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Behind the Scenes | Dedham

Museum hosts talk history program on America’s kitchens

Historic New England

Nancy Carlisle focuses on the history of American kitchens.

We wouldn’t recognize most American kitchens until the 20th century, according to historian and curator Nancy Carlisle, who has written a book - “America’s Kitchens’’ - on the subject. In fact, in Colonial times, the kitchen could be almost any room in the house.

“All you needed was an open space with a big fireplace. You didn’t have all the built-ins we’re accustomed to today,’’ Carlisle said. “Not until the 20th century did you get a very different concept.’’

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Carlisle will speak on changes and innovations in America’s kitchens tonight at the Dedham Historical Society in the first lecture in the society’s annual six-talk lecture series.

The lecture is based on the research Carlisle did in preparing a traveling exhibit on America’s kitchens for Historic New England, a preservation organization that owns and operates 36 house museums, and writing a book with co-authors Melinda Talbot Nasardinov and Jennifer Pustz, published four years ago.

Vicky Kruckeberg, Dedham Historical Society director, said she knows Carlisle and is excited to have her speaking in the society’s brick museum building.

“I’ve known her as an excellent speaker and a superb researcher,’’ Kruckeberg said. “The book has great images, too. When I first saw it, I stood in my kitchen for a half-hour looking it over because it’s such fun.’’

After growing up in New Jersey in a family that vacationed in Amherst and Maine, Carlisle earned a master’s degree in early American material culture from the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware, specializing in furniture history.

She has been a curator for 20 years for Historic New England, the oldest historical preservation organization in New England, with properties throughout New England, including the Josiah Quincy House in Quincy.

“I’m responsible for interpreting and understanding and publishing about the objects in the collections,’’ Carlisle said.

Her Boston-based employer’s collections hold 110,000 items, many displayed in the houses, from furniture to clothing to paintings.

Others are part of the organization’s large study collection. Its 36 properties house more than 80 kitchens, ranging from intact Colonial period kitchens to the more recent examples.

“My job is to explain to people how things work,’’ Carlisle said last week, speaking from New York City, where she went for the annual “Antiques Week,’’ during which auctioneers display their biggest finds and collectors and curators go to see what turns up.

Historic New England decided to open the “America’s Kitchens’’ project beyond New England, giving her the opportunity to research kitchens in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Virginia, Carlisle said. She was surprised to find how different early kitchens were outside New England.

In New Mexico, a mingling of Spanish settlers and Native Americans resulted in kitchens built of adobe - which comes from Morocco through Spain to the New World - and the need for tools to process corn in the kitchen, Carlisle said. You find grinding machines in the kitchen during the Colonial period and out in the plaza, where houses were built as squares around a courtyard.

In Virginia, where plantation owners relied on unpaid labor rather than investing in cast-iron stoves, kitchens long continued to be based on cooking over open fireplaces.

According to the Dedham Historical Society, tonight’s lecture traces technological developments such as the introduction of the cast-iron stove, the room-altering efficiency of the Hoosier cabinet, and the impact of the frozen-food industry to demonstrate how innovations have transformed kitchen work, reduced labor, and changed women’s lives.

Cast-iron stoves, introduced by German settlers, began to be popular in the 1840s, replacing open fireplaces and persisting into the 20th century. “In our research we found people who remembered their grandparents cooking over them,’’ Carlisle said.

Developed in Indiana, the Hoosier cabinet, the precursor to modern countertop and cabinet kitchens, became pervasive in the early decades of the 20th century, fundamentally altering the look and operation of American kitchens. It’s “a link to modern kitchen,’’ Carlisle said. Until then, the kitchen remained a wide-open room with table and chairs and - hard to fathom for modern cooks - no counter space to work on.

Research by Carlisle and her co-authors led to the traveling exhibition that exhibited locally at Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich. Their book will be for sale at the lecture.

Dedham Historic Society’s annual lecture series is free to the group’s 500 members.

“America’s Kitchens’’ will be followed by “Great Boston Fires’’ in March by David Kruh, and in April, Robert Hanson will speak on “The High Road Through History,’’ a talk on the role of Dedham’s High Street in local history.

“America”s Kitchens” Talk by historian Nancy Carlisle

Dedham Historical Society

612 High St.

Today, 7:30 p.m.

$5; free to members

781-326-1385

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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