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 archive.org and the MBJ Collection for making this vintage catalog available.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!


  5. 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!

  6. Katie 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! 🙂

  7. 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.

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