Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.
Being a homemaker has always been a full-time job, but can you imagine what cooking for a family every day was like without some basic home appliances? I can barely handle not having a dishwasher in my kitchen.
A number of kitchen innovations have taken place over the past few centuries that have made the preparation and storage of food much more convenient, freeing up both energy and time for the average homemaker to dedicate to other pursuits. Let’s take a look at a few of these innovations, most of which could double as torture devices.
The apple parer may seem like a dreaded “uni-tasker,” but according to food historian Sarah Lohman, it was an incredibly convenient tool. “In early America, apple peeling was one of those laborious tasks that called for a party. Neighbors would get together to peel apples for preserves, pies, and cider,” she writes for Kitchen Histories. “The first patent for this labor-saving device was issued to D. H. Goodell in 1867. The important part of his design was the spring-mounted blade that allowed a cutting arm to gently glide across the surface of the apple, following its curves.” There are a number of apple parers in the New-York Historical Society’s library collection, including the one above, a wooden table-top model. Some were considerably scarier, but overall it looks like the design hasn’t changed much.
Nutmeg grater/spice grinder
Another tool that has not changed much is a nutmeg grater. Many in our collection doubled as tobacco shredders—I’m not sure if that lent the tobacco a nutmeg-y flavor (or the nutmeg a tobacco-y flavor). Similarly, an old spice grinder in the collection appears to be an ingenious way to make grinding and grating easier, by taking the traditional mortar and pestle design and putting a grinder at the bottom of it.
Then there are some tools that I wish would make their ways back into modern kitchens, like this wall-mounted coffee mill. Instead of a grinder that you have to take out from the back of the cabinet and plug in while using up precious counter space, the wall-mount gives you access whenever you need, without electricity.
What kitchen appliances can’t you live without? Is it time to invest in an apple parer? Let us know @nyhistory.