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The Kitchen Sink: Wherever Did It Come From?
by Marjorie Dorfman

The expression "everything but the kitchen sink" has come to mean "everything under the sun." But how did the kitchen sink make its way into all of our homes? And what does it all mean? Read on for some answers, whether you rinse when you wash dishes or no.

The classic plumbing definition of a sink is a bowl-shaped fixture made of porcelain or stainless steel that is used for washing hands or small objects such as dishes and underwear. The idea of a sink probably dates back to prehistoric times when Neanderthal man made water basins out of big rocks that eroded into a concave shape by centuries of rain. The idea of a kitchen sink came of course much later, when indoor fireplaces replaced open hearths and leopard skins and clubs gave way to "civilized" clothing and walking sticks.

The kitchen sink has always been a mutant hybrid, springing from any number of available materials. These varied from region to region. Heavy stone, for example, was too expensive to ship from New England quarries and stainless steel wasn’t widely available until the 1940s. For more than 150 years stone sinks were made throughout America, but not in the Mid West or on the West Coast. Soapstone is quarried exclusively in Vermont and slate is more widespread along the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Vermont and Maine. During the nineteenth century, running water was pumped from a supply tank, usually into bowls or buckets set into a dry sink. This consisted of a metal trough that was built into a wooden cabinet. Many of these wet sinks, like dry sinks, were lined with metal.

Copper and nickel silver, aka "German silver" (a copper, nickel and zinc alloy) were two of the earliest available materials used for butler’s sinks in wealthy turn-of-the-century homes. Nickel silver was more durable than copper and by varying the nickel content could take on yellow, green, pink and blue tones. In addition, copper required a great deal of good old fashioned "elbow grease" to keep shiny, and even today many prefer the natural dark brown patina that sets in if it is not polished.

Not too many changes in kitchen sink production occurred until the 1920s when Monel (not the brother of the train people) burst upon the kitchen sink scene. This corrosion-resistant lightweight white metal ore was a mix of copper and nickel, iron, manganese, silicon and carbon. During the 1940s copper and metal were needed for the war effort and stainless steel replaced them both. Actually a blend of different iron and chromium alloys, stainless steel had been studied as early as 1821. It was not until 1909, however that it was discovered how to make it corrosion resistant. It became very popular in the 40s and 50s for countertops as well as sinks.

Porcelain enameling, the process of applying ground glass to hot metal had ornamental uses for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that manufacturers developed a method of firing it onto heavy cast iron. Sinks of cast-iron were all the rage by the 1920s. Early models had legs that were made to resemble furniture legs and they were all white in compliance with the national obsession for antiseptic surfaces. Wall-mounted sinks soon followed and then those built into countertops in a manner similar to dry sinks. There was little variation in color even though some others were available at this time. No one dared more than a "mottled oatmeal" for a color befitting a kitchen sink even well into the 1940s.

Earthenware sinks first began to appear in catalogues in the 1920s. They were known for their solid ceramic bases rather than cast iron, and were often enameled white inside and glazed brown on the exterior. With either flat or rolled rims, they were more prevalent in commercial kitchens and laundries as they were always very heavy. Fire-clay is one ceramic material that is often used in reproduction sinks today.
The sink, like all things under the sun, has its very own history. Will there be changes in its future? Who cans say? If the day ever comes when dishes become obsolete, it may logically follow that sinks will not be needed to wash them in. In the meantime, in between time, you will have to excuse me. I have to go rinse some things out, and you can guess where I’m headed. Appreciate your sink, but remember that it may or may not return the favor.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2005