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A Place for Everything: The Hoosier Cabinet

In the early twentieth century, a single piece of furniture promised to save miles of steps, banish evening weariness and enhance the attractiveness of the home and the housewife.

By mid-century, however, modular built-ins had rendered the Hoosier cabinet obsolete. One local author and woodworker resurrects the erstwhile kitchen fixture long since relegated to basements and junk stores.

Nancy Hiller has been working as a cabinetmaker in Bloomington for the last 15 years. In her spare time, she writes articles about the craft, in such magazines as American Bungalow, and Old-House Interiors.

Hiller's latest monograph, published by the Indiana University Press, examines a piece of furniture that was a fixture of the American kitchen from 1890 to 1930.

The kitchen cabinet manufactured by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company of New Castle, Indiana became so ubiquitous at one time that the brand name replaced the generic term. Hoosier cabinets were the Kleenex and Xerox copiers of their time.

But the cabinets were also manufactured by such firms as McDougall, Boone and Nappanee. In the 1920s, one home in ten had a Hoosier cabinet, not to mention the other brands.

The freestanding cabinet pictured in the vintage advertisements that illustrate Hiller's study, The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History, was customized with a wealth of components, most strikingly the udder-like sifters hanging from its upper compartments.

A pull-out preparation counter, retractable cook book holder and menu planning dial were some of the other interactive features of the cabinet. The design of the Hoosier cabinet was not only clever, but whimsical.

With a place for everything, the cabinet was designed to save a housewife "miles of steps". The cabinet's popularity was a function of efficiency theories in vogue at the time, and the simultaneous development of sophisticated advertising techniques in the early twentieth century.

Magazine ads showing a dewy bride removing her apron long before dusk, in front of an impeccable kitchen cabinet held promise for a nation of homemakers overwhelmed by the drudgery of housework in an era when domestic help was no longer affordable but contemporary labor-saving devices had not yet been invented.

Considering all the marketing muscle that went into turning the Hoosier cabinet into a status symbol, though, it's easy to wonder whether the product's claims of lightening a woman's load were not disingenuous.

"All the cynical interpretations of the advertising and marketing aside," Hiller concluded, "I think that many women of the time must have come to the cabinet with a proper degree of appreciation for what it represented about how women's work was recognized.

"The object in its own right, in a way, is a material manifestation of accomplishment, and of potential accomplishment."

Nancy Hiller's book The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History is available through the Indiana University Press.

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