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The U-Shaped Kitchen’s Government-Funded Evolution

Once upon a time, the Department of Agriculture was actually very concerned about how people used the space they inhabited. Here’s the role that this obscure bureau played in the U-shaped kitchen and how it got implemented in homes built after the postwar housing boom.

Small U-shaped kitchen with wood cabinetry and white appliances.

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You might’ve heard the term “U-shaped kitchen” before, or seen it in floor plans and home design schematics. But did you know that it was actually a US government invention from the 1940s?

Okay, not QUITE. The U-shaped kitchen harkens back to forever ago, since it was a type of galley kitchen seen on passenger ships in the early 1900s. But the US Department of Agriculture did play an instrumental role in blueprints that came out after the mass influx of postwar building and mass migration from cities to suburbs that took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Given that our government seems pretty much devoted to the servitude of a couple billionaires with the occasional drone strike these days, it seems incredibly freaking wild that the Department of Agriculture and the Land Grant College were so deeply involved with improving day-to-day life for the average American. I mean, the people who think a one-time $1,200 payment during a global crisis is sufficient are this embodiment of that scene from Arrested Development where Lucille Bluth stares at the camera with this air of ennui as she drawls, “It’s one banana, Michael. How much could it cost? $10?” 

Yet once upon a time, they cared enough about people’s day-to-day lives at home.

Anyway, yes, the Department of Agriculture was actually very concerned about how people used the space they inhabited, particularly in this huge wave of suburban starter homes being built. They even put together studies and blueprints that gave way to how kitchens were designed and improved on. Here’s the role that this obscure bureau played in the U-shaped kitchen and how it got implemented in homes built after the postwar housing boom.

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The United States Had a Home Economics Bureau

1950s image of a wife wearing apron and pouring tea for her husband while he sits at the table for breakfast with newspaper in hand.

It sounds totally wild given that home economics, later dubbed “family and consumer studies”, is being taught in American schools far, far less today. In the more well-funded school districts where you can usually take cooking, sewing, or wood shop as high school electives, even those departments are facing cuts and that’s why we have a bunch of irate Boomers whining about how Millennials are glued to their phones. Yeah, Bob and Karen. It’s because your ass didn’t teach us how to use things in the kitchen so we had to learn from Brit & Co and and Bigger Bolder Baking (which are fabulous!)

If it seems odd that the Department of Agriculture was so up in arms about kitchen layouts, there actually used to be an agency called the Bureau of Home Economics and Nutrition that was part of this department! As stated in this 1953 publication, the mission of the agency was: “The Bureau’s task, in one sentence, is to develop through research new knowledge about efficient household management, and ways to make best consumer use of food, fiber, and other products of the country’s farms.” The agency was formed in 1923 then was eliminated in 1962, stemming from the Office of Home Economics that was formed in 1915. The bureau not only supported homemakers with helpful content, but also guided them towards practical alternatives for food staples since much of the food supply was directed to World War I prior to expanding in 1923.

Tract homes were being built in droves and while they touted more space than their urban counterparts, it wasn’t yet proven how well the new homes’ inhabitants were utilizing all that space. The Bureau of Home Economics and Nutrition wanted to know the ins and outs of homemakers’ lives, like whether their kitchen design could help them be more productive in terms of stooping and tip-toeing heights, lighting, ventilation, counterspace, and so much more. 

Given how there was a literal government department dedicated to this and the average height of women around the time of the bureau’s creation? It’s why I’m so perplexed as a short gal that every single prewar apartment kitchen I’ve had has these insanely high cabinets I can’t reach. Homes are NOT designed for short people, and at my grand stature of five feet even, I am actually two inches taller than the average American woman was 100 years ago based on this calculator from TIME.

So, this bureau did things that just sound utterly wild by today’s standards. Designed expressly to support homemakers, it published sewing patterns, recipes, nutritional information, and had articles published in newspapers and magazines pertaining to the scientific and historical nuances in daily life around the house. The Home Economics Bureau also created the “Aunt Sammy” radio personality that was supposed to be a distaff counterpart of Uncle Sam. Aunt Sammy would come on the Housekeeper’s Chat radio show along with her fictional family, friends, and neighbors. While all of these characters were voiced by individual radio station employees, women employees at the USDA created the actual content of the show with scripts, recipe development and testing, and food science findings.

Not only was the USDA a stable employer for women at the time as they predominantly staffed this bureau, but Aunt Sammy was so popular that Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes was published in 1927 with expanded editions that came out again in later years. What also makes the cookbook noteworthy was that it was the first cookbook published in braille.

As the bureau continued to grow and evolve after Aunt Sammy’s retirement in 1944, they decided to focus more on home design as the uber-homemaker rose alongside the housing boom, the intrepid ingenues escaping 1940s hard-boiled detectives in dimly-lit coffee shops suddenly trading their cigarettes and pistols for dusters and spatulas.


U, L, Broken U and L, and Parallel Wall Kitchen Plans Were Drawn Up

Kitchen 3D blueprint

The Bureau of Home Economics felt that kitchens should be designed efficiently. “Efficiently” in the context that you didn’t need to walk, stoop, or stretch that much to get things done and you could fit kitchen tools, appliances, and ingredients on the countertops without needing additional furniture.

The U-shaped kitchen was the preferred model because it meant that there was no foot traffic in the area, although it was still spacious enough for two people, like a mother watching over a child or the eldest helping their mother get dinner ready. A U-shape meant that there was minimal walking to get to where you needed as well, with the three key pieces of equipment being the range, refrigerator, and sink.

Interestingly, this meant that they wanted these pieces of equipment to be in extreme proximity to each other. As kitchens advanced since, with dishwashers now appearing below sinks and fridges getting bigger with detached freezers in other rooms becoming more common, they definitely began to entail more walking with more space for a couple or family to cook together instead of leaving it to a solitary housewife. Part of this evolution was chalked up to average home size drastically increasing alongside consumerism, but also that meal preparation gradually became a group effort instead of the sole responsibility of a dedicated homemaker.

The whole idea though was that U and L shaped kitchens had right-to-left “production lines” that made it easy to progress from one task to the next. Just like how those fricking kitchen cabinets weren’t designed for short people, despite being mostly used by women who were even shorter than me back then? They also were not designed for left-handed women!

The “unbroken” U, or U with a dead-end, was considered ideal so that a homemaker wouldn’t have any foot traffic from both directions, able to focus on the task at hand. Galley kitchens with parallel counters were also eyed by the Bureau because it meant more counter and storage space, especially once newfangled contraptions like hand mixers and stand mixers began to hit the market and it meant that homemakers could literally have 12 plates spinning at once before breaking down sobbing and popping Quaaludes like M&Ms. Sorry, they didn’t show you that part on Leave It to Beaver, BUT I WILL.

Something incredibly interesting is that in an age where accessibility wasn’t considered in home design by a vast majority of builders, the USDA still largely didn’t consider mobility aids in farmhouses and tract homes. But they did have an entire publication dedicated to the “energy-saving kitchen”, which some people in the disability community would refer to as “spoons-saving” nowadays.

Article from the US. Department of Agriculture regarding Energy-Saving Kitchen-Workroom.

There was an actual home economics lab in Beltsville, Maryland that dedicated studies to homemakers who were older and/or had chronic illnesses and disabilities. What made unbroken U-shaped kitchens preferable for disabled people was that you could easily fit a chair in there and have cabinets and countertops that were just as accessible from a chair as they were standing up.

The broken-U arrangement, where one side of the U (like the fridge and countertop) would be farther away from the other two segments gave way to the “eat-in” kitchen. Because after you busted your ass cooking a meal with no dishwasher or anyone to help you, do you really want to schlep it all the way to the dining room just to make more work and cleanup? Hell no!

U-Shaped Kitchens Today

Small white kitchen with wooden countertop and indoor plants.

Modern homebuilding is seeing an interesting duality when it comes to both space and how kitchen blueprints in particular get incorporated.

Average home sizes in the US have gradually been increasing over the years, with hulking McMansions throwing off the average single-family home. Tract homes that were built in the housing boom were only around 950 square feet, topping out around 1,100 in the 1960s (which would be the homes more likely to be built with the Bureau of Home Economics’ kitchen schematics). Obviously, the bigger the home, the bigger the kitchen.

Family dinners were also more of a production back then, and one beleaguered homemaker was in charge of cooking for the household. Today, kitchens are larger to accommodate a couple or family taking part in meal prep together.

Inversely, some people are going smaller than ever and need to get creative with kitchen layouts when it comes to both apartments and tiny houses where you can barely fit one person in the kitchen, let alone more than one without having to eventually call the fire department. U-shaped kitchens can feel claustrophobic and closed off in smaller homes, which is why the broken U style is seen more in single-family homes today.

Circling back to the whole purpose of the Bureau of Home Economics, the bureau’s sudden obsolescence as the homemaker role became less common led to other forces that changed the way we use our kitchens. Convenience food became more common, as did eating outside the home more often. While dining out and ordering in have long been staples of urban life and were less common in suburban and rural areas, it soon bled into suburbia.

Why did homes get even bigger and kitchens become more spacious if we’re not even cooking at home as much as housewives of yore? It didn’t necessarily mean those kitchens became more efficiently laid out for the plethora of appliances that would come. I mean, you needed room for your Chop-o-Matic and Showtime Rotisserie Oven! Today, it would be the hulking beasts that are KitchenAids and the 80,000 attachments that come with Ninja blenders, plus room for a toaster oven, coffee maker, and if you’re really fancy, an espresso making station.

Now we need broken U-shapes to accommodate two or more people because making a meal together is a huge bonding moment for many couples or a way to teach your kids responsibility and life skills, and we need time as much as we need space. Perhaps some of these evolutions would’ve happened on their own, but it’s pretty amazing that we once had a whole government department dedicated to making sure we didn’t spend more time in the kitchen that we really had to.