You may have heard the term summer kitchen: Perhaps you've come across it in a real estate listing or seen one at your great aunt's home but never quite knew about its purpose or origins. This small and unassuming building that enjoyed the height of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries was actually a powerhouse that kept an entire household—large or small—fed, fueled, and comfortable during the summer months. Read on to find out about the fascinating history of the summer kitchen, its main characteristics, and whether this unique space still exists in homes today.
What Is a Summer Kitchen?
A summer kitchen is a small outdoor building located next to a house, built for the purpose of cooking, preparing, and storing food, particularly in the hot summer months.
Summer kitchens gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries and could be found in many of the households able to afford them at the time. Historically, a summer kitchen was a small building, often made from brick or wood, that was located adjacent to the main house. There were many reasons why these structures became popular, but a key one had to do with the fact that there was no air conditioning or indoor plumbing at the time.
The majority of cooking was done in an open fireplace or on a coal or wood stove that generated huge amounts of heat and smells, which was not exactly ideal for a house with no air conditioning or modern fans. In the hot summer months, an outdoor kitchen kept the temperature in the house lower and moved cooking smells out of the main house.
It was also a way to prevent house fires, which were previously quite common due to open flame cooking and heating. Instead of having a massive fireplace that was a fire hazard inside the main house, moving it out into a different building provided an extra safety measure but also kept the unwelcome smell of coal and firewood out.
All food was prepared there and then brought into the main house, ready to be served. The kitchens were large and served as not only a place to cook and prepare dishes but also as a place to store food throughout the seasons. Gradually, these structures became more common in less wealthy homes as well, and even though they weren't necessarily the two-story buildings that appeared on large estates, they were a good place to store food in the fall and winter and cook, can, pickle, and preserve in the summer.
Characteristics of a Summer Kitchen
A summer kitchen is generally characterized as a small building located next to a house, built for the purpose of cooking and preparing food in the summer months and storing food and various supplies in the winter.
Since the main purpose of this space has always been to provide a place to cook in the summers so as to keep extra heat away from the main house, it makes sense that the main focal point is usually the stove, or some sort of cooktop. It's also very common for a summer kitchen to have a large work surface such as a table or countertop that can be used for anything from preparing meals or cleaning produce to folding laundry and sewing or doing other household tasks.
The exterior often looks like a shed, sometimes constructed from the same material as the main house, other times a different, complementing one. Brick or wood have been the two most common building materials for a summer kitchen, and as for its location, while it is always close to the house, it is usually either semi-detached or (more commonly) fully detached, making it a separate structure of its own.
Contemporary Summer Kitchens
While they are not as common as they used to be and aren't necessary for their original purpose, modern summer kitchens (or their newer interpretation, the outdoor kitchen) are still a great house feature today, especially for outdoor entertaining and as an extension of living space, mainly in warm climates. Similarly to summer kitchens of the past, the ones today are outfitted with cooking appliances—although these days that means a gas grill instead of an open flame fireplace—refrigerators, and cooktops, and often have a dining table and chairs in them, which wouldn't necessarily have been the case in the past.
Even though its physical appearance and practical use may have shifted slightly, a summer kitchen remains a valuable house feature that can offer a high return on investment at resale and provide a way to enjoy entertaining outdoors throughout the warmer seasons.
2018 Remodeling Impact Survey Outdoors. National Association of Realtors Research Department.