Can We See The Kitchen?


By Melanie Anderson Bourbeau

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2006 

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As just about any tour guide at a historic house museum can attest, one of visitors’ most common question is “Can we see the kitchen?” People are curious about the inner workings of historic homes and the mundane, routine aspects of daily life in times past. In Connecticut and across the nation, more and more house museums are offering visitors glimpses behind the scenes and, yes, letting them into the kitchen.

Four Hartford-area museums include fascinating kitchens on their tours, kitchens representing a variety of eras, belonging to people both famous and not, and exemplifying a range of social strata.


The Noah Webster House in West Hartford is the childhood home of the renowned lexicographer. Though the house was built by Webster’s father, a middle-class weaver, around 1748, the museum presents it as though the year is 1774, two years before the American Revolution and the last year Noah Webster lived in the house before attending Yale College.

Visitors to the house tour three kitchens and a buttery. The first kitchen, known as the “old kitchen,” is dominated by its cooking fireplace; as was common for the time it was built, the fireplace is so large that an adult can easily stand upright inside of it. And stand inside they sometimes must, as colonial cooks had to step into fireplaces to maneuver bubbling pots and steaming pans. The kitchen is filled with the utensils and objects typical of any colonial kitchen, such as heavy cast iron pots and skillets, red-ware pottery, wooden bowls and utensils, candle molds, flat irons, tallow and flint, a sugar cone, and sugar nippers. Fancy imported white sugar, in those days, came in a hardened conical shape; iron nippers much like scissors were used to break off bits of the sweetener.

The Websters turned the old kitchen into a parlor after they added the second, or “new,” kitchen, in 1787, when they had become a bit more prosperous. The new kitchen’s fireplace is nowhere near as large nor as deep. Its reduced size was a result of improving technology: smaller fireboxes with sloping sides allowed a maximum amount of heat to radiate back into the room rather than vanish up the chimney.[1] The smaller fireplaces also resulted from the introduction of the crane, a mechanical device mounted inside a fireplace that allowed a pot to be hung and swung back and forth so that the cook no longer had to literally walk into the fireplace to tend her food.

The buttery, a small room adjacent to the new kitchen used for making butter and cheese, has a stone sink that drained outdoors. (The term “buttery” originally referred to a room for storing liquor in “butts,” or casks, but by the Websters’ time the butter-related usage had become common.) Most buttery rooms, including the Websters’, were located on the north side of the house to help maintain as cool an interior temperature as possible.

For years the fireplace of the old kitchen was put to use whenever the museum was open: a fire always burned brightly, and open-hearth cooking filled the museum with delicious aromas. In 2003, fire code regulations required the practice to be discontinued. So in 2004, the museum added a third kitchen, a reproduction modeled on the first kitchen. Safety updates such as improved lighting and a venting system allow the museum once again to offer open-hearth cooking. Foods prepared by students during school and scout programs include such colonial treats as applesauce, hoe cakes, flap jacks, vegetable stew, Sunday night wafers, and freshly churned butter. Eating such authentically prepared foods gives visitors an immediate, concrete connection with colonial life. The cooking programs also teach about the economics of a colonial household and the availability of imported versus native foodstuffs.

Unlike many museums where visitors are asked not to touch the objects on display, the Noah Webster House has many items specifically meant for visitors to handle. Visitors are invited to feel the weight of a cast iron skillet or pot so that they can comprehend the degree of physical stamina colonial women required. The weight of the cookware and absence of mechanization – a heavy pot of stew still had to be lifted onto the crane – to simplify tasks, combined with the heat of the fire, made food preparation a grueling endeavor. Visitors to the museum come away with newfound appreciation for modern kitchen conveniences.

Noah Webster House, 227 South Main Street, West Hartford.


In May 2005, the Mark Twain House in Hartford completed restoration of its kitchen and opened this wing of the house for tours for the first time. The kitchen had been completely gutted by the time the house became a museum and the space used for an apartment and later administrative offices. Using archeological evidence and documentation, museum staff and consultants worked hard to provide as accurate a recreation of the original kitchen as possible. Earlier visitors will remember the infamous telephone stashed in the front hall closet; that crowd-pleaser now hangs in its rightful place on the kitchen wall. The annunciator (signaling the servant call bells) that for years had hung on the third floor of the museum is now, too, in its proper place in the kitchen; the other ends of the speaking tubes that one sees in the family rooms are now also visible. Among the other newly revealed features is the dumbwaiter. The supposition is that it was used to haul food and beverage from basement storage and perhaps even to transport laundry from the cellar laundry facilities to the bedrooms on the second floor. While the newly constructed cabinetry seems a bit too perfect – the patina of age is lacking – the restoration of the remaining original elements and the reconstruction of lost elements has resulted in a very worthy addition to this magnificent house.

The Clemenses generally entertained several times a week, as Mark Twain was at the pinnacle of his career, lecturing extensively and writing what would become some of his best-known works. The restored kitchen provides a behind-the-scenes look at how a late 19th-century household in upper-class Hartford functioned and also shows the servants’ domain, allowing for a broader interpretation of the employer/servant relationship.

In the Victorian era, more than 100 years after the Webster House’s first kitchen was built, kitchens like the one at the Twain House were no longer just a single room but rather a series of spaces devoted to specialized functions: a main kitchen, scullery, sink room, back pantry, butler’s pantry, and servants’ dining hall. Archival materials provide few clues as to how the Clemenses wanted these rooms to look or function, except for one very specific requirement: the butler’s pantry was to have a wooden sink that would help prevent chipping of fine china.[2]

While most wealthy families’ kitchens of the time were dreary and located in basements, this one is above ground and has large windows to let in natural light and fresh air.[3] The kitchen and serving areas are painted a warm ochre color, and pine and ash woodwork is finished with clear shellac. The lighting is low, representing the gas light of the period. The rooms are furnished with everything from a period cast iron range, work tables, utensils, and the food molds that were so popular at the time, down to canned goods and even antique mouse traps. One major item, however, is still missing: the ice box. There had been one in the main kitchen and, presumably, another, much larger version in the basement. The museum hopes to acquire an icebox (or two), plus an ice cream maker, kitchen clocks, and a greater variety of mixing bowls, platters, and the everyday sort of dishware that would have been kept in the kitchen as opposed to the fancy dishes for entertaining that were stored in the butler’s pantry and are on view in the house’s ornate dining room.

The museum’s archives contain menus from dinner parties given during the family’s residency in the house, copies of numerous receipts for the purchase of groceries, and correspondence from guests describing the elaborate dinner parties that were such a staple of the Clemenses’ entertaining. Typical menus served in the Clemens home include that for the dinner party given there on May 11, 1887:

Clams on the half-shell
Clear soup with sherry
Soft-shelled crabs with dressed cucumbers
Shad roe balls with cream shad sauce
Asparagus with cream sauce on toast
Roast lamb with cream curry sauce and peas
Creamed sweetbreads
Roman punch
Boiled squab on toast with Parisian potatoes
Tomato aspic and lettuce with mayonnaise
Ice cream in the shape of flowers
Strawberries in cream
Candies and bon bons
Coffee [4]

A typical dinner for company was a lavishly prepared meal of 12 to 15 courses.[5] Conventions of the time dictated the use of very specific pieces of china, silver, crystal, and serving pieces for both service and consumption. (For example, by 1898, a complete service for 12 of the Towle Company’s “Georgian” flatware consisted of 1,888 items. Spoons alone included 19 types for conveying food to the mouth and 17 for serving.)

The Clemenses employed an average of seven servants at a time during their years in Hartford. While many employers regarded their servants merely as workers and left little evidence about them, Samuel Clemens saw his household servants as people with stories to tell, and he wrote about them. These stories, woven into the kitchen tour, lend a humanity to the presentation that is lacking in many historic house museums. Visitors learn about Katy Leary, the housemaid, Rosina Hay, the children’s governess, Patrick MacAlear, the coachman, and George Griffin, the butler.

The kitchen tour is offered independently of the main house tour; visitors may choose to add it to their regular tour or just see the kitchen on its own.

The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford.


The Isham-Terry House, an 1854 Italianate villa-style home located on High Street and owned by the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society (A&LS), is a time capsule. It is shown completely intact, just as the last owners left it when it was bequeathed to A&LS in 1979. It is Hartford’s only Civil War-era house museum and one of only a handful of houses remaining in what had once been an upscale neighborhood of the capital city. Its kitchen, which includes features, implements, and appliances spanning the home’s entire history, is a microcosm of the evolution of kitchen technology from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.

Dr. Oliver K. Isham bought the house in 1896, after the death of its first owner Ebeneezer Roberts, to serve as a site for his medical practice and as a home for himself, his parents, and his two younger sisters, Julia and Charlotte. Julia Louise Isham died in 1977 and Charlotte Terry Isham in 1979. Both were 98 years old when they passed way, and each had lived in the house for more than 80 years – the last and only the second family to live there.

A first impression is that this house has the patina of age that comes from having been updated very little during the course of its history. This is precisely the look the A&LS wants for the house.[6] Scott Wands, education coordinator for the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, admits there may come a time when the Society decides to restore the entire house to a particular time period. But for now, he says, “nothing has been removed to try to get back to this ideal time. Until we know exactly what our vision is for [interpreting]this house, … we don’t want to do anything to it. [For now, we tell visitors about] several different generations’ worth of life in this house, and to remove part of that history would be to remove part of the story.”

The kitchen is a simply furnished and outfitted room, yet efficiently organized and filled with all the necessities. The walls are painted a creamy beige, and the floor is a gold, white, and beige linoleum. A soapstone sink from very early in the home’s history still remains, juxtaposed with a far more modern early 20th-century gas stove of a table-top design with Queen Anne-style legs. Throughout the room are items such as a toaster, eggbeater, cake molds, cooking pots and skillets, and wire mesh covers to protect food from insect pests. Period-appropriate product packages include Wilbury’s Breakfast Cocoa, Windsor Cocoanut, Instant Postum, Mellomints, and Extra Fine Marshmallows. In the center of the room is a white enamel kitchen table with a light blue checkerboard border on top and light blue sides surrounded by black, slant-back Windsor chairs.[7]

Knowing the sisters lived into the late 1970s, it is interesting that they would have left so much as it had been from a previous generation. They continued to use the original soapstone sink, for instance, rather than installing a modern enameled steel one. The gas stove, too, was already a 50-year-old antique at the time of their deaths. Today’s visitors are surprised that the Ishams didn’t modernize the kitchen, particularly given the increased efficiency and easier care of up-to-date appliances and fixtures.

The oldest item visible today is a portion of the original coal/wood burning stove dating to the construction of the house in 1854.[8] The bake-oven cavities and the decorative recessed area that would have been behind the cook-top surface can clearly be seen. From the size of the stove’s remnants, it appears this was an upscale model befitting an upper-class household.

But the most telling aspect of this kitchen is the presence of the next generation of food preparation and preservation devices as well — an early 20th century gas stove and ice box. The ice box is one of only two items in the house that did not belong to the Ishams. While there are three built-in ice boxes in the basement, they are not shown on the tour. The ice box is on view in the kitchen to illustrate the technology, but the kitchen was not the typical location of such items, according to Wands.

The gas stove was symbolic of continuing advancements in technology of the early 20th century, just as the cook stove and range were symbolic in their own times of advancement beyond open-hearth cooking.[9] This kitchen allows visitors to see the continuum of food preparation from the mid-19th to the early 20th century.

Isham-Terry House, a Connecticut Landmarks property, 211 High Street, Hartford.


The Hurlbut-Dunham House, a property of the Wethersfield Historical Society (WHS), was built circa 1793 in the Georgian style and later Victorianized in the mid-1800s. The present kitchen was added onto the rear of the house between 1865 and 1873. While the house has been open visitors since the 1970s, the kitchen was restored in 2002 and is a relatively recent addition to the tour.

The first documented owner of the house was John Hurlbut, who lived here for only four years before his death in 1808. In 1865 Levi Goodwin purchased the house, and it was during his ownership that it took on its present Victorian appearance. In 1875 Silas Robbins bought the house for his son Elisha, who lived here with his wife Ida and daughter Jane. Upon Elisha Robbins’s death, Jane Robbins Dunham inherited the house, and it was she who gave it to the historical society.

Unlike the Isham sisters, the Dunhams updated their kitchen from time to time with modern appliances. When it came time to restore the kitchen, the Wethersfield Historical Society chose to present it as it had looked in the 1930s. That date allowed the museum to show the greatest range to transition in kitchen technology, featuring items from the WHS’s collection of appliances from the 1920s and 1930s, and to focus on an era that no other historic house in the area was interpreting.

Jane Dunham and her mother Ida Robbins did much of their own housework, even though they were in the upper middle class socially and economically. The economic climate of the 1920s and 1930s influenced the mindset of saving money by doing more of one’s own housework; post-World War I attitudes regarding the use of time and the relaxing of formalities contributed to the women’s willingness to do their own chores. Both Jane and her mother did everyday cooking and light cleaning, but for the more arduous tasks of laundry, heavy cleaning, and cooking for entertaining, they hired day help. Often when Jane and her husband Howard entertained on a grand scale they simply “borrowed” a cook, Mrs. McSweeney, from their good friends the McCooks in Hartford.[10] Consistent with the lessening of formality, one of Jane and Ida’s favorite entertainments was a game of bridge followed by a light lunch or a tea rather than the elaborate multi-course meals or high tea of a century before.

Whereas the Mark Twain House kitchen consists of multiple rooms with high ceilings, this kitchen has only two rooms, the kitchen proper and a low-ceilinged scullery, or back room, that is recessed a step down. Still, with its white-beige walls, wood floor, and windows dressed with simple white cotton curtains and pull shades, it is a brightly lit and comfortable area. The scullery has a black-and-white-tiled linoleum floor. The stove, while more blocky in appearance than that at the Isham-Terry House and with an oven below the burners and work surface, is still quite stylish in white with violet and chrome detailing. The scullery houses the refrigerator and a wringer washer in white with typical “appliance green” trim.

Ida Robbins’s diary entries indicate the kitchen was a cozy and comfortable room and that the combination gas and wood stove was sometimes kept open on bitter cold winter nights to help keep the house war. Ida mentions occasionally having spent the night in the kitchen to keep warm. Often when the family was at home alone they would take their meals in the kitchen, something that would have been unthinkable to Olivia Clemens. A rocking chair sits prominently in one corner, reflecting the homey comfort Ida refers to.

WHS Assistant Director Melissa Josefiak explained that in this room, more so than in other space of the house, visitors – especially those of a certain age – have a visceral response to what they see. Items from the glass milk bottles (local items from Wethersfield’s Shepard-Smith Dairy), which would have been delivered daily, to a 1932 Monitor Top refrigerator and product packaging displayed here, are reminiscent of things we had in our own homes not so terribly many decades ago. Even younger visitors will recognize familiar names – Bon Ami cleaners, McCormick spices and seasonings, and a Hoover vacuum cleaner. In fact, Josefiak says visitors often feel so at home in the kitchen that they forget the museum mantra of “do not touch.” The Hurlbut-Dunham kitchen is fascinating in a familiar sense – it’s almost as if one were walking into grandma’s kitchen. This kitchen illustrates the transition period during which items from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were used alongside modern items.

Connecticut is rich in history, and house museums are abundant here. These four sites do a particular fine job bringing history alive through kitchens. As the daily routines and social exchanges of the former inhabitants of historic homes continue to fascinate visitors, these four sites and their kitchens provide a rich and compelling view into the social history of four Connecticut families over three centuries.

Melanie Anderson Bourbeau is associate curator and special events coordinator for Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. This article is adapted from her master’s thesis, “Historic House Museum Kitchens: Case Studies of Methods of Interpretation.” Bourbeau has also worked for the Mark Twain House and Noah Webster House.

Wethersfield Historical Society, 150 Main Street, Wethersfield.


A Fresh Take on an Old Kitchen: The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,” Summer 2017

[1] Merritt Ierley, The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 45.
[2] Michael B. Frank and Elinor Smith, eds., Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 6: 1874-1875 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 140.
[3] Donald E. Sutherland, Americans and Their Servants: Domestic Service in the U.S. From 1800-1920. (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 114.
[4] Excerpt from Mrs. Holcombe’s diary, Hartford, CT, May 1887, archives, The Mark Twain House (copy).
[5] Mary Lawton, A Lifetime With Mark Twain: The Memories of Katy Leary, For Thirty Years His Faithful and Devoted Servant, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925), 18-19.
[6] Personal interview, Scott Wands, Education Coordinator, Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, March 16, 2004.
[7] This table is one of two items not owned by the Ishams; the other is the ice box on view in the kitchen.
[8] This stove was used until newer technology became available. It was dismantled and the back portion covered over with a plaster wall. It was rediscovered when A&LS was trying to access the chimney behind this wall while tending to a maintenance issue. Wands, personal correspondence, Nov. 7, 2005.
[9] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), 97.
[10] The McCooks were the family that occupied what is now the Butler-McCook House on Main Street in Hartford, one of the properties owned by the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society.





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