A kitchen’s look is determined by cabinet design more than any other element. If you want to give your kitchen that comfortable historic feeling, don’t give in to the temptation of filling it with modern built-in cabinets; vintage kitchen cabinets had more of an unfitted character, generally a mixture of pieces with different finishes.
If you already have vintage cabinets you are ahead of the game. But a word of caution when you get ready to refinish them: painted wooden cabinets sometime warp when they are stripped, so you should try one inconspicuous door first. If you have metal cabinets they may be stripped, buffed, and then lacquered. This will prevent them from rusting.
If you decide to purchase brand new vintage looking cabinets, you should become acquainted with the signature designs of the specific time period you are attempting to recreate. For example, kitchens in the time between 1880 and 1930 were often stocked with Shaker cabinets. These typically had plain box frame panels with no lip on their doors. The cabinet’s bases usually went straight to the floor without today’s inset at the base.
Vintage cabinets served a different era and culture and their design reflected that fact. For example, upper cabinets stretched to the ceiling, unlike modern cabinets which leave the top surfaces open to collect dust and grease. While it is correct to note that the upper shelves are hard to reach, it made perfect sense because they were used to store items that were not used often.
Special purpose storage was common, such as tilt out bins for huge bags of sugar and flour. Typically, when these old kitchens are restored today, other creative uses for these bins have been found. Some people use them to store pet food or trash!
The kitchen cabinet designers of yesteryear came up with some clever specialty cabinets, such as California coolers. This was a ventilated cabinet that contained either slatted or wire shelves. These cabinets utilized a chimney effect to draw off cooler air from down in the basement or the crawlspace. What did they store there? Usually food that did not have to be particularly cold such as onions, potatoes, or wine.
Another interesting and functional cabinet was a built in ironing board. Many remodelers today recycle these into spice racks. There was also the Hoosier cabinet. Its purpose was to be a central food preparation unit. Hoosier cabinets may be aptly described as the Swiss Army knife of cabinets. Some of its features were a built in flour sifter, containers for sugar and spices, and of course, a pull out work surface and storage compartments for utensils.
What about countertops? Way back when, the most common countertop was wood finished with varnish. This was completely practical in most areas of the vintage kitchen except in the sink area where water damage could be an issue, or around the stove for obvious reasons.
The second most commonly found vintage countertop is ceramic tile. White porcelain hexagonal tiles or small mosaic tiles were the most common, but another popular color was gray.
Beginning in the 1920s, interesting color combinations such as lavender/peach, burgundy/yellow, and jadeite green/black began to be used, even though white remained quite popular. There are two drawbacks to tile: first, a glass it will break if dropped, and secondly grout tends to accumulate dirt. When restoring vintage kitchen cabinet countertops, re-grout with an epoxy grout, choose a dark grout color, and always use a sealer.
photo by Paul Keleher – CreativeCommons Attribution