How to design a mid century kitchen — instructions straight from 1949

Update: I have added this clip to the blog even though it doesn’t fit. I cannot get it on any smaller…. Thanks to Bo Sullivan, who works with Rejuvenation Lighting, for the tip on this 1949 film created to help postwar homeowner owners create the efficient kitchen of their dreams. It’s interesting to understand the context for films like this. After World War II, housewives did need educating on how to design a modern kitchen. But I think the bigger purpose of this propaganda — and it IS propaganda — was to incite homeowners to part with their hard-earned war-time savings.
After the grueling lessons of the Great Depression, folks were still very very conservative about tapping into their bank accounts — or just as likely, raiding the stash of cash under their mattresses or buried next to the barn. They DID have money. During the war, there were a lot of jobs — but little to spend your money on, because of rationing and all the materials going toward the construction of wartime armaments. After the war, there was tremendous new capacity available for consumer goods. But, Americans didn’t want to spend on discretionary consumer goods. They did buy houses But, they were Savers. And, the Government was Scared. They did not want the economic wheels grind to a halt and cause another depression. Hence films like this. It wasn’t until 1953 that Americans really started to cut loose their dollars. Another story for another day…

Video source: The excellent archives.org.

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. natschultz says:

    Oh my gosh! I’ve died and gone to HEAVEN! That kitchen is TO DIE FOR! I’d lose the seat-height pull-out sewing table though 😉

    The odd thing is, apparently very efficient bin cabinets were common, even in the 1920’s. The book “Craftsman Kitchens” is awesome – there are lots of larger undercounter base bins that roll out like the smaller ones in this video. I tried for a few years to find them anywhere, all to no avail 🙁 The closest I could find was tilt-out hampers / trash bins. The funny thing is, reading that book was like reading the diary of my house – even my original cabinets are all the same – upon further examination I actually found that there was originally a pull-out cutting board that someone filled in with a piece of wood in the face-frame.

    Honestly, while the bins are awesome and seem to be a great space-saver, I think they would be a cleaning nightmare. Also, while it appears that lots of potatoes fit in those small bins, I don’t think it’s possible that a whole 20 pound bag would fit, which means you’d still need a separate pantry to store the rest. The film does mention a separate “storage room.” Most modern houses don’t have an extra food “storage room”, so a big pantry is probably a better (and cleaner) use of space. We keep all our flours / sugars in large old glass wire bail jars, and while they currently do waste countertop space, the film mentions that the bins are meant to replace said jars / canisters to keep the counters clear, but, if you notice, the counter / sink area in that kitchen is actually 30-36″ off the wall to accomodate those bins, similar to a modern “back channel”, so you actually lose floor space. You can accomplish the same thing today with glass jars (no moths – NEVER use plastic!) by either building out an extra 6-9″ or just adding wall shelves to get the jars off the counter. The only downside to the jars is that you have to pull them out and then stick your hand in to reach the scoop. For a modern look you could replace the jars with stainless roasting pans with lids and a rubber gasket, I guess 😉

    The countertop compost drop – I actually am planning on doing that in my kitchen, into a pan in a drawer. I had actually thought about putting a door to the outside, but I think that is asking for trouble, no matter how well insulated and well sealed. Old houses used to have two-way cabinets for wood next to fireplaces; I don’t think anyone actually uses those anymore (too many bugs). As for the smell, it does have to be emptied often, but it can’t be any worse than the one that sits on my counter now – that’s just taking up space. Add baking soda!

  2. lady brett says:

    oh! i don’t know how i missed this the first time around, but i want that kitchen! it is just *perfect*. oh, how i love utilitarian things – i think that is why the 40s speaks to me so.

    oh, such inspiration! i shall have to determine what ideas i can reasonably incorporate into our kitchen, seeing as it is already built.

    thanks to ChristineEliane for the plans, as well.

  3. Jacy Park says:

    The reason I LOVE this video is because it coordinates exactly the “new” thought processes at my full time job: 5S housekeeping (organizaion) and Ergonomics. Wow. I took a 5 day class to learn this “new” thought process and LOOK! It’s been here since 1949!!!

    Reader Question: All the layouts of the kitchens I’ve seen thus far on this website are very square in design – just like the video. We have an accepted offer on a 1951 Frank Lloyd Write “inspired” home that has a “honeycomb kitchen” design. The kitchen is ORIGINAL with avacado green fridge and wall-mounted stove (gorgeous, but in desperate need of love). The kitchen is 12 x 12 but multi-sided (like I said, honeycombed). Does anyone have any experience in this type of layout?!

  4. June Cahill says:

    Love the “hidden” area to hang wet towels -when I look at this kitchen – and all the great ideas, I think we went “backwards” in design instead of forward. The hole in the counter for collecting garbage is fabulous – however, I think I would have added a sliding cover to close it up (smells)…but, people probably took out their garbage daily (bins were not as large) back then. Facinating!

  5. Selena says:

    Considering the movie states that the kitchen was designed for farmhouses, I’d assume the scraps went to the chickens or the hogs twice a day at feeding time. Especially in that era, good scraps would not be wasted. Now we tend to waste a lot of food to the garbage. We use our own scraps to feed our poultry and the feeder insects for our pet lizard. What few items they don’t eat (or shouldn’t eat) we compost.

  6. Noelle says:

    I adore this kitchen, with all it’s tidy conveniences and storage spaces. I want it. I agree with June (above) who says that we have gone backward with design instead of forward. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a kitchen with so much thought put into it, even in million-dollar homes. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  7. Joan Yost says:

    If you want this kitchen and have the 11×16 space, then you can certainly have it!

    The blueprints–yes, blueprints–for this kitchen have been archived by North Dakota State University Agricultural Extension.


    The lighting plan is a separate file, available here.

    The NDSU Ag extension website has a huge inventory of building plans for everything from hog pens to large modern houses. Along with the plans for this kitchen, there are also plans for individual cabinet modules. This utility cabinet is one of my favorites: http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/aben-plans/7041.pdf

    And definitely check out the Beltsville energy saving kitchen from 1956. It will knock your socks off!

  8. Katherine says:

    I live in a 1941 frame townhouse in Greenbelt, MD. We need to redo our kitchen and this is a fabulous resource. Our kitchen isn’t this big, but I think we could incorporate a lot of these ideas. I wish we could put back the original sink, we had one we were going to put in, but the mounting hardware has been been removed from our kitchen. It was wall-mounted and weighed a ton!

  9. rosalie says:

    where i live unless you have drawn every bit of old stucco out of your house you are a poor reflection of what a home owner is supose to be. I have been here for for twenty five years purchased this home from the person who went through the ww11 time so all things were left as was. Shortly after I moved here I was abandoned became a single mom of five children and the magical place took us in and to this very moment has given all the comfort for our hearts to grow. Yet we are the only ones who really know it. Untill now ! When I was looking for some paint ideas I realized my poor idea of decor would be beautiful in this web sight. I have a original that we have kept perfect. NOT EVEN A FOCET CHANGE. Thank you so much that I dont have to live in shame be cause i cherished my warm home. You have showed me what i already knew I just believed I was alone. Thank YOU all.

  10. Jessica says:

    I’ve enjoyed referring back to this over the years…but what happened to the video? Is it not iphone accessible, or was it removed?

    1. ShariD says:

      I see a space for it on my smartphone, but my phone doesn’t support that particular format, and it’s a gray box with an “x” in it.

      HOWEVER, if you go to the bottom of the article, just above the pictures where it says Related Stories, there is a link to the actual video – it says Video Source “The excellent archives.org” and that should take you straight to the video on the archives.org site where you should be able to watch it directly.

      I LOVE watching this video, and wish I could have that kitchen (with a few minor modifications to get it to fit my house) in place of the small, poorly designed kitchen I have been stuck with for the last 25 years!

      We were in a financial position to replace our kitchen about 15 years ago. The money was in the bank even. But, while I was way across the country at a funeral for a member of my side of the family, my poor husband was involved in a freak automobile accident involving a young man who had a much too-powerful automobile, a sense of invincibility, a complete lack of common sense or responsibility and a daddy and mommy who bailed him out of everything he got himself involved in through his own carelessness.

      My husband, thank God, was not seriously injured, but the truck was a complete loss and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to replacement cost. So, there went our kitchen money, to buy him another truck. The one we lost, even though older, was in beautiful condition, and had been very well maintained. Not that I begrudge him the truck, of course, but even decent used ones are so damned expensive, and I never thought it was fair that we should have been saddled with that extra expense. I still don’t, and recounting the incident just makes me angry.

      Anyway, we’ve never been able to make the numbers work for us again, like we did back then, so I still have my same old kitchen, except for a lot of work to paint the whole thing several years ago.
      Not only do I love the kitchen features, but I also adore the “Functional House dresses” (as termed in the credits) which were designed and created by the Home Economist staff there. Have never been able to locate any patterns for them either, but I really would love to have a few!

  11. Theresa says:

    I’m really late to the party on this one, but about those house dresses…. Some Googling brought me to https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/apronsandkitchens/exhibits/show/kitchen-plans/step-saving-kitchen which gave me the title of the publication from which the dresses were created. (This above site is well worth your while to read.

    The 16 page document can be viewed and downloaded here: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc6276/m1/

    There are a lot of other really great dresses and aprons in the pamphlet.

    Happy sewing!

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