November 22, 2016

6 Tips to Organize Your Historic Kitchen

Of all the spaces in historic houses, kitchens may have gone through the most dramatic changes over the years. Once a space far from the center of attention, the kitchen is oftentimes the heart of the house today, used as much as a gathering space as it is to prepare food.

My circa 1800 carriage house did not originally have a kitchen, of course. One look at the Formica counter tops and plaid-patterned linoleum floor told me the current one was added or updated sometime in the mid 20th century. It had four cabinets and one drawer. Total.

This meant that everything I needed to cook, serve, display, and eat food had to fit in a combined six square feet of space. How do you make a historic kitchen like this work for you without doing a gut-job? It might sound impossible, but below, I’ve suggested six tips to do just that based on my own experience.

Toolkit Historic Kitchen Organization Vintage Kitchen Print

photo by: Ethan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

This vintage advertisement gives you a sense for how much kitchens have changed over the years.

1. Hang anything you can.

The paltry amount of cabinets in my former kitchen meant I had a lot of wall space. I took the opportunity to hang hooks for my apron and oven mitts, and also installed an antique shelf to hold my teapot. I even considered hanging a pot rack from the ceiling, which is a great option for displaying sentimental cookwear and allowing for easy access. Consider using other wall space to hold items you use a lot, like wine glasses or coffee mugs.

2. Organize your kitchen without hammering or drilling.

Drawer dividers are excellent space savers. You can install a tiered shelf for kitchen cleaning supplies, as I did, which freed up half of the space beneath the sink. Versions with slide-out drawers are great for organizing pots and pans.

If you have a pantry, over-the-door shoe storage unites work very well for holding snack boxes and other small items. You can also find over-the-door containers that are made to hold shampoo bottles or soap in the shower, which work perfectly on the inside of a cabinet and are a great size for holding silverware, bottle openers, vegetable peelers, spices, or oil.

3. Use the space you have wisely.

The carriage house’s thick masonry walls meant I had a good foot-and-a-half of shelf space built in the window ledge situated next to the stove. I used that space to store my cookbooks, a jar that held cooking utensils, and a second teapot. It freed up a lot of counter space and looked decorative to boot.

Though I kept appliances I used infrequently in a cabinet, I kept the blender out, because it was used every day. You don’t need to hide everything from sight—that just isn’t practical. Think about the items you use the most and keep them on the counter or in a designated drawer.

Toolkit Historic Kitchen Organization Displayed Knick-Knacks

photo by: H is for Home/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Quirky or sentimental knick-knacks should be kept in the open, where they can contirbute to your kitchen's character.

4. Don’t be afraid to display.

Counter space is often limited in historic kitchens. This can be a challenge if you cook frequently. Use decorative bowls or baskets to keep items together. I installed a small rack beneath my cabinets to hang wine glasses from—this cleared up one full cabinet that I then used to store water bottles and Tupperware, which are more difficult to manage and organize neatly (and don’t look as nice in the open as glass stemware).

5. Use furniture for storage.

Baker’s racks are perfect items to help you organize because, spatially, they have minimal impact, but they provide a lot of storage. You can store nearly anything small to mid-size, such as your toaster oven (as I did), a Lazy-Susan to consolidate your spice collection, a coffee mug tree, or anything else you don’t mind having visible. This option works best if you’ve got the wall space for it. If you don’t, refer to my first tip.

6. Use other spaces.

Lastly, if you find you’ve done all you can without fully renovating your kitchen and still need additional space, consider storing items in an adjacent room. I ran out of space in my kitchen, so I purchased a small, quirky and brightly-colored cabinet. It was the centerpiece of my hallway, and nobody knew I had more than 20 boxes of tea stored inside. It helped me avoid cluttering my kitchen and provided a flat surface to display a picture frame and lamp in the hallway.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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