American Kitchen Sinks: A Snapshot of History

Selecting a kitchen sink while trying to achieve the appropriate look for a period kitchen can be a huge challenge. There is just so much misinformation and misleading marketing out there. It is often very difficult for homeowners to know what is correct for their specific period. Many of the ads, images, and plumbing stores insist that clay-fired farm sinks (also referred to as apron front sinks) are “historic.” Though they are indeed historic, this is an English style of kitchen sink rather than one that was historically used in America.

Early sinks, as in those from the 18th and early 19th centuries, were commonly either stone- or metal-lined wooden boxes. They were usually fairly shallow and had some creative ways of accommodating drainage. (See image one)

As the 19th century progressed, sinks were often made of cast iron with an enameled finish. Because of the concern about germs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the plumbing was usually exposed. Both light and air could reach the pipes, and that was considered to be most hygienic. At that time this was considered the best way to deal with disease-bearing germs. Also, pipes exposed to the warmth of the kitchen were less prone to freezing. (See image two)

During the late 19th and early 20th Century, if a house had a butler’s pantry, the sink in it was usually made of copper or German silver. These metal sinks would incur less breakage to the dishes and table ware. The kitchen sinks were most often the hard enameled cast iron sinks for food preparation. (See image three)

In the kitchen hard enameled cast iron sinks and surrounding countertops were used for food preparation.

During the 1920s, many kitchen sinks were still wall-hung, either with or without legs. They often were the enameled cast iron that was common in preceding decades. However, they would sometimes be offered in a variety of colors, or could come with an early form of the dishwasher known as the “electric sink.” These sinks were usually not integrated into cabinetry, but were standalone items. They often had drain boards, and were shallow because women commonly used stools to sit at the sink and work.

However, during the 1920s, sinks that were integrated into the cabinetry did start to appear. These sinks could have either single or double bowls, and were made from enameled cast iron or glazed earthenware. The countertops were tilted toward the sink so they would act as drain boards. The water would then run off the counters and into the sink. The plumbing was generally still exposed, but could be concealed with little flapper doors or fabric curtains. (See image four)

The trend toward sinks that were integrated into the cabinetry and surrounded by tile continued into the 1930s and beyond. The standalone wall-hung kitchen sink became less and less common. (See image five)

During the 1940s and 1950s, metal cabinetry and stainless steel sinks started to become more common. But enameled sinks were still very popular. The faucets in kitchens started to migrate from wall-hung toward the deck-mounted style. Sinks often were integrated into the countertop with a metal edging what was sometimes referred to as a “hoodie rim.” This metal edging was usually used with Formica or Linoleum countertop materials. Hex tiles were also commonly seen during this period, and they came in a variety of brilliant color combinations. However, these sinks were tiled in and did not utilize the “hoodie” rim.

Let’s return to the issue of the apron-front “farm sink.” It was just not a kitchen sink style that was used much in American kitchens until the late 1980s and 1990s from what I can tell. But they have become heavily marketed as “historic” when that is not the case, at least on this side of the Pond. Here is an example of an apron-front farm sink in its native England, installed as it was meant to be installed: simply and on brackets. (See image six)

These sinks are no doubt just fine in a contemporary kitchen, but unless one is trying to interpret an English kitchen, apron-front farm sinks really have no place in historic kitchens here in America. (See image seven)

When looking for a sink for a historic kitchen restoration, decide what period is to be interpreted, and study that period. Learn as much as possible, find old shelter magazines of the period, and become familiar with what was used at the time. Ask for help from local preservation organizations when looking for information resources. Frequent salvage businesses, and ask lots of questions.

There are reproductions made that reflect the style of different periods, but they can be challenging to find. These sinks may not appear under the category of “kitchen,” but are often listed instead under “commercial” or “industrial.”

Important details, such as what sink is chosen, make all the difference when trying to restore a kitchen to the appropriate period. It can be a challenge, but it is not impossible by any means. It just takes knowledge, persistence, and at times patience mixed with a little luck. But the investment of time and energy is well worth it!

*Image seven taken from Design and Decoration in the Home, by Noel Carrington, (London, 1938).

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