The Home Guru: The Kitchen Sink Yesterday and Today

What is the history of the kitchen sink and how did it evolve into today's sleek models?

When you are at the kitchen sink cleaning lettuce or rinsing dishes in preparation for the dishwasher, do you ever wonder about the origins of this trusty staple in the heart of your home? Or did you ever wonder where the expression “everything but the kitchen sink” originated? 

The answer to the latter question has a shorter history than you might think.  The idiomatic expression developed at the onset of WWII when everything made of metal was collected, melted down and re-used for the war arsenal. The only objects left out were porcelain kitchen sinks.

While this is an article about the kitchen sink and how its use has changed in the past half century, it must start with the story of washing dishes and how that has been revolutionized in the same period of time.

History tells us that the dishwasher was invented by a woman in Illinois in the 1880s, but nobody in my middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia had a dishwasher when I was a kid. Those were the days when children shared the chores of washing dishes from mealtime over a kitchen sink that somehow seemed higher than necessary for a runt of a little guy like me. But then, since I was the youngest of three, I never really had to wash the dishes. I only dried them and my older sister and brother, who were tall enough to actually reach into the sink, did the washing. Then, of course, my mother probably trusted their coordination better than mine. I prided myself on drying the best dish and best glass, leaving no tell-tale drops or streaks.

My mother never had a dishwasher until she won one at an appliance store when I was nine years old. I remember the great joy in learning that the new appliance in the house, which significantly diminished the open space in our eat-in kitchen (we had no dining room), both washed and dried the dishes. It was convenient, yes, but the dishwasher’s bottom line effect was that my siblings and I probably spent less time together after its arrival.

I find it fascinating to know the history of everything involved with today’s homes, and kitchen sinks probably have the longest history of all, starting in the Neanderthal age. The first sink was simply a large rock that had eroded into a concave shape from centuries of rain.  There was not much progress through the ages until the time that households included rooms designated as kitchens. For centuries, most kitchen functions were performed around the cooking hearth or, for wealthier families, in a separate building, to lessen the chance of household fires.

During the early 1800s, our first kitchen sinks involved a process of pumping water from supply tanks or wells and collecting it in bowls which were placed into dry sinks made of metal troughs and built into wooden cabinets.  Copper and nickel silver, an alloy of zinc, copper and nickel, were among the first two materials used for butler sinks which usually were found only in wealthy homes.

One of the most charming features in the 1734 wing of my home is a very early 19th century indoor plumbing system, with a hand pump on a wooden counter, directly over an artesian well found in the crawl space below.  The water at one time drained into the still-existing metal trough sink which features a drain for waste water.

In the 1920s indoor plumbing created the need for sturdy sinks made of non-corrosive materials like copper and nickel silver, made of manganese silicon, carbon and iron, and from WWII, porcelain.

With the convenience of the dishwasher, homeowners spend less time toiling at the kitchen sink today, yet it has greater potential than ever as a decorative element, equal in interest to homeowners and decorators as is the countertop and backsplash. 

With less rigorous use (I used to clean my paint brushes in my stainless steel sink until I realized that it was probably bad for my septic system), today’s bowls come in a wide range of materials from the expected porcelain to the newest kind of granite composite. There is also a return to copper, which I think is the most interesting material of all in that it develops its own patina with age and proper care.

Kitchen sinks are always best installed from below the countertop and at a lower level so that water and waste materials can be easily scooped from the counter into the bowl.  More sinks are now available with the drains strategically placed at the back of the bowl so that there is more front storage space in the cabinet below.

More and more, I am seeing installations of the farmhouse kitchen sink, which features an apron that extrudes out an inch or two from the countertop to show the full depth of the bowl.  It is offered in a variety of stones like granite, soapstone or limestone. They are also manufactured in cast iron, stainless steel, copper or fireclay, which has the finish of china.

Currently the wisdom of attaching a waste disposal unit to the kitchen sink is being questioned. Sentiment now is that it is not the greenest way to dispose of kitchen waste, and why would anyone want to deny their compost pile its benefits?

While there are many options concerning the kitchen sink, there is always strong sentiment to locating it directly under a window, both to avoid a claustrophobic feeling and to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors as we perform otherwise boring chores.

Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com), affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and lifestyles journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru.  For those interested in selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly for advice at: 914-522-2076.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

What an interesting observation, that the arrival of a dishwasher lessened the time you spent with your brother and sister...I would not have thought about that part of it.
Laura Rossi May 18, 2012 at 10:40 AM
There is always the option of asking the children to load and unload the dishwasher together!


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