MYTH # 53: Kitchens were separated from the main house in colonial days because of fear of fire.

Williamsburg kitchen with outdoor bake oven attached to chimney

As the story goes, kitchens burned down a lot and it was easier to rebuild your kitchen than your whole house. While fear of fire may have influenced some people, if it were the main reason for building separate kitchens, how come only the people living in southern colonies feared fire? Separate kitchens were not a common feature in northern colonies; they were very common in the south.

Actual reasons have more to do with the heat and odors from the kitchen fire, which in the south would not have been welcome most months of the year. Early on, many southern houses had basement kitchens. Hugh Jones, a mathematics teacher at the College of William and Mary noted in 1724 in his book, The Present State of Virginia, that planters often kept their “kitchen apart from the dwelling house, because of the smell of victuals, offensive in hot weather.” Another reason was the desire to segregate kitchen slaves from the family’s main living space. Cooks and other kitchen slaves often lived above the kitchen and worked there all day. 


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23 Responses to MYTH # 53: Kitchens were separated from the main house in colonial days because of fear of fire.

  1. We had “summer kitchens” up north as well. A good example is preserved at the Bailly Homestead in the Indiana Dunes Nat’l Lakeshore. It was built in 1822.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Bailly_Homestead

  2. Crispinius says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this one! Living and working in Williamsburg, I hear this one a lot. Recognizing that heat (“if you can’t stand the heat, stay out…&c.”) is a huge reason for sequestering the cooks is explanation enough, if one has ever lived through a Tidewater summer.

    However, it also helps to note that a significant portion of the Virginian’s diet consisted of fish and seafood,…and I certainly have questioned the wisdom of cooking and serving fish to guests on some summer days. Not that the food tastes bad, mind; but that fishy smell can linger for hours when the air is thick and still, or what we Virginians call “close.”

    Again,…you’ve helped to make the 18th-Century real. It was neither “the good old days” or “the bad old days”; it was simply, “the old days.”

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    Well done! As stated in the above post this is a very common myth and one people tend to to take in without a second thought..

  4. Skabootch says:

    I was under the impression that, in the mid 19th century at least, having an in-house kitchen increased your insurance premiums (another reason to have one away from the house).

  5. Przepiekny says:

    Wow! So not true! Maybe for the “colonies” it is but not in England proper. The idea of separating the kitchen, as it were, from the main house came about during the Tudor period for many reasons including fire concerns, smells, noise, and just a lowering of status of the kitchen itself from the “hearth is the heart of the home.” Such examples can still be seen in England such as Kedleston Hall, Petworth House, and even, OMG, Hampton Court! It seems the mythbuster is creating myths here!
    Now, here is a real myth….that the food coming from such kitchens would get cold before arriving at the dining room. MYTH! The kitchens were not miles from the house, only a few hundred feet at most and a brisk footman (or farmer’s wife, whichever) should be able to carry ready food to the dining room in a timely manner.
    If you ever get the chance, watch “If Walls Could Talk” from the BBC this past spring. The host, an English historian, goes through four rooms, including the kitchen, and explains how each had involved over time in England.

  6. The heat factor makes sense, as does the segregation factor. It’s funny how a pat answer (often wrong or incomplete) becomes entrenched and is perpetrated by countless docents and writers.

  7. Alexandra says:

    I must also disagree with this “myth.” As an historian, I know that the separation of the kitchen was for multiple reasons and not just a simple black or white reason. Just because one source mentions one reason and doesn’t address any others does not disprove all other reasons. In the South, in particular, it had a great deal to do with the weather and the social class structure there…that is the servants or, more likely, slaves had to be kept separated from those whom they served. However, the safety from fire for the main house was not lost on those who lived in such houses. I can mention several sources stating multiples reasons for separate kitchens, however, I find it interesting that even Colonial Williamsburg even states such a reason for their existence….
    “Kitchens in the 18th century were separated from the main houses for several reasons. The threat of fire from cooking embers could devastate an entire building in minutes. It was less of a problem for the family to lose a small building than their entire dwelling. Also, the heat and humidity of the Virginia summers were added incentive to keep the daylong fires away from the main house.” Colonial House. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Office of Communications. http://www.history.org/Foundation/newsroom/2011PressKit/pdf/Colonial%20Houses.pdf
    I think the myth stated here should actually read, “Kitchens were separated from the main house in colonial days ONLY because of fear of fire.”
    Remember, just because people lived in the past that doesn’t mean they were simple or narrow minded. If anything, they thought in much more complex ways than any of us today. I believe these myths reflect more on those who live in the present than in the past.

    • marymiley says:

      Hmmmm . . . you make a good point. I didn’t intend to imply that fear of fire played no role at all in the decision to build separate kitchens, just that other factors (slave proximity and heat and smells) were the principle reasons. I’ll revise the post. Thanks for pointing this out.

    • Ryan says:

      I am researching an historic Kitchen House educational program and would love to know what sources are available that cite specific reasons for the kitchen being detached. Other than conversations such as the one here, I have found very little in the way of first-person narratives to substantiate any one theory. Thank you.

      • Mary Miley says:

        All the references listed here should get you started, Ryan. Please post your research when you’re finished!

  8. Fenton Stirling says:

    Nancy Carlisle, co-author of America’s Kitchens, is promoting the idea that fear of fire played no role in placing kitchens in out-buildings. She gives some credence to the problem of kitchens producing a lot of heat during summer months but says the “primary” reason for the separation of the big house from the kitchen “was to separate the races.” What about the other house slaves and the slave that served as nanny to the children? She had no answer to that question. She has some references to “prove” she did research but having checked some of them, the only thing I could find stating this belief is (guess what!) this site. And conveniently, there are no references backing this assertion. She gave the same lame excuse that in the north the kitchens were in the houses and those people were not afraid of fires. When I said many of those homes burned down. She replied, “Well, houses burn down now.” I guess that proves it! I’m looking for credible references that back this ridiculous assertion that fear of homes burning had nothing to do with the separation of the kitchen from the house!

    • marymiley says:

      Generalities are always tricky, because one can always find examples to the contrary. No one can say that the fear of fire played no role in the creation of separate kitchens in early America, but there is broad agreement among historians that it was the lesser influence, after the desire to keep heat and unpleasant odors out of the main house and the desire to separate kitchen slaves from the master’s family. These two factors, which are mentioned in period documents, explain why the phenomenon was rare in the north and very common in the south.
      You asked, “What about the other house slaves?” Slave owners in general were terrified of their slaves and limited contact with them as much as possible. Almost everyone feared that their slaves, no matter how docile they appeared, would kill them during the night or steal from them. Personal slaves worked inside the main house and constituted an elite of sorts, but that didn’t eliminate the fears. Field hands, kitchen slaves, stable boys, and the rest were rarely found in the main house.
      I googled Nancy Carlisle and fear of fire, but found only one mention of her writing on that topic, and she did not say that fear of fire played no role in separate kitchens. To the contrary, the article says that the kitchens were separate “in part because of fear of fire.” So I’m not sure what you are referring to . . . perhaps you can point to a specific passage.

  9. Fenton Stirling says:

    The comments of Mary Miley were very interesting. I don’t know how many plantation owners feared their house slaves would kill them in the night. I do know that it did not happen often and I am unaware of any instances when it did happen. As for theft, I’m sure that happened. I know that things like food that might be stolen were locked up.
    I found your source, “Museum Exhibit Shows Kitchens Central to Family Life” by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll. In the article, she states: “The exhibit’s 1845 Virginia plantation kitchen vignette, for example, shows how kitchens then were completely separate from the house, in part because of fear of fire. Slaves did all the work.”
    I was unable to read the book, America’s Kitchens, at the time of the exhibit; but I did read the poster written by Nancy Carlisle. In the text, she said that while heat and smells were factors, the “primary” reason for the placement of the kitchen in an outbuilding was for the “separation of the races.” Fire was not mentioned. When I spoke with her, she scoffed at the idea that fire was a factor, “proving” her assertion by saying that in the north, the kitchens were not separate and the people were not afraid of their homes burning down due to kitchen fires.
    She challenged me to find an “extemporaneous” source supporting this position. Colonial Williamsburg, Shirley Plantation and others state that fear of fire was the primary reason the kitchens were separated from the main house.
    Colonial Williamsburg states: “Kitchens in the 18th century were separated from the main houses for several reasons. The threat of fire from cooking embers could devastate an entire building in minutes. It was less of a problem for the family to lose a small building than their entire dwelling. Also, the heat and humidity of the Virginia summers were added incentive to keep the daylong fires away from the main house.”
    You say ” …there is broad agreement among historians that it was the lesser influence, after the desire to keep heat and unpleasant odors out of the main house and the desire to separate kitchen slaves from the master’s family. These two factors, which are mentioned in period documents, explain why the phenomenon was rare in the north and very common in the south.”
    Could you please tell me the names of these historians and the period documents that state the case? That would be most informative. I have not found any reference to the “desire to separate kitchen slaves from the master’s family.” I couldn’t even find it in Nancy Carlisle’s references, which I googled on line.

    Thanks,
    Fenton

  10. marymiley says:

    Phew, Fenton, you’ve brought a lot of issues to the table at once! Let me start with your first part about slaveowners fearing slaves before I move on to the fear of fire issue.

    In the long history of American slavery, there are countless instances of uprisings and planned uprising that terrified white owners. You can find details for the Stono Rebellion 1739 where 25 whites were killed in their homes, Nat Turner’s 1731 uprising where 56 white men, women, and children were killed in their homes, and hundreds of smaller ones that were mentioned in newspapers and letters of the day. One that sticks in my mind is President James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose Madison, who was poisoned in his home by 3 slaves. An article that discusses the many smaller Virginia slave uprisings is found at http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter05-06/conspiracy.cfm.
    Slaveowners were very much afraid of their slaves, and for good reason. Every time an uprising occurred, even an unsuccessful one like Gabriel Prosser’s, new laws would be passed forbidding manumission and prohibiting gatherings, learning to read, growing food, earning money, also making slaves carry passes when off their home plantation.
    So I think just about every textbook is going to mention how fearful whites were of their slaves. Uprisings and violence were not uncommon.

    As regards the two sites you cite :-) for “fear of fire”–they are not academic ones. The Colonial Williamsburg quote comes from a page written to promote lodging in the historic area houses, and it does not say fear of fire was a primary reason for separate kitchens; it correctly states that there were several reasons and mentions two. I looked for the Shirley Plantation references you alluded to and found three, but they were reviews written by happy visitors, a travel journal by a British tourist, and a VirtualTourist site that promotes Charles City County. Nothing by a historian or scholar who has studied the subject.

    There is a really good article about kitchens, appropriately titled “Kitchens,” in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal of 2007 and you can read it on line at http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Summer07/kitchens.cfm

    In this article, professor Michael Olmert not only tells you why fear of fire wasn’t a major consideration (“Despite the heat, kitchens didn’t often burn.”), he gives a good explanation for the separation. He points out that kitchens had been in basements in the early years of the colony, then goes on to say, “The detached kitchen was a departure from architectural custom. It had perhaps little to do with the threat of fire and maybe everything to do with slavery.” Dr. Olmert mentions the Hugh Jones 1724 book, writing, “common planters often kept their kitchen ‘apart from the dwelling house because of the smell of victuals, offensive in hot weather.’ He [Jones] doesn’t mention the threat of fire.”

    Of course, viewpoints are always changing where history is concerned and these ideas may give way in the future, but Olmert’s views are supported by other scholars who are quoted in that article, including the chief architectural historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Ed Chappell.

  11. crispinius says:

    Dear Fenton,

    As Mary said aboive, it would be helpful if you can cite where exactly you found your source at Colonial Williamsburg. This will help us all to understand how credible the source is, since CWF is such a large insitution.

    CWF has, in fact, published several articles on this topic (including the one that she mentioned specifically). These corroborate Mary’s analysis of the myth. In other words, it is not to say that fire played absolutely no role in the consideration of outside kitchens, but that it was not a predominant role.

    The spreading of fire amongst timber buildings (the vast majority of buildings in 18th-Century southern communities and plantations) would be still a grave concern, unless the kitchen was placed farther than 100 feet away from the main house. I cannot think of any kitchens or laundries (or other outbuildings where fire was used) that are built at a “safe” distance from the main house.

    As an illustration of this, the Great Fire of London (1666) began in a bakery in Pudding Lane, and an entire neighbourhood of closely-built homes and businesses was in flames before a quarter of an hour had expired. This was exacerbated by dry conditions and a goodly breeze – two conditions that still frustrate firefighters in the 21st-Century.

    In his redesign of the city, Sir Christopher Wren took note of narrow streets and other design flaws that permitted the fire to rage out of control. Other “planned cities” (like Williamsburg, designed by Francis Nicholson) took cues from this, including having a main street that was 100 feet wide. So, building an outside kitchen 30-60 feet from the main house (a mean distance here in Williamsburg) could help but only a little.

    Modern firefighters have what they call “incident priorities.” These are:

    1. Life safety
    2. Incident stabilization
    3. Property conservation

    In other words, get people and animals out first, contain the spread of fire next, and – if possible (which it usually is not once the property is sufficiently engaged) – save the place. Number Two is a priority because fires spread to nearby buildings, trees, &c.

    Another consideration is that detached kitchens are not unknown in the northern colonies. In fact, many of the finer homes had a “winter kitchen” inside the house, and a “summer kitchen” outside the house. If risk of fire was the primary concern in these people’s minds, there would be no “winter kitchen.”

    In the South, however, we have no great problem with exceedingly cold weather. This is frequently demonstrated by southern colonists’ persistence in using open hearths for heating, long after most colonists north of the Mason-Dixon line had at least one heating stove (and often more) in a house.

    Logically, placing a kitchen outside doesn’t do much for resolving the risk of house fires even in the South, since the main house would still have to be heated with fires for over half of the year. Also, candles and grease lamps would still be used for lighting. Sometimes, coal braziers would be used inside the main house for heating water for tea, coffee, shaving or bathing, &c.

    Insurrections and other violent crimes by slaves were a common enough concern. Arthur Lee in his 1767 address in the Virginia Gazette cites it as a reason to discontinue slavery; John Wesley likewise references masters’ concerns for their family’s safety in his 1774 pamphlet, “Some Thoughts On Slavery.” This is likely a much more grave concern on the minds of the house owner than fire, unless that fire be arson (which we know also did happen frequently,…very probably to Virginia’s Capitol Building in Williamsburg, in fact).

    I think that Mary is on the right track. Fire may have been a concern, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the driving force. The weight of primary documentation seems to indicate other motives.

  12. marymiley says:

    I just came across a 1982 report from Colonial Williamsburg’s Research department in my file, and it shows that historians have been singing the same song about kitchens for at least thirty years. It says:

    “Rumor has it that kitchens were separate form houses because this arrangement was thought to reduce the danger of fire to the main house. In 1705 Robert Beverley wrote, ‘All Their (Virginians’) Drudgeries of Cookery, Washing, Daries, etc. are preforme’d in offices detacht from the Dwelling Houses, which by this means are kept more cool and Sweet.’ Current scholarship on detached kitchens in the Chesapeake area emphasizes their role in the segregation of different social groups. Reducing the risk of fire was not a reason for separating kitchens from the main houses. A balanced explanation of separate kitchens should therefore mention a concern for fire, but the emphasis should be on social factors. I think the wisdom of this approach is apparent when we consider that dozens of seventeenth century frame houses survive in New England where cooking was done int he house. Whereas, in Virginia, where kitchens were separate, not one weventeenth century frame house is known to exist.”

  13. james A Moore III says:

    Thanks for the info. My Dad grew up in a home (1950s) that had the kitchen separated from the house. he said this is in case of fires. Later, in the 60′s, they built a new home,and tore down the old home, but saved the “old kitchen” as a storage building.
    The kitchen now is with the rest of the house.

  14. Ella Aderman says:

    Plenty of separate “summer kitchens” here in Southeastern PA, so it isn’t just a Southern thing.

  15. Ron Carnegie says:

    There is a difference between northern “summer Kitchens” and the Southern practice. In the South they do not usually have kitchens detached as WELL as kitchens connected, but rather instead of. However I would suggest that the existence of summer kitchens in the north is a good argument in favour of heat being the bigger issue. Many Northern kitchens are also in cellars, that seems odd if fire is the great threat. To me that suggests opposite concerns. In the north they are more concerned with staying warm, a kitchen in the cellar heats the house.

    As to fire risk, the houses are still lit and heated by fire, the kitchens are still usually very close to the house (far closer than the British example given at Hampton Court)

  16. Dani Stuckle says:

    I live in North Dakota and on the Great Plains, most of our big building booms were after the Civil War. We have areas that were never really settled until even as late as the early 1900s. People commonly built a main kitchen on the first floor, or ground floor, of their farm house, and added a small building outside somewhere that was called the Summer Kitchen. This was used primarily for cooking in the summer to keep the main house cool so people could sleep better. This was especially important in late summer when it was hottest, and women were canning and preserving food. Summer kitchens were seldom built or utilized as such after WW II. However, you do see new homes and remodeling projects that incorporate the contemporary trend of an outdoor kitchen and barbecue area off the back patio.

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