Lifestyle magazines and media often sell the idea that the ultimate in togetherness is friends having a meal around a big table in a kitchen dining room. The table is often a symbol for togetherness, a place for rituals that celebrate family and community. But the table in the kitchen has a longer history, and its one in which social class has a big role to play.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘kitchen table’ was an essential item of furniture for the British working-class family. Its importance is clearly shown in working-class autobiographies which described the details of domestic life during the first half of the twentieth century.
The kitchen table needs to be placed in its environment in order to understand its significance. Nowadays we might assume that this was the kitchen. Certainly, in middle-class homes, the kitchen table was there, but in the working-class home it was in the main family living space. For two thirds of the autobiographers examined, this room was described as a ‘kitchen’ but for one third it was referred to as a ‘living room’. Food was prepared and cooked in the living room but it was unlikely to be a place for washing dishes. This would be done in a 'scullery' or ‘back kitchen’. A dedicated ‘kitchen’ was therefore not a given in the working-class home and plans for the first council houses in 1918 had ‘living rooms’ and ‘sculleries’ but no ‘kitchens’.
For many it was the table – the only one in the house. It was the focal point of the living room and activities took place around or on the table. In the early part of the period, the main light source might sit there. Some uses for the table are familiar; others are now rare. It was at the kitchen table that the family ate together, sometimes in two sittings if the family was large. Though middle-class families now eat meals in their kitchen, this was not the case before the Second World War. At that time, only the servants ate regular meals at the kitchen table in wealthy households and the kitchen of the lower-middle class suburban ‘semi’ had little space for eating at a table.
Food preparation was generally done at the kitchen table as it was the only work surface in an era before units. The table was used as an ironing board and for washing up in homes lacking a sink. People sat, sewed and read there. Memoirs of working-class childhood recall playing at the table and using it for variety of games from Ludo to ping pong. Homework would be done at the table too as overcrowded bedrooms lacked desks, heat and adequate lighting. Middle-class children had a different relationship with the kitchen table because playing games and doing homework could be done elsewhere. In all, the autobiographical sources referred to 24 different uses of the kitchen table. These ranged from eating to more obscure uses such as an operating table to remove tonsils.
The uses of the kitchen table varied over time and reflected the distinctive weekly and daily routines of the working-class home. Ironing would occur either on washday (usually Monday) or the following day. Food preparation was a daytime activity, while the playing of games took place in evenings and at weekends. Uses of the table were also seasonal: warmer weather and lighter evenings meant children played outside and grown-ups chatted on doorsteps. Changing the appearance of the table could also help alter the ambiance of the living room. On Sunday, the weekday tablecloth (or newspaper) might be replaced with a smarter cloth signifying the special nature of the day.
The centrality of the kitchen table declined in working-class homes after the Second World War but has increased in importance in middle-class homes. The variety of living spaces increased in the former along with the number of tables, while in middle-class homes, the kitchen table grew in importance as did the kitchen itself. Present-day usage of kitchen tables thus reflects a convergence in domestic culture between the two classes, though contemporary advocates of the ‘farmhouse kitchen’ rarely acknowledge its antecedents in the working-class living room.
- Lucy Faire, “Making Home: Working-Class Perceptions of Space, Time and Material Culture in Family Life, 1900-1955” (Leicester: Unpub. PhD Thesis, 1998)
- June Freeman, The Making of the Modern Kitchen: A Cultural History (Oxford: Berg, 2004)