Why were there vents on the cabinets under kitchen sinks back in the day? The question came up recently and with readers’ help, we have identified three key reasons for cabinet sink vents. In order of importance, I hypothesize:
- To ensure that heat gets to the pipes under the kitchen sink so that the pipes don’t freeze.
- To evaporate condensation created by sinks and pipes trapped in the cabinet.
- To provide ventilation to dry dish towels.
A look back at the evolution of kitchen sinks over the 20th Century helps illustrate some of these theories.
Early kitchen sinks often stood on legs
In this 2010 story showing the evolution of kitchen sink design at Kohler, we can see that early 20th century kitchens often featured large kitchen sinks that stood on legs.
Or — the sinks were securely wall hung. In these situations, the sink and the plumbing were both open, so there was no need to think about separate ventilation. Both photos above: Courtesy Kohler.
But then, these same styles of sinks “topped” cabinets underneath
The big cast iron drainboard kitchen sinks also sat on wood and metal bases, and we also had drop-in sinks and preformed sinks. Above: Look at these c.1933 Dieterich cabinets — the two sink base doors are completely vented. SURELY the designers wanted air to get in there. They were not fooling around. There must have been an important reason, and my #1 bet: They did not want the pipes to freeze.
Chris M was the one who got me thinking about doing this story. He wrote:
I always wondered why there are vents in the front of sink cabinets. Any idea? Thanks
Reader Allen reminded us that back in the day, houses may not have been as well heated as today. He wrote:
I think the biggest reason is when homes weren’t heated as well and evenly as we are accustomed to now the vents were there to keep the pipes from freezing.
Indeed, many homes prior to World War II had something far less than “central heating,” and outer walls also may have not been well insulated. Have you seen the 40″ kitchen stoves that include a heating system on one side?! I see lots of these for sale. Yes, I’m thinking: Vent that sink base to ensure heat circulates around the pipes so that on a cold cold winter night the pipes don’t freeze and burst!
The photo above shows an old streamline modern style sink, presumably quite pre-WWII, which I saw at an estate sale. The fancy venting…
… lines right up with the plumbing.
The evolution of venting under sinks
Even as home heating systems improved, there were likely other reasons to get air circulating inside that sink base cabinet.
Reader Ranger Smith wrote:
I think every home I’ve lived in has as a dish towel ring or hook on the inside of the sink cabinet door. So yes ventilation is key.
My own initial thought had been:
I have never read any “official” answer to this but I speculate: It’s to ventilate the interior of the sink base in case there are any drips / condensation coming off the plumbing pipes.
Poking around the internet, I can’t find any definitive answers. But there certainly is chatter about how the environment under a sink can become wet — from condensation coming off the bottom of old cast iron sinks and from pipes themselves… to people using these cabinets to hold dish drainers, sponges, and as already mentioned, towels. So: Good to get some air in there.
All kinds of sink cabinet vent designs
Manufacturers handled sink cabinet vent design all manner of ways. These are become part of the collection of my Encyclopedia of Steel Kitchen Cabinets 🙂
I’m showing these designs from steel kitchen cabinets — but the same sort of cut-outs were used on wood cabinets too.
Sink vents also came in metal:
Above: Remember Dawn’s classic black and white bathroom? She added a metal sink vent to her bathroom vanity — sure, why not! She tells us where she got it … and later, I found a source for lots of New Old Stock that as of today still is available.
Not all sink cabinets had vents, though. Some had badges on that top horizontal panel, or were just flat and plain.
No matter what the function, I think that the vents are fun and add a nice decorative touch to a retro kitchen, don’t you?!