The Efficiency Kitchen

Scientific management and the home

Today is "move-in" day. Or rather, the movers are (supposedly) coming at some point today. I wish I could say that that means things will be back-to-normal here at Second Breakfast, but 1) unpacking is also an ordeal and 2) there really isn't a "normal" here to go back to. So onward.

Our new apartment has a much, much smaller kitchen than the one in Oakland; and when we were looking at places, Kin kept asking "are you going to be alright in here," knowing that I spend a lot of time in the kitchen (and often make such a huge mess that every inch of countertop space is covered with bowls and ingredients and what-not). While the Oakland kitchen had a lot of space, the layout wasn't great: the fridge and the dishwasher were across from one another, so you couldn't, say, load the latter while putting things away in the former after a meal. And the fridge door opened in the wrong direction, away from the work area.

I will report back on the new space, because when I viewed it, I didn't really think about how I will move around in it — where I'll keep the knives and the mixing bowls. I just looked at the stove — oooh, gas! I saw there was a dishwasher. And (this seems funny now in hindsight) I saw there was a window with a fabulous view of The City, so I said "I love it."

Moving around in a kitchen — and moving around efficiently — matters. And yet it's not something that we often experience unless we're wealthy enough to have our kitchens custom-designed.

Not my kitchen. Image credits...

"Efficiency," of course, has been a key goal and arguably most important measure of success — economically, but culturally as well — in the US for well over a century, thanks in no small part to the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the field of "scientific management" he founded. A mechanical engineer, Taylor believed that economic growth was threatened by "awkward, ill-directed, or inefficient movements of men," and so he set about, with a stopwatch to measure and monitor factory work and identify the best way — the fastest and cheapest way — for bodies to move and complete their tasks.

Scientific management, or "Taylorism" as it came to be known, was not only applied to the labor of those in the factory; in the early twentieth century, following the publication of Taylor's best-selling book The Principles of Scientific Management, almost every field, every aspect of life came under the same sort of scrutiny. (Once again, might I recommend either my book Teaching Machines or the classic Education and The Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan for how this plays out in education and ed-tech.) The home was no exception. Indeed, historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson argues that "Nowhere was Taylorism probably more influential than in the home economics movement, which advocated for efficiency in everything from nutrition to childrearing to household design."

Also not my kitchen. Image credits...

"Time and motion" studies were used to track the movements of housewives, and there were abundant articles in the popular press (and missives from the government) urging women to change the ways in which they performed various household tasks so that they were accomplished more efficiently. This coincided with the promotion of various new gadgets — vacuum cleaners! refrigerators! — that promised to make cooking and cleaning — "household management" — more economical. (Efficiency is, after all, an economic value often disguised as a moral one.)

To quantify what they already knew, in the early 1920s researchers from the Department of Agriculture equipped rural homemakers with pedometers, devices pinned to the women’s aprons or strapped to their ankles that counted their steps as they went about their chores. Among their findings was that one Montana woman walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a lemon pie! In a second variation on the time and motion theme, government investigators asked almost two thousand farm women to keep time diaries, running accounts of time expended over twenty-four-hour periods. The women recorded their daily round of activities on circular clock charts, each circle sliced like a pie into five-minute segments. Subjects noted how much time was given to house cleaning, to laundry and sewing, to family, and so on. To no one’s surprise, the charts showed that farm women devoted the lion’s share of their workday to food preparation. — Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, A Square Meal

In case you’re wondering, the “kitchen work triangle,” developed by Mary E. Dillon and Lillian Gilbreth, is apparently the optimal arrangement for the back-and-forth we do between sink, stove, and fridge.

In urban settings, "efficiency apartments" were constructed to make more economical use of space (and, of course, to maximize the number of units in a building and as such the potential profits of landlords). The "efficiency kitchen" persists to this day.

The pressures to cook more efficiently coincided, of course, with those pressures that industrialization placed on all aspects of life. As such, meals — what was cooked, what was eaten, how quickly, where, and so on — were reshaped to accommodate the needs of workers and children (now heading off to school). We still feel these pressures today — not just at breakfast, but particularly at breakfast: you gotta eat, but you gotta make it quick.

How do you organize your kitchen? How the hell am I going to organize mine?! I just realized: there’s no goddamn pantry!