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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Eighteenth Century Cooking by Cynthia Howerter

Eighteenth century cooking required time, patience, and physical labor. Because houses lacked indoor plumbing, electricity, and refrigeration, women spent a great deal of time each day preparing food.

An eighteenth century kitchen

Colonial kitchens were located either inside a house or in a detached building away from the house. The advantage of having a kitchen in a detached building was that heat from the cooking fireplace did not make the house warmer during hot summer months. Conversely, during cold weather, heat from a kitchen located inside a house helped provide warmth to the residence.

Living near a brick-making source often determined whether cooking fireplaces were constructed of brick or stone. Both types of fireplaces had to be large enough to accommodate kettles and pans. Cooking fires were fueled by wood that had been cut and dried for easy burning.

A cooking fireplace made from stone in a rural log cabin

Kettles containing food that needed to be kept warm were either hung over a mound of hot ash and coals called "banked ashes" or set atop a small pile of hot embers as in the photo below.

Left pot hangs above banked ash and coals while the right pot sits on piled embers in a brick fireplace

Some colonial cooking fireplaces contained metal cranes that swiveled. Secured to an oven wall, pots and kettles were hung from it during cooking. Cranes served two purposes: convenience and safety. The crane helped the cook move heavy iron kettles and pots filled with hot food toward and away from her during cooking without her having to reach across flames.

A cooking crane

Colonial women who weren't fortunate enough to live in a town with a bakery had to make their own bread and baked goods. Bread dough was often mixed in a large wooden bowl, then kneaded and formed into a smooth ball.

Fresh dough resting in wood bowl

Yeast dough needs to rise in a warm, draft-free place before it can be baked. A dough tray - a wood box with a secure but removable lid - was used for this purpose. Raw dough was placed inside the deep box, giving it room to expand during the rising, then covered with the lid. With the lid in place, a warm, draft-free interior allowed the dough to rise.

The large wood box on legs is a dough tray

Bread, pies, cookies, and cakes were baked inside an oven that was usually located next to the cooking fireplace. The oven was preheated by building a fire inside it. Once the wood burned into ash and embers, it was removed and the oven thoroughly cleaned. Baked goods requiring the hottest temperature, such as pies, were baked first. Cookies, ofttimes referred to as "biscuits," required a brief baking time at a low temperature and were baked last.

The top opening is the oven. Firewood is stored underneath.

Liquids, such as vinegar and cider, and dry food were stored in stoneware jugs and crocks made by a potter. Because colonial kitchens didn't have built-in cabinets, free-standing cupboards and shelves were used for storage.

Stoneware storage jugs and crocks sit on top of a kitchen cabinet

Thin pieces of leather placed over the opening of a jar or crock protected the contents from dust, insects, and mice.

Leather used as lids on jars

Some fruits and vegetables needed to be dried before being stored for the winter. Colonial cooks often tied string around small individual vegetables, such as the peppers below, and hung them from the ceiling to dry. Once dried, they were stored in crocks.

Peppers being dried in a colonial kitchen

A basic necessity for cooking is water. With no indoor plumbing, cooks had to go outdoors for water. People living on an established property usually had an outdoor well located near their kitchen while backcountry settlers retrieved water from springs, creeks, or rivers until a well could be dug. In either case, water was transported in buckets. Because buckets filled with water are heavy, they tended to be small, requiring numerous trips between the kitchen and water source.

A well with a water bucket stands next to a house in a village.

All photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter grew up playing in Fort Rice, a Revolutionary War fort owned by family members, and lived on land in Pennsylvania once called home by 18th century Oneida Chief Shikellamy. Hunting arrowheads and riding horses at break-neck speed across farm fields while pretending to flee from British-allied Indians provided exciting childhood experiences for Cynthia and set the stage for a life-long love of all things historical. A descendant of a Revolutionary War officer and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), history flows through Cynthia's veins.

Are you going through difficult times or know someone who is? Do you need encouragement to get through a tough situation? There's nothing like 25 true stories from people who have been in your shoes and succeeded. To purchase a copy from Amazon of the award-winning non-fiction anthology that Cynthia co-authored, click here > God's Provision in Tough Times   Available in paperback and Kindle.


  1. This was so interesting. Love the pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Chappydebbie! I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. It was fun visiting 18th century kitchens, but I was very glad to return home to my modern kitchen.

  3. You are so sweet, Carrie. I'm glad you liked it.

  4. Very interesting post Cynthia, thank you for sharing. I enjoyed the pictures. Colonial women (and men) certainly worked hard to provide for their families.

  5. You are so sweet, Mrs. Tina. Yes, life in the 18th century was really difficult compared to the conveniences we enjoy today. I'm glad there are historic places that allow us to have an idea of the kinds of lives our ancestors once lived.

  6. Very interesting information. Thank you for sharing the photos, too. This info makes me want to go back to Williamsburg and Jamestown. :-)

    1. Thank you, Melissa! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. There's always wonderful things to see and experience at Williamsburg and Jamestown. I hope you can go soon.

  7. Cynthia, this was a very interesting story, and makes me so thankful to have a modern kitchen with running water. Our ancestors had to have been very strong to survive just ordinary living.

  8. Thank you, sweet Suzanne! If I had to use an 18th century kitchen in my house I definitely would have no time to write! :)


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