Coming across a tin-lined potato drawer is almost fun. Seeing one brings a whiff of nostalgia to the mind. The monotonous memory of scrubbing and peeling potatoes almost seems enjoyable (okay, not really). Maybe it’s a case of the past seen through rose-colored glasses, but there is something about those drawers I miss terribly. The potato drawer brings back memories of cozy winter meals and mountains of buttery mashed potatoes. Where have these drawers gone? Weirdly enough, the potato drawer wasn’t always a staple part of the American kitchen. This drawer is a specifically 20th-century feature driven by the profitability of construction and the ergonomic ideals of home economics.
As we’ve mentioned before, separated storage for potatoes wasn’t always needed. Moving to the New World changed the way people lived. People in the American colonies were now living in a completely different climate. With varied growing seasons, root cellars were crucial for preserving food. In the northeast, root cellars were generally attached to the home. As you went further south, you saw that root cellars were detached from the houses. Having a cellar near or below the ground ensured a steady temperature. If the temperature changed, it wouldn’t change too quickly. Before refrigeration, these methods of cold storage weren’t just for root vegetables. In journals and record logs, colonists documented barrels of clams and mussels picked from the river and kept alive with shallow amounts of water. Dried, salted, or potted foods also found a home in root cellars, as light exposure compromised the quality and safety of the foods.
Post-war construction influenced the popularity of potato drawers. Mass constructions, like that of Levittown, really gave way to this kitchen feature. The most famous developer, Levitt and Sons Construction, defined how houses were built. Before the massive housing boom, zone coding required all houses to be constructed with a cellar. Levitt and Sons Construction went to Hempstead’s zoning board, submitting a single amendment asking to remove the requirement for a basement. This approval in a small New York town altered the way houses were constructed in all of America. As mentioned in this article, Levitt and Sons’ method of slab-on-grade foundation allowed one house to be erected every sixteen minutes. Even if this is a boastful claim, the cellar-less foundation became the fastest way to build a house.
This new process not only significantly cheapened the construction costs for profiting developers, but it dramatically changed the way Americans stored food in their houses. In a slab-on-grade foundation home, there was no cellar. Everything for the kitchen had to be stored in the kitchen. Items, once in the cellar, migrated into the cooking space. And here the in-kitchen potato drawer entered the stage.
So is the potato drawer still a piece of the American kitchen? Yes and no. Though kitchens are far bigger than they have ever been, the exact compartmentalization of items, like storing potatoes, is not as pinnacle as it was in the past. Sure there are drawers and bins for potatoes, but are these drawers used for potatoes? Rarely. Today, kitchens have moved away from just being about the homemaker cooking a from-scratch meal for the nuclear family.
Though food prep rooms have always been spots to congregate and socialize, in the past, kitchens’ primary feature was function. Many of today’s kitchens, however, are more for show and less for cooking. A major change, prompting the extinction of food drawers, is due in part to the concept of the modern kitchen. In the past, there was only one cook working, so having everything in reach was crucial. For a 20th-century homemaker, a compartmentalized kitchen was a more efficient kitchen but modern kitchens are not just for the homemaker, they’re a multifunctional home-base. Today kitchens are not just about cooking, they are places for the family to gather. Things like the potato drawer became less important, while things like a spot for the kids to do homework and hang out became more crucial than a specific vegetable drawer.
If you want to add this feature back into your kitchen there are many ways. There are stand-alone potato bins and there are even recycled 20th-century vintage potato drawers for sale. Many kitchen design companies also have this cabinet option. Just make sure if you do store potatoes in your kitchen, keep them separate from other produce like onions. Contact with other produce increases the rate of molding.SKM: below-content placeholder