Lexington County Museum WebQuest ""

Transcript for the Kitchen

The Antebellum kitchen of the John Fox House stood about 50 feet behind the main house. It was a building totally separate because of three problems in the operation of the John Fox household of the 1840s and 1850s. The kitchen fireplace posed a fire hazard to the wooden buildings. The heat of this fire was also unwanted in the main house, particularly during hot summer days. The kitchen was a work area where people talked and made noise while handling iron pots or large numbers of glasses, plates, and china serving pieces. The noise was much like that of a restaurant kitchen in modern times, for the Fox kitchen provided meals for about 30 household members and anyone who might be visiting. All cooking was done in this building for the entire household, black or white.

The kitchen also served as a rainy weather work building where some activities usually done outdoors took place inside during periods of inclement weather. Meals for the Fox family were prepared in the kitchen and carried on trays into the main house for serving. After meals were served there, the china or dishes were brought out to the kitchen for washing or processing the leftover foods. The clean dishes were then brought back to the dining room for storage. Since many pieces of broken china were found just between the kitchen and the main house, it is probable that there were a number of accidents between the two buildings.

The kitchen was a place of closely supervised activities. In a large household like that of the John Fox family each person in the kitchen knew what work was expected of him or her. Women did most of the work, but boys provided labor in bringing in water and firewood. Kitchen work brought about close contact among white and black members of the household.

In the John Fox household, it is believed that at least three adult slave women did most of the actual cooking with the most talented and experienced one being the head cook. According to a house servant list dated 1862, a 40-year-old woman named Ellen was the head cook. Eliza and Beek, both just under 20 years old in 1862, probably worked in the kitchen with Ellen. This list also includes twelve children, and their ages ran from 2 to 10. Their names and ages are Elick (10), Bettie (8), Flora (6), Sallie (4), Allice (3), Jesse (10), Lemmuil (7), Siller (6), Morris (4), Amelia (2), and Harriet (2). Click here to see another list of 49 slaves and their monetary value, according to John Fox. Can you find Ellen or any of the other names listed above?

Enslaved people usually ate their meals in the kitchen. The Fox property had three slave houses where slave families lived. A common kitchen provided them with three meals a day, but each house had a fireplace where stews, cornbreads, or baked potatoes could be prepared at night to suit individual tastes.

Herbs: Herbs from the nearby garden were dried above the fireplace in the summer for year round use. Sage, rosemary, thyme, dill, oregano, chives, and parsley were very important food herbs along with others used for medicine or fragrance. Onions, black pepper, and red peppers were very popular for seasoning foods. Do you use herbs in your kitchen today? What other things might people today use to add flavor to foods?

Fireplace: Most of the food was cooked in pots over hot coals raked out of the back of the fireplace onto the hearth or front of the fireplace. This fireplace contains pots hanging from hooks or adjustable arms called "cranes." Most of the time, the fires were kept small for cooking, and hot coals alone were sometimes sufficient. Loaves of bread, cakes, and pies were prepared in the kitchen, but baked outside in the brick oven, using long handled wooden peels or flat shovels to arrange the food for baking. Fried food was popular. Not only was the taste of fried foods appealing, but also frying was a quick method to get one away from the hot fire faster than broiling or baking. Biscuits, cornbreads and deep-dish pies were cooked on the hearth. Very little food was eaten raw, with cole slaw of cabbage and melons being the exception. Even fruits were usually poached or boiled or made into fried pies.

Mousetrap: This mousetrap is typical of southern kitchens of the 1800s, as the Fox family wanted to keep rodents and other pests away from food. Wire rattraps were set out at night to keep down this problem. What other pest control devices can you find in this kitchen?

Cornhusk Mop. This mop, made of cornhusks, is an example of how farm families of the 19th century were not wasteful and that they found a use for nearly everything produced on the farm. What are other examples of farmers reusing products from the farm?

Fly Brush: A fly brush of paper strips tied to the end of a cane would be waved over those eating at the kitchen table to shoo away flies. Shooing away flies was typically the work of young children. A fly brush, made of peacock feathers, is also located in the dining room. Pieces of cloth tied over the mouths of storage jars kept flies out of stored preserved food and pierced tin panels kept them out of food safes while allowing air to circulate. Why would flies be such a problem in kitchens during the 19th century?

Ant Guard: Ants, flies, roaches, and rats were a serious kitchen problem. Small saucers, called ant guards were placed beneath the legs of the food safes, the outer reservoirs filled with water to prevent pests from crawling up to the stored foods. Each table leg (such as one near left window) contained a circular dish filled with vinegar water as a way to repel ants. Like the mousetrap, this ant guard helped keep pests away from the kitchen.

Sweet Potato: Sweet potatoes were a common food for folks living in Lexington District during the 19th century. John Fox produced 300 pounds of sweet potatoes in 1850 and 400 pounds in 1860. Click here to see where sweet potatoes were stored.

Food Safes: Notice that the small kitchen contains two food safes. The dining room also contains a pie safe. When dinner was over in the early afternoon, leftovers were put into food safes and little cooking was done the rest of the day. In the late afternoon, the cooks made candles, soap, churned cream into butter, and preserved foods by drying or salt preservation. Sugar was expensive, so making jams and jellies was very limited. Preserved foods such as dill pickles, sauerkraut, honey, syrup, and dried foods were stored in crockery jars on open shelves. Salt, black pepper, and coffee were purchased products used rather freely.