Why You Want a Kitchen Island Now (but Didn’t 100 Years Ago)

updated Jun 9, 2019
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When you think of the kitchen island, you think of homey scenes — your friends nibbling on cheese and pouring you a second glass of wine as you check on the honey-glazed pork tenderloin in the oven, your kid climbing up on a stool to see if she can get a lick of that chocolate stuff you’re mixing, a lingering cup of coffee with your partner before you both rush off to work.

The island is like an automatic memory maker, and that’s because the kitchen has become the heart of the home. But that hasn’t always been the case, and the evolution of the kitchen island maps out not only how American kitchens have changed over the 20th century, but also how our lives have shifted from decade to decade.

The Relegation of Early Kitchens

The modern-day kitchen hasn’t only grown with the times — it has also been completely relocated. Back in the 1800s, it was shoved to the back of the house and away from the parlor and dining room, where the guests could be found.

That was a calculated move: Kitchens weren’t built for entertaining but for function. They were dark, noisy spaces filled with smells, clattering pots, dirty countertops, and a firewood stove that tended to double as a furnace.

(Image credit: Andreas von Einsiedel/Getty Images)

The kitchen island was a big, sturdy table in the center of the room that let the servants spread out and get dinner whipped together in a timely manner. It was there for function, not for an appetizer spread.

Before the invention of dishwashers, gas ovens, and all those other handy appliances, lingering over a glass of Pinot in the kitchen as dinner came together just wouldn’t have been possible. Couple that with the fact that the only people throwing soirées during the late Victorian era were the wealthy, who had servants doing all the unglamorous prep work. That meant guests didn’t really have a reason to wander to the back and gather around the island, anyway.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

The First Hint of Change

The island didn’t really begin to change until the 1930s, when Frank Lloyd Wright decided to shake up what it meant to be a suburban house. Wanting to create something especially for the middle class and design a plan that would run without live-in help (the Great Depression changed things), he made the first “open plan” living space, which let the living and dining areas spill into one another.

By erasing that line that split the serving section from the rest of the house, the kitchen began to change in meaning. It got moved to the forefront of the floor plan where the homemaker could be part of the action, even as they made the Sunday roast or fiddled with a new baking recipe. This gave new value to the island — it became more inviting. It wasn’t just a workstation anymore.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

The Rise of the Kitchen Island

It also helped that after the war, America set its sights towards the future and all of its high-tech possibilities. With the Space Race, Sputnik, and computers the size of conference rooms, tech was huge and there was a new focus on bringing innovation into the home and making a housewife’s job easier. With coffee makers, washing machines, and microwaves, the kitchen was no longer synonymous with back-aching work.

There was more to be done at the island than just chores, and that invited the rest of the family inside. By the 1950s, the island was a place to grab tea with the next-door neighbor or build a sandwich while chatting about your plans for the weekend with your partner as they read the paper at the kitchen table.

(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

The island became an even more central part of the kitchen in the 1960s, when Julia Childs’ The French Chef premiered in 1963. Watching Julia add her sticks of butter while standing at her island on TV changed people’s perceptions of the counter space into a spot where you could hone your culinary skills, have fun experimenting with new recipes, and wow your guests with fancy appetizers.

This idea that cooking was fun and something you wanted to share with other people only progressed in the ’80s and ’90s, when the task became less of a “housewife duty” and more of a pastime. The island really started to turn into a homey spot.

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Today’s Kitchen

Nowadays, homeowners who love to cook want a well-built kitchen they can play in, and that type of space doubles as a stage where they can show off to their guests. That’s where the island comes in. Where it once was a weathered table that was laden with dirty bowls and sauce spills, it now has become a modern-day parlor room.

It’s where you chop tomatoes and talk about your day as your partner checks on what’s simmering on the stove, where your kid tells you how their spelling test went as they work through their pasta, where your guests mill about and eat prosciutto and green olives as you keep an eye on the first course baking in the oven, and where you uncork the wine and whip up cocktails as people mingle about.

The kitchen island is now the hub where it all happens, and we’re all welcome to pull up a chair and make a connection.