How many kitchen cabinets do you need? Scientific advice from 1939

“… Planned in accordance with the ‘Balance of Storage’ principle…released to the public in 1934.”

Whitehead-sink-and-dishwashing-centerHow big does a kitchen really *need* to be? How many kitchen cabinets do you really *need*? Well, beginning around 1929, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company began a five-year research study to investigate this question. In 1934 — after three years of testing their design principles — they released their study to the public. We first got a look at this fascinating research in the 1937 Whitehead Kitchens catalog that we recently featured — now, let’s take a closer look.

The “Balance of Storage” research

The catalog explains:

All Whitehead Work-Saving Kitchens incorporating Westinghouse appliances are planned in accordance with the “Balance of Storage” principle, which was developed by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company after five years of research and released to the public in 1934. In three years of actual use, it has proven its reasonable accuracy as the kitchen storage equipment yardstick of proven value.

It is based on the sole constant factor in a house — the number of bedrooms. Briefly, it is as follows: The number of bedrooms establishes the normal occupancy of a residence. Normal occupancy is based on one person per bedroom for all except the master bedroom, which has two persons. The normal occupancy of a house, therefore, is one more person than the number of bedrooms. To obtain the actual number of persons to be provided for, however, two persons per house must be added to take care of the entertainment factor and the inevitable accumulation of materials. The actual occupancy, therefore, is three persons more than the number of bedrooms. For each of these total persons, 6 square feet of wall cabinet shelf area is required. The amount of base cabinet storage space is governed by the fact that base cabinets should be placed directly underneath all wall cabinets, with the exception of the space occupied by the major appliances. These two facts give us the following storage requirements for any residence.



This research was likely as another outcome of major scientific movements like Scientific Management, also know as Taylorism. How many kitchen cabinets do you need to really work efficiently? This research certainly seems to make sense to us, even today.

Why did kitchens get bigger?

In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the kitchens in most middle class houses were much smaller than what the mass of middle class of America would consider desirable today. As the post-WWII boom continued into the 1960s and beyond, kitchens continued to grow in size — often quite dramatically — for several reasons:

  • For many years in many homes in America, the kitchen was a prep space — eating was done in the adjacent dining room. As dining habits became more informal, more families wanted to eat right in the kitchen. Eat-in kitchens — there was even a real estate shorthand “EIK” became a must-have. To fit the EIK, the kitchen had to expand.  As this occurred, more cabinets were added around the now-larger perimeter (even if there wasn’t really stuff to fill them.) But of course, we found stuff to fill them, quickly enough…
  • For many years in mid century America, there was home delivery of milk and groceries — daily, even, I believe. As this custom died out, homemakers needed to go to the store themselves to shop. To save trips, they began storing more groceries at home. So more storage was needed.
  • After World War II, the number of “labor saving devices” in homes exploded. So then, we *needed* even more storage space. I keep putting needed in *needed*, because, do we really use this stuff? I recently read an article that said that Americans wear only 20% of the clothes they own, on a regular basis. I suspect that, similarly, we only use 20% of the pots and pans and glasses and mugs, etc., stored in our kitchen cabinets. So, in this sense — I bet the Westinghouse research still is relevant. 
  • Kitchens open to an adjacent great room became popular. The whole assembled space — bigger.
  • And similarly, as affluence in America grew, we built houses that were bigger and bigger and bigger (a trend that only ended with the recent Great Recession). Bigger house? Bigger kitchen, of course — because pretty much a constant was, is and ever will be: The kitchen is the epicenter of the home… the very heart of the American Dream that is homeownership.

Readers — do you have “too many” kitchen cabinets?
That is, how actively do you use all the stuff in them — week in and week out?

Thanks to and the MBJ Collection for making this vintage catalog available.



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  1. says

    in a way, this makes sense. The more bedrooms you have in a house the more likely you will have more people living in the house and need that much kitchen. I have a nice roomy kitchen in my rancher (built 1953) and it has a cool diner style banquette that I use all the time for meals. I turned my formal dining room into a home school room. The size of my kitchen fits my needs just fine. If it were any smaller, it would be cramped, if it were any larger, it would be a waste. Soon it will be turned into a red and sky blue kitchen wonderland from a yellow, avocado green and orange eyesore. As soon as I can figure out how to remove 50 year old wallpaper.

      • Robin, NV says

        I suppose it depends on how the colors were used but I agree with Allen. Look up John and Trixie’s kitchen remodel. They proved that avocado can be cool. I’m adding lots of yellow and orange to my kitchen remodel. I went with turquoise as a third color rather than avocado but my house is from 1962, so it seemed a more appropriate choice.

    • TerriLynn says

      My home’s previous owners didnt bother to remove the wallpaper, they just painted over it. Which is what I am doing. I dont have the energy or patience to deal with that big of a project right now.Although, it would be sooo much better if I did!

  2. Chris says

    What an interesting article! It sparked my interest, since the Westinghouse study was released the same year my house was built!

    We are having a yard sale, so sorting and culling my kitchen supplies has been a recent project. I got rid of the wine glasses that my husband’s old girlfriend sent us for a wedding gift. (We don’t drink wine, and really – every time I looked at them, I made a pruney face. Someone else can enjoy them!) I did put the springform pan in the garage sale box. In 15 years, I haven’t made a cheesecake, and now that I’m a Weight Watcher, I’m not likely to. These were easy decisions.

    Now… casseroles. I do tend to make big batch recipes and freeze several meals at a time. So I do use those extra pyrex dishes. I have some seasonally decorated water glasses that I really enjoy switching out when the time comes. That gives my spirits a lift, so I’m going to say they aren’t a real requirement, but they are keepers.

    When we did our retro make-over of our kitchen a year or two ago, my husband added a little skinny cabinet next to the stove, to store cookie sheets and cooling racks. That was a WONDERFUL move on his part. No more fighting with shifting pans in the drawer under the stove! They used to fall back behind and make me crazy! This little skinny cabinet lives in previously unused space and has made a huge difference in my Kitchen Attitude!

    All in all, I’d say that if I went down to bare-bones necessities in my kitchen, I could empty out about a third of my cabinets. But I do use the stuff I have, just not every day. And the cheery seasonal stuff makes me smile a lot. I don’t “need” it, but I do enjoy it very much.

  3. Patty says

    Study? I’d bet this was written by the ad department. One kid per bedroom – in the 30s? That wasn’t even the norm in a lot of homes in the 60s or 70s. Interesting read but I would not rely on the scientific accuracy of the info.

    • Just another Pam says

      But…but…Patty, it’s scientific! This is an upgrade from the 4 out of 5 doctors smoke Camel’s advertising.

      All joking aside I agree with you. It was obviously marketed to a particular part of society that lived a particularly luxurious lifestyle unattainable by a large segment of society just as the 200,000+ dollar kitchens are today. My paternal grandparents built their house around then and not only did they not have a dining room they had to accommodate the only heat and cooking source in the house in that kitchen. Though they were “in town”, a very central to the area economy town at that, everyone had a garden, everyone canned and stored their own food and most didn’t even have indoor plumbing in that part of town until the early ’60’s. It was the final gasps of the Great Depression with recovery accelerated by WWII when ‘science’ really became an advertising tool.

      We all know the iconic photo of the “Migrant Mother” taken by Dorthea Lange in 1936, 3 years before the scientific kitchen design ad was published he family didn’t even have shelter much less an ability to have such luxuries just like millions of others.

      • Patty says

        When my dad used to say “looks like something out of the 30s,” it wasn’t a compliment. The six kids in his family slept in the big open second floor of their house – 2 big rooms. If that house were to go on sale today, I probably couldn’t even afford to go see it. An architect “updated” it in the 70s and incorporated the smoke house, etc. It has a privacy fence and gate around it to keep noisy people out.

    • Sandy says

      My thoughts exactly. Only rich kids had a room to themselves in a decade when family size was much larger than today.

  4. Olivia says

    My house was built in 1951, the kitchen has not been changed and I have plenty of cabinet space. It’s a three bedroom with an eat in kitchen. There are 3 full size and 2 short uppers, plus 3 lowers and a sink base with built in dishwasher. With a small, but deep, pantry I have plenty of storage. My only complaint is there is not enough counter space for food prep and the coffee maker, microwave and toaster take up a lot room. The stove is on the opposite wall from the cabinets and stands alone so we have a kitchen cart/island next to it just to have a place to chop food.

  5. Wendy M. says

    I love a good vintage marketing campaign! Today I think it would be difficult to estimate kitchen size based only on number of occupants, because there are so many families relying on take-out/eating out and their kitchens are rarely used. The size of the kitchen now seems to make a statement about the “grandness” of the house, not about how much it is used.
    Our house was designed by the original owners and she was ALL about storage space (and electrical outlets, but that’s a different conversation.) Consequently, I have an amazing amount of cabinets, including three full pantry closets. I’ve filled them all, as I love to cook and entertain. The only thing that isn’t used on a very regular basis is the china- but I’m so happy to be able to have it in a cupboard instead of having to unpack it every time I need it, like I did in our last home!

  6. Steph says

    Hm. Wouldn’t this same house probably have a butler’s pantry between the kitchen and dining room where all the dishes and serving pieces be kepts? And a food larder in the basement?

    It only takes 2-3 cabinets to store my mixing bowls and pots & pans. Oddly enough, my 3 bedroom home has exactly 7.5 linear feet of base cabinets! Spooky!

  7. Diane says

    I live in a farm house built in 1924. I moved here 3 years ago from a home my husband and I built in town at the height of the building boom..2003. You can imagine, the trepidation at leaving my traditional 2-story in town , for what my in-laws jokingly referred to as the style “early depression”. Kitchen cabinets were the original wall cabinets with additional ones added on the bottom. I love them so, that we commissioned a cabinet maker to build me more uppers to supplement. (I’m a more is more kinda gal). There is a great difference between how much china I could get by with on a day to day basis, and how many sets of china I wish to own…lets not get into dessert and teas sets.

  8. mary hershelman says

    Aren’t kitchens something like 80% bigger than they were in 1940 and we cook 80% less. They are constantly featuring kitchens in our local paper’s real estate sections that are 800 sq. ft….that’s as big as my house…it’s getting a little ridiculous. All that space to literally make coffee and run….what am I saying? Starbucks has that covered.

  9. Karen C says

    Having moved, I got rid of extra mixing bowls, baking pans rarely used, so we just have what we use. I have the extras stored in the barn and only once wanted something stored in there. I cook three meals a day and the only thing I miss is counter space in this 1900 house. I’ve learned to live with less of it though.

  10. says

    Great timing! I just spent part of the afternoon staring at my kitchen cabinets and a proposed layout. I am trying to decide if I am losing or gaining cabinets. And… do I care. I can’t wait to redo the kitchen and throw out 30% of everything in them. What I do really need and don’t have are oversize cabinets or drawers to store party stuff properly. Like big trays and bowls. Nothing really accommodates them, so I hope to work that in.

  11. Jay says

    This “scientific” stuff seems quaint now. They never could have envisioned the post war baby boom. I grew up on a street of 1920s three bedroom rowhouses that were crammed full of kids. Have you ever seen the plans for the original Levittown capes? Two bedrooms!! I have the original EIK with a separate dining room. I could certainly envision someone combining the two. More counterspace would be nice. I have virtually none. More cabinets would be nice. I do have a closet downstairs for dishes and pans used occasionaly. But there is stuff in the attic as well. All the stuff in the kitchen gets used. Cabinet space is too precious to waste.

  12. says

    Nice formula, though they need to account for dogs and parrots!

    Inefficiency is almost worse than total cabinet space. Cabinets too high to reach, like the pair over the refrigerator that sit empty. And I’m not short! Our house has a builder’s kitchen with standard cabinets that don’t fit. Odd corners have fill-in panels…such a waste of space. The fridge is smack up against a wall so I can’t open the door all the way. The pantry is wider than it’s doors so we have wasted shelf space we can’t reach on both sides. We also took down the cabinets hanging over the peninsula so I could actually see who I was talking to. Now of course I have a china cabinet taking up floor space to replace the storage we took down. (Sigh) The fact I also have to fit in a parrot cage and dog crate….well you can imagine. So we make up for all this with a refrigerator in the garage and also two large wardrobe cabinets and two single door tall cabinets in a row in the garage with the overflow small appliances, non perishable foods and seasonal or large baking dishes, cake takers and such. We make it all work but I know there must be a better way! 🙂

  13. Kelly Wittenauer says

    As others have said, the one person per bedroom idea is suspect. Born in 1961 and raised in middle class suburbia, nearly every family I knew had 3 or 4 kids in a 3 bedroom house!

  14. Nutella says

    The kitchens in the 1937 historic Greenbelt, MD homes seem to follow this formula pretty closely. As I mentioned earlier, I now suspect they are Whitehead cabinets.

    Newly renovated, I have lost some of the cabinet space my kitchen must have had in 1937. I have a stacked full size washer and dryer, a dishwasher, and a 36 inch stove (larger than the 24 inch original). I don’t have “good china” only everyday dishes, but I do have an abundance of bakeware, since I’m a baker. All of it gets used. My small kitchen appliances (rice cooker, crock pot, kitchenaid mixer, grill, waffle iron, mini chopper) have to get stored in an extra cabinet in our living room, but they all get used frequently, too. I gave up my toaster, and use the broil feature of my oven instead. Counter space is too precious!

  15. Marta says

    While I have a tendency to get rid of stuff and regretting it later, I will say if there’s a piece of equipment that makes my life easier on those few times a year I have 20-30 people to dinner, I want it.

    The height of luxury for me would be having a butler’s pantry. I neither need nor want a huge walk-in bedroom closet, but I’d give a lot to have 10′ by 7′ room lined with cabinets and countertops next to my kitchen. It would be nice if it had a sink, too, and a door that could be kept closed against infiltrating dogs and cats and prying eyes of guests.

    What I’ve learned over the years is that what’s easily accessible gets used much more often that what’s packed away somewhere.

  16. Bronwyn says

    I’m curious as to why the formula didn’t just include # of residents vs. # of bedrooms? Perhaps it was intentionally done that way in order to advertise that their clientele was rich enough to have 1 person per bedroom.

  17. TerriLynn says

    Love the article. When we moved to TX from WV, my new (2005) kitchen cabinets were full. We sold everything, and I mean everything. Except the melmac dish set I had just ordered from ebay! Now, my 1952 eat in kitchen has half the storage space and I have found I havent needed even half of the STUFF I had in my previous kitchen. I probably only have what they required in that article for a 3 bedroom for counter space, so instead of a modern coffee pot, I use a vintage glass percolator, which makes better coffee anyways. For a while, I was considering expanding the counter and cabinet space, but really this article actually settled it for me. Do I NEED it? No, not really.

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