Steel Kitchen Cabinets – History, Design and FAQ

Yes, steel is sturdy … steel is modern … and in post-World-War II America, steel was arguably the hottest choice for materials for the home. During the war, America had ramped up tremendous capacity in steel production so that we could produce weaponry. Afterward, all the production had to find a new outlet. Where did it go? To big ‘ole American cars, but also into the American home — for appliances, home construction, and, yes, kitchen cabinets. On this page, I’ll share some of the history of steel kitchen cabinets that I have picked up from watching, reading and collecting since 2002. The image above: From a U.S. Steel ad promoting the benefits steel to American consumers. It worked.

1876 kitchen (Library of Congress LC-USZ62-1857)

“Vermin-proof”: The history of postwar steel kitchen cabinets in fact starts decades before. I’ve spotted “hoosier cabinets” from as early as the 1920s that were made of steel. These were promoted as “vermin proof.” Cleanliness was a big concern for homemakers in earlier parts of American history. For example, the whole notion of “Sanitary Kitchens” was very important. Remember, we had no vaccine for polio, for example, until the mid-50s, and the flu epidemic in 1914-1918 killed 450,000 people in the U.S. and up to 70 million worldwide. Rats and mice could not eat through steel — so if you had a metal hoosier (or at minimum, a metal flour bin) they couldn’t get into your foodstuffs and contaminate them.

Haute 1930s designs set the stage: The first examples of full-blown semi-fitted metal kitchens that I have spotted were in the 1930s, in very high-end homes shown at expositions.Among the very early brands were Whitehead/Monel, Servel, Elgin, and Dieterich (above, circa 1933-34. ) As you can see, these cabinets had a deco/streamline look. I’ll call these “semi-fitted” kitchen because the stove and fridge were still separate pieces of furniture.

Saving for the American Dream Kitchen: Folks liked these 1930s steel kitchens — they were a huge advancement over the farmhouse and apartment kitchens most people lived with. But prior to WWII, people simply couldn’t afford them, because of the Depression. During the war, though, employment rebounded to support the war effort — but, there was nothing much to buy, due to rationing. So, women and men alike were able to save a lot of money to spend after the war. Manufacturers, meanwhile, had all their factories dedicated to wartime production. But, they knew that after the war, they would return to a consumer-driven marketplace. So they “primed the pump” by running ads like the one above — encouraging American women to save for the ream home they’d always wanted — and that started with the American Dream Kitchen.

Postwar building boom: After the war, steel kitchen cabinets became very popular. They were offered as standard in the famous Levittown houses, for example. My sense is that they were “high end” — but not out-of-reach, at least in the first decade after the war ended. Remember, there was a lot of steel capacity. Interestingly, coming out of the war there were some 6 million people who needed housing. We couldn’t build houses quickly enough. But, the houses were quite small by today’s standards — often starting at 700 s.f. and not much more than 1,000 s.f.  And, there continued to be materials shortages due to the demand. I have read, for example, that you could only build one bathroom, unless you got some sort of special dispensation. I have not verified this, though.

Kitchen colors in the early post-war years: Before 1953, most steel kitchen cabinets were white, and in fact, we see a lot of patriotic red, white and blue imagery in advertising for these early postwar-era kitchens. Kitchens had a cheery, almost primary-color look. For a late 1940s early 1950s kitchen, I might recommend real linoleum floors and wallpaper with flowers rather than googie atomic graphics. Sweetness.

Metal kitchen cabinet colors in from 1953-1963: It wasn’t until about 1953 that things started to settle down, construction-wise, in America. Then, homes started getting bigger, and fancier… and American culture started to get more modern. From 1953 through 1963 — a period dubbed the Populuxe (affiliate link) years in this terrific book, which I highly recommend — we then start seeing pastel-colored kitchens (just like cars). Heading into the 60s, we also saw two-tone kitchens like the 1957 St. Charles, above. Exuberance was the word to describe the Populuxe years, and American kitchens of that period. In fact, I also would describe these as the glory days for steel kitchen cabinets. For 1953-1963 kitchens, I would tend to recommend VCT flooring in tiles or sheets, and wallpaper with atomic references.

The Big Three: During the glory years, I’d say that there was a “Big Three of metal kitchen cabinets”: 1. Youngstown. 2. Geneva. 3. St. Charles. Please note that this calculation is “anecdotal” based on experience since 2002. Some day I’ll try to figure out where the data are. The video above shows you just how nuts it got: That’s a chorus singing a jingle made for Youngstown and presented at a company dealer convention, I presume.

Youngstown Kitchens: Here is a typical Youngstown sink base. It’s “early years” most likely. Immediately after WWII, a lot of homemakers would just buy this unit, a sink base with integral drainboard sink. The idea was that you could add the additional pieces later. The porcelain double drainboard sink is very desirable today — you have to find them vintage, currently there are no reproductions that I know of. However, you can get this look in stainless steel from Elkay. Youngstowns were the biggest sellers in the 50s — they were marketed nationwide.  The early Youngstowns have a distinctive pull. And later, they introduced their “Diana” line, which is identifiable because of the big red emblem on the sink with the goddess Diana the huntress figured in. Johnstown steel kitchen cabinets may also have really been Youngstowns with a different label. I don’t know how much of this re-marketing went on, but I suspect there was more of it than just this example.

Geneva Kitchens: Geneva cabinets were #2 in the marketplace, I’d say, judging from what’s for sale in the “used” market today. The early Genevas are very distinctive because their chrome pulls are recessed with a little plastic backplates behind them. Over time these backplates become yellowed, brittle and even broken. There is no known suitable replacement. Don’t even ask. Later Genevas — like my 1963 aquamarine Genevas above — do not have the recessed/backplate design. Harrison steel cabinets also look suspiciously like Genevas.

St. Charles Kitchens: Anecdotally, I have heard that St. Charles kitchens were considered “cream of the crop” within the steel kitchen cabinet market. That said, I think my Genevas are terrific, and I’ve seen other cabinets that look darn nice. (While there surely must have been quality variation manufacturer-to-manufacturer and perhaps even year-to-year, we have no definitive research on this.) St. Charles was the longest running steel cabinet maker. The company ceased to exist for a few years in the 2000’s, but then the Viking Range Company bought the brand and has reintroduced them into the market. But then, they discontinued them.

Garth and Martha had their vintage Crosley kitchen cabinets professional stripped and repainted. Their interior: Retro-modern.

Other brands, from Acme… to Homart (Sears)… to Morton… to Yorktown: I run a Forum dedicated to buying, selling and archiving vintage metal kitchen cabinets and there, I’ve identified more than 70 different brands that were offered in the U.S., and I even have three from Britain. Among the other more-significant nameplates that renovators are actively searching out are: GE, Republic, American, Crosley (pictured above), Beauty Queen, and and Morton. It’s my sense that many of the smaller brands were local or regional, from the days when interstate highways and interstate commerce were still young. See all 70+ brands listed on the Forum.

Metal bathroom vanities: Yes, there were steel vanities for the bathroom, too. This is a Beauty Queen “Lavanette.” We still see a few of them around. Note, a bathroom vanity is generally going to be only 21″ deep. Most of the steel kitchen cabinets are about the same as today’s cabinetry — 24″ deep and 34.5″ tall.

A word on “fitted kitchens”: The postwar era was the first time in history when “fitted kitchens” were widely available and affordable to consumers. A “fitted” kitchen means that all the cabinets, stove, refrigerator ( later the dishwasher) and countertop are all seamlessly connected generally in a long, continuous line.  This was all a big step forward for the American housewife — she had more working and storage space then ever, as well as modern appliances that made her work easier. She still worked a lot of hours, of course — as household help became a thing of the past and as expectations for cleanliness and doting on the children rose.

Steel and wood at war: Reading marketing materials from the period, it seems that the steel marketers and wood marketers were always duking it out for supremacy. Toward the late 50s, wood started to win. While steel might last forever, it dented, it could rust, it showed fingerprints, and to get that fabulous, glossy auto-grade finish you really must disassemble your cabinets and take them to the pros for repainting. I also suspect that as steel production found newer markets, it started to get significantly more expensive compared to wood. On the other hand, wood is easy to repaint, and it has a “warm” aspect vs. the antiseptic feel that steel can sometimes convey. As a result of this war, you start to see steel cabinet makers try new things with their designs to bridge the gap. The 1955 Capitol kitchen above has a “nubbly” finish to prevent fingerprints; I’ve seen a similar textured finish on Genevas and seen it reference as late as 1977 in St. Charles ads.

Above: The American brand cabinets have steel boxes with coppertone drawers and wood doors. Kind of “best of both” metal and wood. The coppertone, by the way = reference to Early American decor.

vintage-steel-kitchen cabinets

vintage-steel-kitchen cabinets adAbove: This St. Charles set had painted steel cabinets on the bottom and wood-door/steel-box cabinets up top. In this case, the wall cabinet doors are painted white, with yellow trim. From Craiglist, featured courtesy of seller — this exact kitchen was actually featured in a St. Charles ad.  We’ve also seen them plain maple. Again — evidence of the steel-vs-wood war going on… and the transition to wood cabinetry as the winner in the battle overall.

Open-concept kitchen pushes “furniture-like” cabinetry: Further explaining the preference swing to wood that was under way in America as we headed toward the 1960s: As the kitchen became increasingly  to the family room, which reflected an increasingly more casual American lifestyle, cabinetry in the kitchen started to be designed to look more like furniture in order to merge with the adjacent space. This also pointed to wood as the material of choice.

As time went on, heck, they started caving altogether and went to wood doors on steel boxes. Above — Youngstowns… see the complete Youngstown Monterey brochure here.

There was a frenzy to get these wood-doored-St. Charles’ when we spotted them and posted them on Retro Renovation. That door trim = stainless steel. Gorgeous.

By the mid-60s, for all these reasons and maybe more I haven’t figured out yet, steel cabinets faded as the kitchen cabinets of choice. Of course, there was still groovy steel in the kitchen: In the form of avocado green, harvest gold, coppertone brown and even orange stoves, rangetops, ovens, refrigerators and dishwashers. Thank goodness. Above: 1968 wood kitchen. Heart.

Were steel kitchen cabinets an important part of mid-century design history? Museums think so. Above: Historic New England removed this barely-used upstairs metal kitchen from a home near Boston to put into their permanent collection.

Fast forward 45 years to today, and steel kitchen cabinets are making a comeback. In 2008 the same company that makes Viking ranges re-introduced St. Charles steel kitchen cabinets to the market. They come in 23 powder coated colors and stainless steel (above). But, they do not seem to be targeted at the retro market — they are high-end Euro style. I believe that in Europe, steel kitchen cabinets are also available, and like current-day St. Charles, high-end. Update: Viking discontinued the St. Charles brand in early 2012.

You can also get these reproductions of vintage “English Rose” cabinets made by John Lewis of Hungerford in England. Expensive. There also seems to be a market for vintage English Rose’s in the U.K. There are two other British vintage brands I’ve identified: Paul and Anemone.

REVO ovenOh, and look at this vintage English Rose REVO oven that surfaced for sale on ebay in 2012. I am not sure I understand the nomenclature, but that’s what the listing said. So interesting to see a built-in oven that is so detailed to look like the cabinets. Such was the inventiveness of the time.

It took me five years to find the cabinets for my kitchen. I laid it out on Excel. I had 68 vintage cabinets — and made it work by the skin of my teeth. I sold my extras.

Interest in metal kitchen cabinets is growing: Here in the U.S. there seems to be a growing community of people trying to collect and restore vintage metal kitchen cabinets. This can be a journey… an endeavor… yes, a trial… because it can take a while to hunt down enough used cabinets to fit the configuration that you need. Some readers have collected three kitchens just to get the pieces they need. Many have driven, like, 15 hours there and 15 hours back to get the sets they want. Then there’s repainting… I recommend dealing with professionals to get the best results. Even this can be tricky — you need to find pro’s who will work with you and you will want to ensure the stripping and painting processes they use are appropriate for your gems. If you DIY, please take care to test your cabinets for lead paint and to plan accordingly.

The Retro Renovation Steel Cabinet Forum: I launched a special forum to buy and sell metal kitchen cabinets in Dec. 2008. Some readers — like Scathing Jane and 52PostnBeam — are real heroes and post cabinets (and more) that they find via craigslist from all over the country. Thank you! No buying or selling on the main blog, please. And for valuation ideas, continue to the FAQ below.

The key, if you want to find these cabinets and make them your own: Patience. Doing these kinds of projects is a real hassle… you must have the mindset to take it on… if you do, the results can be very gratifying. Remember my kitchen (pictured again behind me,  that’s my vintage Republic cabinets salesman’s sample kit)? It took me FIVE YEARS to find them. I almost gave up, and had pursued bids on MDF cabinets to paint aquamarine. Then, at the 11th hour, the retro decorating gods sent me 68 steel cabinets, original aquamarine finish, that had once been used by nuns to teach cooking. My kitchen has been featured in two magazines and  all over the intranet. Moreover — the pursuit is what led me to create this blog. Over those five years of searching, I gathered so much info on vintage steel kitchen cabinets and the other elements to pull the kitchen together, that I decided to create the blog to share the info with others.

Want to see and learn even more about steel kitchen cabinets? See the Steel Kitchen Cabinets Category — which includes all the posts I’ve ever done about metal kitchen cabinets. There are lots.

Whew. That’s it. Now, here is an FAQ.

FAQs:

Buying

Restoring Vintage Steel Kitchen Cabinets

#1 Renovate Safe: Like other original features in a vintage house, vintage steel kitchen cabinets can contain materials that require environmental and safety precautions.  So when undertaking your restoration project, be sure to consult with professionals regarding the materials that were used in your vintage house, how to deal safely with them, and also about the proper disposal of debris, etc. For example, the EPA hosts a complete website on lead in the home and a complete website on asbestos in the home.

Following is some of the experiences shared by other readers.

Cleaning them up

Professional painting and stripping

  • I have not personally tested the various methods of stripping or painting or done extensive research on the topic. I will relay some of what’s been conveyed by some readers as background information only. CONSULT WITH LICENSED PROFESSIONALS about what to do for your cabinets. And remember to renovate safe — work with licensed professionals to test all materials and layers before messing with them. Note also, I do not necessarily keep this page updated with the latest reader experiences. If you are really serious, you need to go though the Kitchens / Steel Kitchens category and use the search bar.
  • Click here for a discussion of powder-coating: Have your cabinets un-installed — they are generally held together with screws — and take them to pro’s who will powder-coat them. *Note in the post, the mention of possible door-warping under high heat. In a subsequent comment, a reader said he had been told by powder-coaters that heat in the bake ovens is so high it might cause the stiffener within the doors of his cabinets might catch fire. Bottom line: Talk to licensed professionals, and also remember that if yous start dis-assembling doors to see what’s inside to get what’s inside tested for vintage nastiness that may be hazardous.
  • Take them for auto body painting: Speedway Ron highly recommends basecoat-clearcoat auto body painting done professionally. Take the cabinets to the auto body shop – it can even be a franchise – be real nice and friendly and they will do a good job with two (?) coats of basecoat and one top coat of clearcoat. These do not need to be baked. Note: Spray painting at home, even with a rented machine, is going to be a waste of time, you will not get a satisfactory finish.
  • “e-coating in place can be DISsatisfactory: So far, the retro renovator who had e-coating done at home reported a dissatisfactory experience, perhaps to do with the prep.
  • Can you just strip them down to the bare metal and use them that way? The advice I have received from a knowledgable friend with experience renovating classic cars is: No. These are not “stainless steel” cabinets. In the humid environment of a kitchen, they will start on a path to blotches and rust if not sealed effectively.  One reader tried an over-the-counter product that promised protection — but after three coats (and a lot of work) the finish almost immediately began to degrade when exposed to steam and kitchen grease.  Perhaps there would be a way that pro’s could seal the metal with a clear coat. ?. But that will cost as much as painting, so do it for the look, not as a way to save money.

DIY refinishing

  • This is not a DIY or fixit site. But as a gauge of what some people have gone through, I have a few stories on the blog in which readers share their personal experiences. You can find them within the Kitchens/Steel Kitchens category and/or by using the Search function.. And another very detailed find from the internet on a laborious process car guys use. Again, CONSULT with LICENSED PROFESSIONALS to test first to find out what you are working with and to take the appropriate safety and environmental precautions. Renovate safe.

Color choices

  • See my page on Paint Colors for lots of authentic mid-century paint color choices, including palettes from vintage St. Charles and Geneva.

Where do I get parts?

  • What about countertops and steel / metal countertop edging? Yes, you can get vintage-style laminate and metal edging in either stainless steel or aluminum. See my Laminates and Countertop Edging Page for complete resources.
  • Where do I get hinges for my metal kitchen cabinets? No known sources. I had hoped one of the “pivot hinges” in this site would work. But I don’t think so. Don’t ever throw out a cabinet til you’ve salvaged the hinges and rollers, too. Dumpster diving, watching trash piles, buying cabinets at salvage just for parts, etc., sound like the route you will have to take.
  • Where do I get rollers or parts for the drawers for my metal kitchen cabinets? Same as above – although there might be tricks to this if you are handy.
  • Where do I get plastic backplates for vintage Geneva kitchen cabinets? No current source. Scrounge up old ones.
  • Where do I get handles for my metal kitchen cabinets? Key is knowing the “spread” of your pulls. If it’s 3″, it will be relatively easy to replace them. If it’s 2-3/4″, much harder and likely, more expensive. To see all identified options to date – see the Category called “Cabinet Hardware”.

Appendix: Here are brands identified to date on the Forum, where there also are entire other sections on buying/selling vintage metal kitchen cabinets:

SeeAllOurVintageCatalogsSMALL

 

Comments

  1. susan Ramirez says

    Thanks for adding me. I have been renovating since 1980. I keep to the history of the house. The huge Victorian nearly did me in.
    Now I have a small 2000 sq ft homemade farm house. I am putting in metal cabinets from the late 50’s although the first section of the house was built in 1903 the addition was done in 1940… Yeah I am playing fast and loose with the actual history. I just really like metal cabinets! The finish for the cabinets were a worry. Thanks for the article on different ways to proceed.

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