The Evolution of Kitchens Through the Years

I was looking at some photos recently online showing an original 1940’s kitchen. It had been built and installed in 1946 in a home in Adrian, Michigan by Orville Merillat and his wife, Ruth. They built it all by hand since they hadn’t started their cabinet making business yet. The Merillats eventually started the Merillat Woodworking Company and it went on to become the biggest cabinet-maker in America.

Amazingly, this 1946 kitchen stayed in the same home for decades. To celebrate the Merillat company turning 50 years old in 1996, some employees of the company purchased it from the current homeowners and gave them a brand new kitchen in return. There’s some speculation that the cabinet boxes were originally stained and not painted.

1940's Kitchen by Merillat


The kitchen was placed on display at a recent Kitchen and Bath show.

1946 Kitchen


Those in attendance had fun taking it for a spin. 🙂

Merilatt Kitchen


It’s easy to see why the kitchen has always been thought to be the heart of the home when you think about all the meals that were eaten and all the important celebrations and life-changing decisions that were made at the kitchen table.

Kitchen from the 1940's


I wasn’t born yet in the 1940’s but I do remember seeing tables like this when I was growing up.

1940's Kitchen Designed by Merillat


By the 1960’s, kitchens were looking like this. I see a dishwasher!

1960's Kitchen by Merillat


Along came the 70’s and kitchens were taking on a “groovy” modern look. That backsplash/wallpaper is wild!

1970's Kitchen by Merillat


Here’s another 1970’s Merillat kitchen when plaid wallpaper was all the rage. Remember the spice racks on the wall? I can’t quite figure out what that is hanging down in the center. I thought it might be a vent hood for a cook top, but I don’t see a cook top below. Maybe that’s where it’s supposed to go. Update: Thanks for your help figuring this out in the comments. Several folks said they thought the eat-in counter was raised and the cooktop is lower, so not visible from this view. That makes perfect sense! 🙂

I posted this photo below on Facebook and it stirred up a lot of conversation. I think most folks couldn’t believe we ever had kitchens that looked like this. A few folks wondered, “What were we thinking?” Other said they were glad we had progressed and matured beyond this look. Ha! Don’t you love her maxi skirt…I miss those! I love her shirt, too!

1970 Kitchen by Merillat


That started me thinking, what are we doing in our kitchens today that will have us one day saying, “What were we thinking?” What do you think will stand the test of time? Will granite or marble countertops still be around in 40-50 years? Will wallpaper be back in kitchens? What color will appliances be?

What do you think we have in our kitchens today that will have us or future generations asking, “What were we thinking?”

Did you or someone you know have a kitchen similar to one of these? 🙂

Photos in this post were found HERE.

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  1. My grandmother had a table and chairs like the one in your first picture. I think one of my cousins inherited it. I had to laugh when I saw carpet in the 1970’s kitchen. Can you imagine how yucky that got over time?

    • I bet that was that indoor/outdoor stuff. I remember when my best friend’s parents renovated their kitchen in the late 60’s/early 70’s, they installed carpeting that looked a lot like that and it was the indoor/outdoor type. That must have been a brief trend back then. I hadn’t even noticed it until you mentioned it. Good eye, Paula!

  2. Charlotte says

    I think that is a vent hood and that is a 2 level island, the bottom has the stove (below the vent hood) and the top level is a breakfast bar. I remember kitchens like that when I was a kid. I am so glad kitchens have evolved!

  3. Susan, in the bottom photo, the reason you can’t see the cooktop is because that counter has two levels…the upper lever is the eating counter and behind it where you can’t see it is the lower part which should be standard counter height.

  4. Referencing the 1970’s kitchen with the plaid wallpaper -I believe the cooktop is indeed in the island. It is on the side we can’t see, at the typical counter height. I never had plaid wallpaper but I did have yellow and white buffalo check paper. At the time, I loved it!

    • Ren, thanks…that makes sense! I had plaid in my first kitchen but it was way, way more subdued that this. I spent the morning trying to find a picture I have showing it but never could find it. Your wallpaper sounds cute…I love yellow!

  5. Not sure if my precious comment went through…but delete this one if it did…

    The reason you can’t see a cooktop it’s because that counter is done in two levels. the upper lever is the eating counter w/tall stools. The lower level, which should be standard cabinet/counter height would have the cooktop.

  6. I love your pictures of the kitchens of the past. My mother and grandmother use to have kitchen sets like the ones in the first kitchen pictures. I still have my grandmother’s kitchen chairs in my kitchen that we redone in green vinyl. I do love the plaid kitchen but maybe not those colors. I just did a no cost redo on my kitchen using green buffalo plaid fabric we attached to the inner part of the cabinet frame. I love the way it looks, but we don’t have plaid on the wall we have a subtle vintage wallpaper my mother put up years ago. And if you look closely at that kitchen picture you will see that the island counter is actually two different heights. The part that the dishes are on is higher than the part where the stove top is.

  7. Jeanette Price says

    Sorry I haven’t posted in a long time.. My beloved Golden has been sick and I just put him down last night.
    I loved looking at the kitchens over time. It’s funny my kitchen in my home was really circa 1950’s. I always wondered how they functioned with the cabinet depth. Couldn’t even fit a cereal box in my cabinets. I re did my kitchen back in 2008 and I hardly feel like its even the same room any more. I love my Merillat cabinets. I have Hickory cabinets and I love them. I am sure our granite counters will stand the test of time too.

    • Jeanette, that breaks my heart to hear. I remember when I had to do that with my golden a few years ago. 🙁 Merillat must be great cabinets to have been in business all these years.

  8. I do remember the fridge and range from the first pic, we had that in the 50’s and early 60’s, lol! The wild plaid wallpaper is very famliar because my best friend’s mom had one like it…very ugly! My mom had a Wall spice rack just like this one, except it was a RADIO too, lol!!! I don’t remember she ever had it on, though…hehehe…
    Great post Susan, I loved walking through memory lane and just as I look around my gorgeous kitchen, (I love it, hehe) I’m so glad we are over with these not attractive kitchen cabinets!!! Well, I should be fare, though…..I’m sure women tan thought they were FABULOUS and VANT GARDE!!!

  9. Peggy Thal says

    Such fun to see the progress of the kitchen. That plaid one is really bad. Right now I think that my kitchen is just gorgeous and I love it. It would be interesting to see in twenty years how much anyone would like it. How can one go wrong with granite and stainless steel ? Time will only tell.

  10. Thanks for the walk back. Its cool to see the progression of styles right here in one place. I LoVe the 60’s makeup hair styles, clothing and home décor.

  11. Linda Page says

    I think that every day when I stand in the kitchen of my house (built 1956) with all the original fixtures and look at the aqua built-in oven. What were my parent’s thinking????? The oven still works, sort of. The thermostat is a little tricky but finding replacement parts is even trickier. The ceramic tile counter top is baby pink with cocoa brown ceramic trim! I don’t mind the ceramic tile counter top…but Baby Pink??? There is a house 4 doors down that has the original kitchen and their ceramic tile AND built-in oven are Pepto Bismol pink! I like our styles now much better, thank you very much! lol.

    • Ranger Smith says

      Linda – Your Kitchen sounds great! You’re lucky to have an original kitchen that is true to the integrity of your home.

  12. Hi Susan
    In the 70’s kitchen I think you are correct about the cooktop under the hood light monstrosity. The island is a step down from the counter so you can’t see the cooktop. We had the same step down counter in our kitchen before remodeling. Sadly, we still have a counter like that at our little beach condo. Fun to see kitchens from the past!

  13. I think the “what were they thinking” will be the open shelves for kitchen storage. I don’t like to dust now, especially dishes before I use them. I cannot imagine the younger generation, who has put them in, wanting to climb on a stool or ladder in 20 or so years to dust them.

  14. If you look closely at the island in the center, I bet you will see that the side opposite the stools was lower and that is where the cooktop was. I remember kitchens like this…….

  15. Oh my goodness! Yes, we’ve all seen/had some pretty hideous kitchens in our past! The pic you questioned does show a hanging vent hood in the center. The island does have a cooktop on a lower level from the bar; the raised L-shaped part conceals it. At least most of the islands now have counter height stools instead of those impossibly high ones!

  16. I would hazard a guess with the plaid kitchen that the cooktop is there in the island but is not visible…it is tiered down on a lower level of the bar. That would explain the vent suspended above it.
    Also, can you believe the carpeting in two of the photos??? I’m sure glad that’s not popular anymore.
    The Museum of Modern Art in NYC right now has a great exhibit of a streamlined and functional kitchen that was designed for post-World War II housing units. They have one of them on display. Very ergonomic and efficient and way ahead of its time.
    Maybe in the future we will go back to smaller kitchens and people will say “Why did they have kitchens where you had to walk so far back and forth to cook?”

  17. Who knows what “flavor of the month” it will be in “kitchen life.” You know, if YOU LIKE IT…that’s the one!! Chocolate, please!! franki

  18. If you look closely the island top has two levels. The lower level on the side of the island that is away from the viewer contains the cooktop. So that is probably a vent fan.

  19. This is a great look back and what a wonderful way to look at our kitchens now! 🙂

    That is a vent hood for the cooktop, I think. For awhile it was quite the thing to have an island cooktop or sink at a lower (regular countertop) level and a bar at an upper level. Then the “view” into the kitchen just showed the upper portion of the island, not the unsightly cooktop or sink!

  20. beth treaster says

    I agree that is a hood..i think the breakfast bar is higher than countertop height, and is built around the cooktop. I actually had plaid wallpaper much like that on one wall in my kitchen in the 70’s, and orange countertops…loved that kitchen!

  21. Sandi Lee says

    I don’t think we had any plaid kitchens in our neighborhood but we sure had enamel top tables!! I don’t know what would be a What were we thinking for today’s kitchens but I have used white appliances, cabinets and bathrooms in all my remodels over the last 45 years and those basics can always be updated to look in style with whatever the current trend is. No expensive pink or aqua toilets to remove and no avocado green or harvest gold stoves and refrigerators. White is a timeless choice and can be easily adapted. As far as marble countertops-they have been around since the 30’s and are still my favorite choice-and I use white for that as well.

  22. Oh those were fun! I was born in ’62 and I remember kitchens just like all of those. My godparents, who lived next door and born in ’04 and ’13, had that same refrigerator with the handle in the middle – I got many a cold glass of lemonade from that fridgidaire (as they called it) growing up!!!

    My mother’s kitchen looked eerily similar to that plaid number at the end – lol! She was all into that harvest gold and orange theme back then. She had a caloric stove with a double oven (one on top and one on the bottom) and a kitchen aid dishwasher. The counter tops were some shiny marbleized formica that just couldn’t be damaged. We had a kitchen table like the one in the other post as well – complete with the vinyl chairs in red!

    Love this little walk down memory lane – thanks for sharing!!!


  23. Bottom lines Susan is…we don’t really know what people will like in 15-20 years. So we might as well decorate as we like…and take the chance that our kitchen won’t be featured in someone’s blog in the future! 😉

  24. …just got rid of 70’s cabinets – love, love, love my new white cabinets 🙂

  25. Yes, and my mom’s kitchen kind of still looks like that. We had the Harvest Yellow fridge and yellow appliances for a long time. They are white now, but there is still wood paneling on one wall. Makes me feel nostalgic!

  26. Harvest Gold; Avocado Green; White; Rust; White; the most available colors of appliances and kitchen fixtures when I married in 1976. The wonderful best news was that in 1978 or ’79, They came out with Almond, a wonderful cool beige. I took my Harvest gold fridge to a bodyshop and they painted it beautifully, the new Almond color…I thought I was in heaven. (I found out that bodyshops can paint alot of stuff for you!) There was also the trend of finding old iron beds and cribs, and again, the body shop.

  27. I’m old enough to remember harvest gold and avocado green appliances 🙂 When I did a kitchen makeover in the middle 80’s I put in ceramic tile floor and counters, country golden oak pine cabinets and almond colored appliances. It looked so chic and up to! Now I am in a kitchen with granite and stainless steel appliances, but I’m sure that will look dated in the future. I think the all white kitchen trend of today will also look dated in the future. One thing for sure manufacturers like when we all feel pressured to change, as that is how they make sales! 🙂

    • lol Exactly! I think that’s why so many companies try to say certain colors are in or out…to get us to buy more furniture! You may be right about white kitchens. I do love them right now. 🙂

    • Sounds like a nice kitchen, but I as well a few years ago jumped on the stainless steel bandwagon.
      Now I am a bit sad because I would love to have the vintage type green appliances I have found on the internet. Maybe even an Aga cooker as well. You know in this country, and probably a lot of the others, everyone has to have the newest and the in vogue styles. Why is stainless steel so good? Why is granite better than other types of counter tops. It is getting very boring when everyone has the same. That is one of the reasons I did my kitchen update, or restyle, thinking out of the box and not over spending almost anything on the job. I like to think unique and my style and not anyone else’s. Good luck to you on your next home project.

  28. I’d take that 1940’s kitchen in a heartbeat – Love it!!! And crazy me even likes that 70’s kitchen a little bit too 🙂

  29. SharonFromMichigan says

    Oh my, I remember my first apartment. The kitchen was vintage 70’s (I think). Dark brown appliances, carpeting (aqua and gold) and very dark brown laminate cabinets with a lovely (just kidding) yellow formica countertop. It was gross! I cleaned and cleaned that kitchen and it still felt yucky in there! My Mom still has her original 1950’s formica laminate countertop with the metal edging. I shyed (sp?) away from the natural stone for my countertops because of the natural radiation in them. I opted for ceramic tile that was heavily sealed (I was trying to invoke a 1930’s style). I think the future will hold more materials that have anti-bacterial qualities built in (like microban).

  30. Hi, Susan -The old kitchens seem so odd now. No one else has mentioned the copper appliances of the 60’s. My mom was right on trend with those and her z-brick backsplash. We did not have it in our house but the indoor -outdoor carpeting makes me wonder what they were thinking. Our first home had it in the bathroom. We took it out really quickly – my first DIY project. Thanks for all the fun things you do with your blog. Iris

    • Please do mention them!! I would looooove a copper stove, but they are ungodly expensive. (Bluestar makes one in its “precious metals” line, but I prefer the Chambers from the 1950s. If only I could find a working one that cost less than my car!)

  31. pam ~ crumpety cottage says

    Hi Susan, This was fun! What strikes me about the first few kitchens is how ‘cheap’ the cabinets look. It’s really not until we get to the plaid kitchen that the cabinets themselves look more substantial. I love that kitchen, btw. Haha. So funny. I’m sure it was quite the show place back in the day. Just strip the wall paper and you’d still have a pretty nice, spacious and functional kitchen.

    As for trends, I think (hope) the granite, stainless steel and ceramic tile floors may change. What were they thinking, indeed! I have granite counters and they are so hard to keep clean. Every time I wipe them down, they streak. (Do you have any suggestions for that, btw? Lol.) I hate that! And the ceramic tile is so hard – not only on your back, but on anything you drop. I dropped many an item on my vinyl floors back in the day and seldom broke them. Now it’s as though nothing stands a chance! They look beautiful, but it’s basically like having concrete in your house! And the appliance colors of today are all pretty bad, imo. I have stainless, but stainless doesn’t look well with every color scheme or cabinet color. I think when people 30, 50, 70 years from now look at our old kitchens, they’ll definitely be wondering, ‘what were they thinking?’ In addition, white is so cold and unattractive looking, and black shows every spot and thumbprint. Ugh! I have often lamented that it must surely be misogynists whom come up with these kitchen styles. I have seen numerous kitchens with white cabinets, white counter tops and white appliances. It”s like the arctic in there. And since wallpaper is out, people are left with having only paint as a choice to ‘warm things up.’

    Personally, I love a beautiful kitchen, but I want a FUNCTIONAL kitchen as well since I actually use it to prepare meals from scratch. Too many kitchens (including mine) were made to be pretty but to me, spending unnecessary time and care to keep counter tops looking good, getting fingerprints of appliances, oh – that reminds me – I have an adorable stove – an AGA – which looks like an old timey grandma stove, but, it’s top is black and it’s soo hard to clean. Oh! And then there is the porcelain farmhouse sink. I love the size and depth, but it’s PORCELAIN. Whose brilliant idea was it to put PORCELAIN in a kitchen? Porcelain has no place in a kitchen, lol. Unless it’s a cute little figurine on a shelf! So delicate. And not only that, the geniuses who designed it made it with a flat bottom, so that everything just sits there and doesn’t drain toward the hole. Ugh. I really need to be the one designing kitchens, I think. Lol. I’d make them pretty AND functional. (Form follows function!)

    Haha. Got a little long winded there. 😀 Have a good day, Susan.

  32. What a wonderful view into kitchen history! (I am a bit of a kitchen fanatic, so I eat all this up.) I actually find the ’40s kitchen more compelling than a lot of what is available today. And if you had a ’20s kitchen in the lineup, I probably would try to steal the whole thing :). I worry that my taste is so heavily influenced by “what everyone else is doing,” which strikes me as the inevitable first step to a “what were they thinking?” moment down the road. I don’t want to rip out items I spent money on when they’re well inside their useful lifespan, just because they seem ugly to contemporary eyes. That would make me feel my hard work was wasted (and that I cannot trust my own taste).

    So I have tried to come up with a way to predict what will be “SOOOOOOO 2000s” or whatever in few enough rules that I’ll have to rip it out before it breaks. Here is my working theory (still a work in progress):

    A design or style choice’s days are numbered –
    (1) If it doesn’t have much of a historic precedent and just became an idea recently; or
    (2) If it has so saturated the market that suddenly “everyone has one” of the same thing.

    If you get the double whammy, I suspect it’s going to go out at light speed when it goes.

    So I’ve tried to apply this idea in practice…nobody put granite in kitchens until about 20 years ago. Now it’s EVERYWHERE. So I think that will be a “what were they thinking?” I think wood, marble, and soapstone countertops have more of a history (and less current market saturation), so they should have more staying power. Ceramic tile counters likewise have a history. And so do stainless steel. So I can see those looking no weirder in 20 years than they do now. Less-common choices like crazy-colored quartz may become dated, but I don’t think they’ll prompt that revulsion factor that avocado and harvest gold do now, because they aren’t iconic of this time period.

    As to what appliance color will we be using in 20 years – well, judging by your pictures, it will be white. Even when it isn’t white, it’s about to be white again. A suite of matching stainless appliances also hits the double whammy in my little theory, so I predict that will be a noticeably dated look in a decade or so.

    Similarly, white cabinets (in kitchens and elsewhere) have been around forever. The “white kitchen look” that’s being used now probably will look dated at some point, but I think that styles with white cabinets that aren’t right on the nose of trendy in 2014 might age a lot better. (And if you painted cabinets once, you can always paint them again.)

    And other historic things are coming back. It will probably not become mainstream, but people are using wallpaper in their kitchens (which I love). I have a wall spice rack from the 1970s (different style than in your photo), and I love it. People are returning to linoleum floors for kitchens, too. Because those looks are already “vintage” (and not everyone is using them), I would guess they’ll age well.

    But I’m having trouble applying that rule to subway tile backsplashes. It’s an old look – but using it on backsplashes in the kitchen is a bit more of a new idea. And now they’re everywhere. It’s sad, because I love the look – but it may not last, either.

    I guess we’ll find out!

  33. That bottom picture looks just like my Grandma’s kitchen, minus the island, and replace the wallpaper with faux red brick wall panels and red brick linoleum on the floors! Cabinets, harvest gold appliances, layout all the same as hers. That brings memories! I think all the brown and tan hues in granite, tile, etc. that so many homes have nowadays, and all the stainless appliances, should date this current time period. I wish we’d move onto something a little lighter and brighter.

  34. I think that the biggest “what were they thinking “for modern kitchens is the complete open look. Not having even a taller counter to hide some of the cooking and eating messes that we all make in the kitchen, will become a real constant housekeeping hassle.

  35. I love my 1964 kitchen. I have the original beechwood cabinets (need refinishing tho) and my counter top is white Formica with gold flecks and silver stars. My sink is a double white porcelain that is so easy to scrub clean. The floor is not original, but I would like a linoleum-look vinyl on it someday. I have painted the walls a beautiful bright turquoisy color. The wall behind the stove has grey and white Z-brick–it looks great. All of my house has the beechwood trim and my kitchen table set matches it perfectly. I would love a Danish-modern set someday. I collect Pyrex, Jadeite (only a few pieces so far), and have mustard yellow metal bread box and canisters. We use a perculator for coffee. Can you tell that I am happy with my kitchen and always on the look out for more retro pieces? Barkcloth curtains for the dining area would be a great find, or an atomic print. BTW My bathroom is a retro pink one. Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

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