once knew.


  1. The original Frick mansion in Pittsburgh had an amazingly tiny kitchen used by the cook and servants.

    1. Wow! The cooks and servants must have been very efficient with their use of the small space. Thanks for the info.

  2. Very interesting observations. I am going to watch "Leave It to Beaver" differently now. All I notice when watching the show is that house is very nice. I remember once Oprah saying that we shouldn't compare our houses to TV and to remember that set designers designed the Clever house. Bill Bryson wrote a memoir of his growing up years (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) that goes into detail about the history of the kitchen in the 1950s. Very interesting. A funny book, too. But be forewarned, there is bad language in the book.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      What I notice about the Cleaver house is how absolutely tidy it always looks, like no one actually lives there. Oh right. . .
      I will look for that book. It sounds very interesting -- thanks for suggesting it. I'll just have to ignore any words that are offensive. But thanks for the warning.

  3. My house was built in 1960 and has a galley kitchen. No room for an island, although I'm not a huge fan of islands so that doesn't bother me. Comparing my home, especially the kitchen area, with more current homes is interesting. I do have counter space next to the stove and fridge, so that's an improvement over your 1930s kitchen pictured here, but all in all, I am very conscious of how to use my kitchen space. Our kitchen is the first room you enter when coming in from the garage, so it tends to be a dumping ground for mail and homework. I'm constantly decluttering so as to make more room for cooking. When we updated our kitchen, I was adamant about having a microwave with an exhaust hood installed over the oven. That's not the "in" thing to do, but it gave me 19 inches of additional countertop space by not having one located there. We looked at other built-in options but that ended up being the best one.

    My in-laws have a ranch home from the 1970s with an L-shaped eat-in kitchen. I find it very cramped and hard to work in, so when I am tempted to be grumpy about my smallish kitchen, I try to remember that mine is really fairly serviceable. :)

    Fun topic, Lili!

    1. Hi Kris,
      You know, I thought I wanted a big kitchen with an island in it years ago. Then I volunteered in a commercial kitchen that did have an island and I found it annoying to have to go around constantly. I'd much rather be able to walk from one side of the kitchen to the other without anything in my way. But they have been trendy.

      Our last kitchen was quite small. It was dubbed a step-saver, which was good in that respect, but only one person could comfortably work in there at a time. I think you made a very wise choice to install a combo hood/microwave. I know what you mean about how valuable counter space can be with a small kitchen.


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