Wood kitchen cabinets in the 1950s and 1960s – “unitized” vs. “modular” construction

wood kitchen cabinets

If wood kitchen cabinets like Nancy's were built using "unitized" construction, they likely cannot be removed and re-arranged.

Over time, several readers have asked whether they can dis-assemble their mid-century wood kitchen cabinets, then re-assemble them in a different configuration. Well, the answer seems to be: Maybe, Maybe Not. Over on her blog, Kelly’s Kitchen Sync, Kelly Morisseau has a good explanation of “unitized” construction, which I am betting was used by a great many “merchant builders” with access to their own, local kitchen cabinet fabricators. If you have cabinets built this way, chances are you will not be able to remove and rearrange them successfully. Keep reading, though, because “modular” boxes were also available, you may have these. –>

What is “Unitized” construction? ‘A house of cards’

Kelly explains it also — and has a photo — but in short, ‘unitized’ means that everything is built as one complete to-size unit. There is a big long front — with all the pieces kind of attached behind it. If you start to dis-assemble one of these units, Kelly says, they may fall apart — kind of like a house of cards, I’d think. Kelly also says that banks of drawers were less common in this style of construction, because of the labor involved, I presume. I am guessing that local “merchant” builders used this type of cabinet because (1) they could have the cabinets made locally and take a mark-up on the sale (rather than giving the sale to a national cabinet-making company that sold and shipped modular boxes), (2) because this was a less expensive solution, and homeowners probably had no idea of the difference, and (3) because it was very easy, with this solution, to have odd-sized lengths or configurations made (although I am sure merchant builders avoided odd-sizes). Kelly points out that this style of construction was sold by “by the linear foot” — terminology that some people still refer to but which is, for all intents and purposes, apocryphal and irrelevant when buying kitchen cabinets today, which have too many gizmos and doodads involved.

Interestingly (to me, because I worked in the auto industry for 17 years), almost all cars are made using “unitized” construction today. It reduces weight. The old skool way is “framed” construction — still used on many if not most trucks, I believe. Frames add weight, and hurt fuel economy — hence, virtually the entire car industry has moved to unitized construction.

Modular construction — individual boxes

1930s-kitchen-cabinets

All this said, there were national kitchen cabinet companies making and selling modular units. The advertisement above is for Curtis Cabinets, from 1938. They sold many shapes and styles of modular kitchen units. Crikey, they must have been shipped using the Wells Fargo Wagon!

wood kitchen cabinets 1930s

Here are all the different modular units offered by Curtis in 1938

Thanks, Kelly, for the explanation!

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Comments

  1. says

    The cabinets in our newly acquired 1950 condo are unitized. I had originally planned to get new kitchen cabinets because I wanted a new configuration and the cabinets weren’t in very good shape. They’re so solid though and I love the scallop detail above the sink so I decided to keep the uppers and paint them “Frosted Jade”. The bottom cabinets were too far gone so they’ll be replaced with new creamy white cabinets. The turquoise wall oven and matching Air-O-Hood exhaust fan are staying as well!

  2. Lauryn says

    Our kitchen (1939) has those unitized cabinets, which I recently had the “pleasure” of painting; we too couldn’t part with the scallop detail above our sink or the very solid, built-to-the-space quality of them. In hindsight, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to replace the lowers, as they are mostly a front face with shelves and holes for the drawers. It was an extraordinary amount of work to get them in decent enough shape to paint, but in the end, I’m glad I still have them. It’s nice knowing they’ve been there for 72 years and probably will be there for a few more decades (or as long as we’re in this house!).

  3. Margaret in Maine says

    I am in the midst of rearranging my 1966 cabinets RIGHT NOW! Mine are built into the house, of painted pine boards. I suppose that makes them custom, but they are strictly builder’s grade.The original, 1956 cabinet work is boards, the 1966 remodel (which also rearranged some cabinets, as evidenced by the mix of boards and plywoods, and chrome and brass hinges) .

    They are filthy, and covered in many layers of paint, but solid, original, and you just don’t get wood like that anyway. And instead of a series of scallops over the sink, I have a pair of scallop that looks like, well, nice plump breasts. Who could tear that out???

    I took the fronts (doors, vertical rails, top panel, molding at ceiling) off to rearrange them, so I can have the shorter doors, which are over the cooktop, so the range hood fits, in the center of the three bays. I’m also re-arranging the lowers/base cabinet, to center the cabinets under the now-centered cooktop. I also wanted the cabinet out of the way to get the flooring in more easily.

    Cabinets are being sanded and painted soft white, and the insides (they are built right on the plaster (rock lath) wall, so the back of the cabinet is plaster, not wood, sunny yellow. New countertops will be Virrvarr light blue.

  4. Jason says

    I would say the easiest way to tell is whether you can open one cabinet door and reach into the cabinet to behind the next cabinet door. Where you can no longer reach is a structural divider or perhaps a seperate cabinet – can you see a seam on the front where two cabinets are put together or just a door frame?

    I definately remember being able to open my grandmothers 1955 cabinets(with latching handles that I can’t seem to find anywhere – the handles were outside crescent shaped with a button withing that shape and had a latch inside) and reach down left or right into other areas of the cabinet.

    I think the lower cabinets are more likely to be in bigger sections than the upper cabinets because they didn’t have to be lifted. I realized that you can reach from your left cabinet door to the right door often with today’s double door cabinets, but what i mean is reaching down 4 or 5 feet into what would clearly have to be a different cabinet if it was modular due to the distance. If I could get cabinets built this way when I do the final re-do of my kitchen I would!

    • Olivia says

      I think my 1951 cabinets are unitized since they are connected like that. Though the brand is Kitchen Aid?

      The lowers have the the latching handles and I love them. Ready made baby-proofing. I would consider taking them with me when we move, but there are only 4 of them.

  5. says

    Our 1954 kitchen has handmade cabinets, and they are solid as a rock. The only bad thing about them is that you can’t adjust the height of the shelves. Our carpenter regularly waxes poetically over them. If we were to remove them, I think we would lose him as both a friend and a carpenter :-)

    The only thing we’ve done is raised two of them (using the skills of the above mentioned carpenter) as they were too low above the counter. so we had the bottom shelf cut off, and had the doors cut to match the new size (I’m not descrbing that very well, am I?)

    A few years back my mom had her original modular steel cabinets removed (Grrrrrr. There was no Mother’s Day card for her THAT year ;-) and replaced with some new cabinets, and they are just dreadful – but she is sort of a cheapskate, so I’m sure they are not an example of the best of what’s out there nowadays.

  6. Jim DeAngelis says

    WOW!!! That’s almost exactly what my kitchen in my ’59 Cape Cod looked like when I bought it in 2009, right down to the self-stick copper aluminum ’tile’ backsplash!! Unfortunately, the finish on the cabinets was beyond salvage, and all the doors were warped, and most of the copper tiles were dinged and scratched. I also had the original pink and gray boomerang Formica countertop!
    My cabinets were a mix of modular and unitized, so, with some creative arrangement and some custom shelves and a corner cabinet, I was able to reuse all of the original cabinets. Incidentally, there was cabinet under the sink, originally… only a cabinet face and doors! No sides, back or bottom! I’ll try to attach some pics. I wasn’t very good at taking pics before I started, and I don’t have a pic of the finished project handy, but you’ll get the idea…

    before; [IMG]http://i187.photobucket.com/albums/x265/powerstroke1971/P1010056.jpg[/IMG]

    during; [IMG]http://i187.photobucket.com/albums/x265/powerstroke1971/P1010008.jpg[/IMG]

    [IMG]http://i187.photobucket.com/albums/x265/powerstroke1971/P1010007.jpg[/IMG]

    I did all of the work myself, including all new electric and plumbing (in copper! I hate plastic pipe!), with my father making the corner cabinet and shelves for me. The blue mosaic tile border on the floor now also covers the backsplash

  7. Jay says

    Great posting! I have modular cabinets, I once googled the name of the company on the plate attached to the sink front but no luck, I guess they have been lost to time. All wood with fixed shelves. The previous owner had the base cabinet between the sink and cabinet holding the wall oven removed to install a dishwasher. The saw job was just ok and when I had the counter top replaced found out there was no longer anything supporting that end of the counter. The fact that the standard size dishwasher fit this area just so made me think that the builder originally intended this space for a dish washer if the home buyer wanted one at the time the house was built otherwise they got a cabinet.

    • Ann-Marie Meyers says

      That is something to think about. I am hoping to have the dishwasher I bought at an auction (brown, portable Kenmore for $2.00!!!) built in next to my sink, and will have to let my handyman know to be careful about the support system.

    • Kae says

      Your cabinets wouldn’t happen to be Coppes-Napanee would they? Our 1969 house has the original walnut cabinets and this is the name on the tag on the sink front. I’ve not been able to find out much at all about the company and haven’t run across anyone else with this brand of cabinets in their kitchen. They are great cabinets with all kinds of fun features.

  8. says

    Our kitchen was unitized and it came out peice by peice. The previous owners had replaced parts of it with the wrong kinds of wood, stained it really dark, and nailed things into them. Not to mention they had that old person smell (which I lessened by using a mix of vinegar and water to clean them). Ha. Anyway, we thought we’d be able to tear them out and give them to Habitat or put them on the curb. Nope, they were put in to fit our kitchen (just like all the other kitchens in our neighborhood). I remember our cabinet maker telling us what they were, but I can’t recall – they were nothing special, just builder’s grade.

    I felt really bad tearing them out. It was like I was hurting my house’s feelings. Ha. However, I love, love the new ones. They make the kitchen brighter and a focal point of my house. As soon as the backsplash is up, pictures will be sent. Just waiting on a few decisions. =)

    • Rebecca says

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way–re old person smell. It’s probably not “old person” really, just the accumulated odors of 60 years of chicken roasting and Lucky Strike smoking, with the added nuances of occasional mouse and roach infestation along with mustiness from dripping faucets and flooding.

      We’ll be replacing them, because despite being original, they are not organized the way I want them for the long term, and because modern cabinetry offer a good deal more in the way of functionality, what with pull-outs, magic corners, etc.

      I will also say that I got stuck with all the negatives of original cabinetry, but not many of the positives–we have NO scallops or quarter-round shelves. Our original hardware is long gone. but I do love that bevel on the slab doors…

      • Joe says

        I don’t refer to it as “old person smell” either; wood is porous and it will absorb odors. What I can tell you is that, if you really love the “vintage” cabinetry and it’s in good shape, you can bring back the “new smell” by first giving them a good scrubbing inside and out with murphy’s oil soap and leaving all the doors/ drawers open for a few days’ good airing (pick dry sunny weather for this), followed by placing one-or-two charcoal briquets in each cabinet/drawer. Replace the charcoal every week for a couple of months, then once every month thereafter. I promise you, you’ll be very happy with the results of your efforts! Oh, and the “used” charcoal is perfectly o.k. to use for your outdoor grill, of course! P.S. – if you’re really grossed out by the thoughts of rodents/insects past, you can solve that easily by wiping the interiors with a solution of 1 tablespoon chlorine bleach to 1 quart warm water – problem solved! If you really want to make the wood come back to life, buy yourself some Scott’s Liquid Gold and follow the instructions.

      • says

        We have a magic corner. Well, it’s like a knock off because the “magic corner” is approximately $1,000. We really like the knock off though. Very functional. =)

  9. Andi says

    Our 1952 Cape Cod kitchen must have modular cabinets. They are wooden, painted white now (as when we bought the house 5 years ago), but evidence inside some of them shows they were once turquoise (now my walls and countertops are turquoise/aquamarine).
    Previous owners removed the wall dividing our once-small kitchen and an adjacent laundry area. They relocated the cabinets from the wall they took down—both base and wall mounted sections—to extend into the newly enlarged space. They look like they’ve always been there, so must not have been too hard to move. I’d certainly never thought about this before, unitized vs. modular. Thanks for yet another tidbit of house history!

  10. JKaye says

    Very interesting topic — never really thought about the two different configurations, but now I can see we have experienced both. The original maple cabinets in this ’59 house were unitized. They were built to last 1000 years and appeared built specifically for this kitchen. However, they could not withstand the original owner’s loved of fried food. The cabinets were saturated with grease, and there was severe water-damage below the sink. We scrubbed and scrubbed but just seemed to be pushing the grease around. We tore them out and replaced them with a similar-looking set we found at the ReStore.

    The “new” cabinets are from the 60s. in good shape, and are modular. With so many different shapes and sizes we were sure it would be a breeze to fit them into our kitchen. Instead, it was a real headache. We couldn’t get a configuration that would match up with our sink plumbing, and had to support our sink with two-by-fours for weeks on end until we finally found another cabinet at the ReStore that would mesh with the plumbing and the other cabinets. All of this effort made me long for a ’30s or ’40s era unfitted kitchen utilizing a Hoosier cabinet or a big hutch!.

  11. JKaye says

    Just helped my daughter move into a studio apartment in a building built in 1965. It has the original unitized maple kitchen cabinets, very much like the ones above. (How cool to say unitized.) Also has the original brown sink and original counter (I can’t remember its pattern). The stove, fridge, and vinyl flooring are all newer. (Most everything in the white-tiled bathroom is original too, except the vinyl flooring.)

  12. Wayne says

    I also have the unitized cabinets in my 1961 ranch. In fact, the cooktop/oven configuration is exactly the same as the picture above. However, the previous owners cut out the cabinets below the cooktop to accomodate a range. They placed a microwave in the original wall oven cutout and had the cabinets refaced (very poorly) in 80’s oak and brass. I had the upper cabinets stripped and refaced with a hickory slab door style and replaced all the lower cabinets. Luckily, the original lighting soffet attached to the upper cabinets was retained, so these were refaced to match the cabinets. I now have the original configuration with wall oven/cooktop and I have to say that the original configuration works much better for me.

  13. Dulcie says

    My kitchen cabinets are built to fit my kitchen in more ways than one. While sitting on the (very sloped) kitchen floor one day discussing the option of jacking up the basement beams, we noticed that the floor had obviously been sloped for a long time. When they did the kitchen remodel sometime in the 1950’s, they cut the cabinet bases to fit along the sloped floor. If we leveled out the floor, our counters and cabinets are going to have about a 4 inch slope on them. We decided it’s easier to live with the uneven floors.

    I’m going to drill a hole in the northwest corner of the room and whenever the floor gets dirty, I’m just going to hose it down and the water will all run out the drain hole in the corner! :p

  14. Gavin Hastings says

    One more version of “Unitized”

    Mrs Nicholson, a neighbor down the street-moved into her new home here in 1940.
    She says the the builder created the cupboards for each of the nine houses on our street …from scratch! His team built them all custom in the backyards of each home. Each kitchen layout is very unique.

    As the original owner; she specified the exact sizes and configuration she wanted!

  15. Cheryl Temple says

    We have unitized cabinets which were painted white when we moved in. My husband stripped them to look just like the example picture of unitized cabinets above. And just a couple of weeks ago, we knocked down the wall behind the unitized cabinets. First my husband removed the cabinets, keeping as much of the structure intact as possible. Then he reassembled them on the opposite wall. It wasn’t easy, but we took pictures before he took them apart. He was able to do it, and they look great. So, it is possible!

  16. says

    I have these confounded cabinets. They were refaced with plastic “wood-grain” laminate in the 1970’s by the previous owners of my house. They were delaminating, with the veneers starting to fall off, and since I couldn’t afford a kitchen remodel, I decided to re-reface them myself. This project has taken me a long time, and of course at the time I bought the supplies, all that was available was “natural”, “harvest oak” and some dark wood…so I got the oak in a shaker-style, which I now loathe…but I’m stuck with it.

    The real issue is what to do about replacement drawers. The center slides would have to be knocked out but I’m not sure what we could do about putting new slides in. I hate, hate, hate these cabinets with a passion…but they are solid pine cabinets, and I’m not replacing them till I can replace them with something better than cheap particle board crap from Home Depot.

  17. Jayne Clowater says

    Despite its good points, my 1959 ranch had too many too tiny rooms and not enough counter space. Last summer I decided to knock out the wall dividing the kitchen from the living room. Rather than destroy the knotty pine cabinets on that wall, I hired a good finish carpenter to move the china cabinet and others into a new configuration on another wall. Some new knotty pine, which I darkened carefully, was used to complete the new unit. Someone tells me that within 5 years it will be indistinguishable from the old pine. The old fake copper hinges and pulls were replaced with invisible hinges and concave chrome knobs–the cheapest Lowe’s had to offer. The results are very satisfying and period-appropriate. An island sits in the opening, finally offering enough counter space.

    • Jessica Murphy says

      Jayne you just gave me the answers I was looking for to my kitchen dilemma. I have a very large kitchen – it’s 10 by 16 feet and it’s all knotty pine – backless cabinets and the walls. It’s beautiful but I need more walls for appliances so I’m thinking of taking down the wall between the kitchen and living room. I also need more cabinets so I’ve been wondering how hard it would be to get new ones made to match. How did you darken your cabinets? thanks!

  18. says

    I love this style of old cabinets. Stained or painted they are full of charm.

    We are currently remodeling our kitchen using modulars that we salvaged from a couple of other construction jobs we did. We were able to save the original upper built-ins (unitized) in our kitchen.

    It is a lot of work. Since the new cabinets came from two different homes, the location of hardware was different and minor delamination along with other repairs had to be made. I spent a great deal of time bondoing, sanding, cleaning, and repairing drawers before I could spray a new finish on them. The husband is still complaining about imperfections. He just doesn’t get it.

    Vintage is imperfect. It is not just the look because that can be replicated, It’s the personality of these originals manufactured 50 + years ago that grabs me.

  19. Liese says

    Although this is an older post I’m hoping to get some help with our 1962 North Carolina ranch with original unitized cabinets, namely how to refurbish the drawers with bad center slides and it takes sitting on the floor to access the interiors of the cupboards. What are people doing about using their kitchens? With a room 11 1/2 feet wide new cabinets don’t line up with the plumbing and I hate to see the wood torn out.

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