You would think I had grown up in the days of my grandmother or possibly my great-grandmother if you saw the kind of appliances I had in my house, right up into the 1990’s. As a twenty-something and even a thirty-something, it appeared we somehow had not made it into the modern age. I don’t know how it happened, but there was quite the regression from what my own mother had. While my friends were having bridal showers and receiving shiny new appliances, I was living in a time warp.
I suppose much of it had to do with coming of age during the hippie years, during a period when many people were looking towards self-sufficiency. There is something attractive – both functional and charming – about an old kitchen tool, especially while living in old houses with vintage kitchens in the country. The attraction for these things at flea markets and antique venues is testament to that.
My thought at the time – Was it really necessary to have most appliances? Then there was some unexplained and possibly paranoid thoughts about “What if the power goes out?”
Starting with the basics, just to put it out there, our main heat source was a wood stove. OK, that is not something unusual – plenty of people I know still heat with wood. There is a satisfaction and beauty in heating with wood, being warmed by wood heat, drying your mittens, cooking your pancakes and finishing off your maple syrup boil over wood heat. Just something very basic about it.
The kitchen stove was one of those propane stoves that didn’t have a pilot light. You had to light it with a match, which meant there was an old kitchen match holder on the wall next to the stove to facilitate that. To get the oven going meant getting that match at just the right angle to fit inside the tiny hole in the bottom of the oven, then quickly pulling your hand away as soon as it went “boof”. When that oven lit, it was a very satisfying feeling. When it didn’t, it was a little scary. Between the wood stove and that kitchen stove, if you ran out of oil or the power was out, at least you still had heat and could also cook a meal.
Kitchen tools included a rotary egg beater – the kind with the handle that you turn; a mezzaluna crescent chopper; a mortar and pestle; cast iron pans and dutch ovens that could also be used on the wood stove, a coffee pot that you heated up on top of the stove, a glass citrus juicer, a big canning pot and an old wooden hand-crank ice cream maker. I also had the toaster that was in my mother’s kitchen when I was a little girl – the kind with a fabric cord.
Along with a number of acoustic instruments, in the living room was one of those 100-year old upright pianos that nobody wants anymore because they are so huge and almost impossible to move. This one had yellowed, chipped ivory and ebony keys, and a wobbly claw-foot piano stool.
Also in the living room was my sewing machine – a treadle – the kind you pump back and forth with your feet. I made curtains, quilts, repairs and even some clothes on that machine….. and for a while had some serious calf muscles!
We had oil lamps as back-ups “just in case” the power went out. They came in handy.
When we weren’t going to the laundromat, I was washing clothes in a tub with a zinc washboard and a wringer and hanging them out on the clothesline with wooden clothespins. I can’t believe I am typing this, but it’s true. Not only did I wring out the clothes, but I used to run my long braids through the wringer after swimming to get the excess water out.
To mow the lawn we had a metal push mower.
Essentially, if the power was out for a good while in winter, we would still be able to heat the house, sit by the fire, cook a meal, bake bread, sew clothing, read, play music, do the laundry. Sounds rather romantic and cozy, doesn’t it? It was. A little bit “Little House on the Prairie” even. It felt safe. But it was also a lot of work……
The first machine to come into the household was the electric mixer, a hand-me-down. To be able to mix and bake without turning that crank or trying to recruit someone to take a turn was such a joy. I retired the rotary mixer to a bottom drawer (because hey, if you lose power and you feel absolutely compelled to bake….)
Next came the blender. Somebody gave me their old blender, a lovely stainless one-speed Oster that was so powerful it could even crush ice. I was amazed at how convenient and nice that was. I wish I still had it. That one disappeared in a move and was replaced by a 1970’s model.
Following that was an appliance bonanza – first a gift of a food processor and the following year an electric food dehydrator. The mezzaluna also retired to that bottom drawer. There was an electric ice cream maker that eventually broke. And a more high-tech orange juice squeezer that disappeared somewhere. And two pasta makers. Wish I had one of them now….
With the advent of children the washer and dryer arrived. I could still well up with tears thinking about how wonderful it was to have a washer and dryer. Washboard relegated to the attic. Antique ringer sold.
After that, the appliances seemed to accumulate with steady speed. Some have not lasted but others are still here. Even though most of them have either been gifts or tag sale finds, they are still taking up space. I seem to have guilt about having so many of these items, even if they are used. After thinking about it, I walked around the house and took a tally. This is what I found (bear with me….as I list these things I am impressed/amazed/dismayed):
– No more wood stove. We heat with a furnace now. Although there are things I do miss about wood heat, I don’t miss the mess, the splinters, the dry skin, and the years of walking around smelling like a barbecue. I am a big fan of the thermostat as a primary source. Would love the wood stove as a back up again though…..
– The antique piano is long gone. The piano stool remains. Anyone looking for an antique piano stool?
– Washer and dryer. Amen. Amen.
– Electric sewing machine. And a serger. The treadle made a charming end table for many years. I really liked the way it looked but I sold it during one of my many moves. The serger…..well, I have no patience to thread it. It brings out the worst in me, impatience and frustration rearing its ugly face. Anyone looking for a like-new serger?
– Vacuum cleaner. A decent one.
– Electric lawn mower for a little lawn (following the gas mower given away for that once-upon-a-time big lawn).
– Toaster oven
– Regular pop-up toaster….with slots wide enough for a bagel!
–Food processor (OK, it’s over 30 years old, but it is a food processor)
– Mini food processor (this one is about 20 years old but it means you don’t have to take out the big one for everything)
– Blender (as above, also about 30 years old)
– Little Bullet blender (for little blending)
– Stand Mixer. THIS! I have seen brides get these Kitchen Aid stand mixers as shower gifts over the years. I used to scoff. I had no idea how wonderful they are. Instead of standing there holding the electric hand mixer (remember that big improvement over the rotary one? ) while your wrist goes numb and batter spatters all over the counter, you can turn it on and go about grating or scraping or cooking or adding ingredients or whatever, while this thing continues to mix up your stuff. Who knew? I can’t believe I waited until the sixth decade for a stand mixer. They are pricey but…if not now, when?
-but still have the electric hand mixer (for those little jobs).
– Hot-air popcorn maker
– Vegetable juicer (big! heavy! Takes out the pulp. This is supposed to make you healthier)
– Coffee maker
– Spice grinder (mortar and pestle to bottom drawer)
– Blender wand ($2.00 garage sale find. Use it often for soups and dal)
– A few stainless steel pots and pans
– and most recently, a used, free bread maker (how could I resist?) that gets used every four days. When you are making bread every four days it’s a nice thing to have…
None of the above appliances is buried in the back of a cabinet never to see the light of day… or not for long. Even though some of them are no longer state-of-the-art, they absolutely all get used and they make everything so much easier. I adore my stand mixer, it has made baking even more pleasurable. And I would surmise that most middle-class American homes have most of these things; at least those homes where people cook regularly. So why does looking at all this stuff bring out such uncomfortable feelings?
It is a bit overwhelming to see the amount of appliances that have accumulated. Looking around the kitchen, I feel a bit pressed upon. Opening up a cabinet, there they are, taking up a lot of space. They really need their own pantry just to neatly house them all. An “appliance room” to get them off of and out from under the counters. I imagine some people might actually have that very thing. As I look around at all these machines and gadgets, I have to admit it gives me a twinge of anxiety.
We are living in a machine age. Televisions, cell phones, computers – just the tip of the iceberg. Denying technology would be like sticking your head in the sand. However, there was an aesthetic about the old appliances, the way they were made, the decorative details on some of them, the function. They had an appeal to them and there was a meditation at times in using them. Perhaps I have just slipped into that Era of Grandmother – a tug of wistful nostalgia for those simpler times.