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Watching old "newsreel"-like films from the 1950s and 1960s, and seeing this in old comics and from other Swedish sources, I have formed the perception that many/most/all kitchens in Sweden, prior to some sort of "boom" of modern kitchens in the 1950s and 1960s, had the working spaces lower than what is comfortable for a human to work with, causing serious health issues.

This may be the same thing everywhere else as well. It's just that I have only heard it in Swedish context.

But why would they have made such kitchens in the first place? It doesn't make sense. What about having everything uncomfortably low did they think was such a good idea? And I doubt that people somehow suddenly got significantly taller in Sweden in the first half of the 20th century.

They make a point of the "modern" kitchen having everything at the proper height, so you don't have to constantly lean down. But people who design kitchens weren't complete idiots prior to a certain date, so they must have had a reason for this choice, no?

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    This would benefit from an image or two so that we know what you're looking it.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 14:01
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    Since conscript statistics began with men born 1819 or later, the average male height in Sweden has increased 15 cm from just 165 cm for men born in 1819 to a levelling off at 180 cm for men born 1960 or later. I don't know what height difference you're looking for, but 15 cm is roughly 6", which my wife tells me is quite sufficient. Presumably female height increase is similar. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 14:08
  • @Peter, except that the bench height is roughly half the body height, so the growth should be half of that figure.
    – Zeus
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 0:31
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    @Zeus: That assumes that height increase is equally split between legs and torso. I'm not certain that's true. Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 13:42
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    Anecdata: My parents moved into a Swedish house built in 1946 in 2002. The kitchen was, at a guess, from the late 1960s, and although it was a ‘modern-type’ kitchen (i.e., it had a continuous worktop with integrated sink and semi-integrated oven/stove, rather than separated, individual tables), it did indeed have quite low worktop heights, perhaps around 70–75 cm. They got a new kitchen a couple of years ago with the standard 85 cm. My stepmum (165 cm/5’5 tall ) found the old worktop height more comfortable than the new; for my dad (187 cm/6’2), it’s the opposite. Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 14:04

3 Answers 3

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Why were apparently kitchens so low in Sweden before the 1950s or so?
This may be the same thing everywhere else as well. It's just that I have only heard it in Swedish context.

Before the introduction of the Frankfurt kitchen in the late 1920's, the worktop heights were lower than the standard 85cm hight that seems to have been common in Germany in the 1970/80's. The Swedish kitchen standards, starting in the 1930's was also based on this module.

The YouTube video compares both and if you look at the height difference based on the elbow of the person shown, you see the difference.

pre-Frankfurt kitchen Frankfurt kitchen

But why would they have made such kitchens in the first place? It doesn't make sense.

Why indeed? Possibly because they were designed by persons (men) who had no practical experience in using them? The goal of the new design was for it to be practical, so maybe that is why they let a female architect design it (Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky). One can only speculate...

On her 100th birthday Schütte-Lihotzky commented "You'll be surprised that, before I conceived the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirthaus [restaurant-pub]. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.

Sites today [written in 2020] state that compared to 20-30 years previously, the standard worktop heights need to be higher.


2020-07: Was ist die ideale Höhe der Küchenarbeitsplatte? - Ihr Küchenstudio in Schwabach
Vor 20, 30 Jahren lag die Höhe der Küchenarbeitsplatte in den meisten deutschen Haushalten bei 86 oder 87 cm. Solch eine niedrige Arbeitshöhe führt bei fast allen Köchen und Köchinnen zu einer gebückten, wenig ergonomischen Haltung bei der Küchenarbeit. Deshalb liegen die Standard-Arbeitsplattenhöhen mittlerweile bei 90 bis 94 cm.

20 or 30 years ago, the height of the kitchen worktop in most German households was 86 or 87 cm. Such a low working height leads to a stooped, not very ergonomic posture when working in the kitchen for almost all chefs. This is why the standard worktop heights are now between 90 and 94 cm.

2021-10-29: Die richtige Höhe der Arbeitsplatte in der Küche
Determine the optimum working height yourself

  • Bend your elbows at a right angle
  • Measure the distance between the floor and your elbow (e.g. 100 cm)
  • Subtract about 10% from this height
    • in the example 100 cm - 10 cm = 90 cm

If the distance from the floor to your elbow is 100 cm, you should allow for a working height of 90 cm.


Sources

The Frankfurt kitchen was a milestone in domestic architecture, considered the forerunner of modern fitted kitchens, for it was the first kitchen in history built after a unified concept, i.e. low-cost design that would enable efficient work. It was designed in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for architect Ernst May's social housing project New Frankfurt in Frankfurt, Germany. Some 10,000 units were built in the late 1920s in Frankfurt.

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    Did Swedes of that era butcher large animals in the kitchen? Working on large stuff often requires a lower table.
    – user60738
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 23:50
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    @user1934286 and kneading lots and lots of dough might be easier on a low bench.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 5:49
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    Also, the size of the vessel being man-handled makes a difference also. Larger vessels are easier to lift onto a lower surface. Family sizes were larger, so more food had to be prepared daily, and in-home social gatherings might have been larger and more frequent also. And if Mark thinks a single kitchen counter has ever been specified by the man in the household, I'd venture he's never been married. My contribution is limited to having "Have you considered ABC?" being answered by "Of course." Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 9:29
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    Also lifting heavy weights, such as large full pots and kettles would be more comfortable if you didn't have to lift them high. Perhaps it stems from the farm cooking, when the household included farm workers and you routinely had to prepare food for more than 1-2 people? In that case you would have to choose between discomfort of working at low table vs discomfort at lifting 5kg+ of soup/whatever every day several times per day.
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 9:30
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    It was also probably far more common in those days for children to regularly assist in food preparation, so perhaps the counters were made lower to accommodate them? Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 13:33
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Three thoughts:


I doubt that people somehow suddenly got significantly taller in Sweden in the first half of the 20th century.

As a comment already points out, people did get substantially taller.

The German Wikipedia page on acceleration wrt. human development says:

 Bei Frauen ist die Körpergröße von 156 cm im Jahr 1956 auf 166 cm in 1975 angestiegen

For women, height increased from 156 cm in 1956 to 166 cm in 1975

In other words, the 1960s may well have been a time where relevant increase in length occured much faster than before or after.

(The numbers may refer to Germany, and there the increase may have been sharper than in Sweden due to WWWI and WWII)


What about having everything uncomfortably low did they think was such a good idea?

Summary: The workflows in the old-style kitchens were quite different from the workflows in modern ones. Often, substantially more food was prepared there. It's fine peeling potatoes for 4 standing at the countertop, in particular if that happens only occasionally since it varies with pasta and rice. When peeling potatoes for 15 (who don't get much meat) on a daily basis, not so much. If you largest pot is, say, 6 l, you want a subtantially higher stovetop than when you work with a 15 - 20 l pot every few days.

In the old kitchens, large pots were used far more than nowadays, e.g.

  • Heating the water for laundry or bathing (not everyone had a separate bathing stove).
  • canning and sterilizing jars: jam, jelly, sausage, fruits etc.
  • my great-grandma was cooking not only for her family but also for the apprentices and journeymen in my great-grandfathers employ, between WWI and WWI that were about 15 people to feed every day. And I bet they got lots of stew.

I'm talking here pots of 15 - 20 l, maybe even larger. They are not only heavy lifting, they are also taller and thus need to be placed lower for ergonomic working. (Note that in professional kitchens there are also nowadays stock pot stoves of e.g. 40 cm height for big stock/soup pots.)

I think the transition to the higher modern stovetops occured in parallel to those large pots being needed much less frequently (basically only occasionally for the canning) since people got laundry machines, hot water supply (or at least separate bath stoves), and employees not living in the same house any more and bringing their own lunch.

Old kitchens (as I know them here in Germany, and as also partially seen in the pre-Frankfurt panel of @MarkJohnson's answer) did not have much countertop-like space.
E.g. my grandma's kitchen (full room size kitchen in rural house) had full height kitchen cabinets rather than a wall cupboard over a countertop workspace. Much of the work was done at the table, and mostly sitting on a chair (potato peeling, cutting veggies, fruits, ... also, potatoes kept over winter in the basement aren't as nice as the ones professionally stored we now buy in spring, peeling them is more work and they need far more paring.). Kneading was done standing in front of the table, the countertop spaces would have been rather too high for that. The same for tasks like grating cucumbers or carrots, and heavy cutting like quinces, or the initial quartering of cabbages. The same table was used for eating and generally as table.

(Since someone was mentioning butchering large animals, the large cutting of them did not take place in the kitchen, that was done on the yard (hanging at a ladder or barn door)

There was some countertop-like space (drainer - sink - stove). This area was used standing, and was higher.

The Frankfurt kitchen in @MarkJohnson's answer is closer to modern workflows: it fits a kitchen into a very small room, where not much more than preparing meals for a 2 generation family can be done, and it uses countertops as work space.
The Swedish kitchen page linked in @MarkJohnson's answer says that that approach (in 1930) assumed that (in future) the kitchen was to be used basically only to heat industrially prepared food - as opposed to preparing and cooking from scratch. I'd say that we have basically reached that stage nowadays, but it took decades longer than those architects imagined back then.


My parents built a frame for their sink/countertop area to bring it to a good height for them: it's much easier to rise the countertop than to lower it. From that point of view it makes sense to have the off-the-self height adapted to the short side of how tall people are.

My mother bought a new kitchen about 10 a ago, with very specific ideas of how it's good for her to work. She now as a smallish table at countertop height that is good for working standing, and a "bar chair" so she can also sit for longer tasks. The kitchen guys commented "that looks as if you intend working here - it's not often that we sell kitchens nowadays where substantial work is done". (She uses frozen or canned veggies a lot, but not canned soup or ready-to-bake frozen pizza etc.)

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    They seem to be referred to as "stock pot stoves". image Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 19:40
  • @DennisWilliamson: thank you, updated. Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 19:46
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    Here is a chart for men. In the Netherlands, the body height increased from 171 cm for men born in 1900 to 179 cm in 1950, and 183 in 1982 (all numbers rounded). That's a whopping 12 cm, or about 4-5 inches. If we think that the elbows are at half the body height, work spaces should rise by about 6 cm, or 2+ inches, from height gain alone. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 11:22
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The discovery that people work best at a waist-high workspace was one of the discoveries of efficiency experts working in factories in the late 19th century.

It was brought to the kitchen by Christine Frederick, who applied many notions of Taylorism, as it was known, to the home. She identified a 31-inch counter as best for the average-height women in the 1910s and 1920s.

It would take some time for such a notion to spread, especially given that many kitchens would need to be remodeled to fit it.

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