by Alexandra Rasic
By the time La Casa Nueva was completed in 1927, the inclusion of gas was the gold standard in new home construction. There is a lot we don’t know about how La Casa Nueva was furnished and appointed, but we do know that it had gas from the get-go. An original long-disconnected relic, the central unit of a late-1920s gravity fed furnace, still resides in the basement. But we don’t know about the range that may have been in the kitchen. We don’t even know if the Temple family had a refrigerator as electric built-in coolers were included in a room adjacent to the kitchen. Today, to help us talk with visitors about new home technologies of the 1920s, we do have a range and refrigerator on display in the kitchen, both of which were purchased while the site was undergoing restoration, being prepared to open as a museum.
Gas ranges like our Magic Chef became popular in America in the early 20th century. Cooking with gas had great benefits. Gas ovens provided quick access to heat and consistent temperatures. But as you can imagine, there were learning curves for home cooks, as demonstrated by a cook book in our collection: Mrs. Peterson’s Simplified Cooking. We have a second edition copy of this book from 1925, published by Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company of Chicago. Following the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s, gas companies made the shift from focusing on gas lighting to cooking. They sold appliances to consumers directly and created opportunities to educate customers on how to use them. Imagine how daunting and/or exciting this was for families who could afford this modern convenience, and for people who worked for them who didn’t have this technology at home but were now expected to learn how to use it well. Keep in mind that by the mid-1920s, only about half of the homes in America had electricity, so needless to say, home life was changing quickly!
Anna J. Peterson was head of the Home Service Department for Peoples Gas. The Home Services concept originated in New Jersey in 1917 when the Public Service Electric and Gas company hired Ada Bessie Swann to teach homemakers how to run a modern household using gas appliances. Writing for Gas Age, a national industry publication, in January 1924, she defined Home Services as informing “any work performed for the benefit of Peace, Rest and Happiness”—her combined definitions of “Service” and “Home.”
She went on to explain, “The place of a Home Service Department in a gas company is to build service through careful instructions to consumers, so that they can get the best service at the smallest operating cost from the appliances which the gas company has selected by careful and exhaustive tests to be efficient, durable, faultless and economical.” Proper instructions came in the form of written material, classes, lectures, and more.
In the same article, Swann shined a spotlight on the work of Anna Peterson and her department, noting Peterson’s radio broadcasts, motor kitchens used by the department to offer demonstrations of cooking with gas to people in the suburbs, and the instruction facilities of Peoples Gas. “Five times a week, 300 women come to Mrs. Peterson’s classes for honest advice and instruction in cooking,” she wrote.
In the introduction of the cook book, Peterson explains that working together with co-author and colleague Nena W. Badenoch: “We have tried to make failure impossible by giving accurate measurements not only for the first standard recipe, but also for the variations which followed. Knowing that a definite amount of heat brings the same result each time and eliminates guess work, we have given definite temperatures with each recipe, as well as the time for cooking.”
When I think about the greatest innovations and dramatic changes I have seen to home cooking in my lifetime, I can’t think of something as revolutionary as cooking with gas. Maybe that’s why we’ve become so focused on gadgets: slow cookers, Instapots, sous vide machines, juicers, blenders…the list goes on and on. But while gas was king for many decades, many cities across the US are taking a stand against the use of gas and have already eliminated it in new construction or are in talks to do so because of how it contributes to climate change. So what will the new modern kitchen look like, and who will be the Mrs. Peterson of cooking with ultra-efficient electric appliances? We’ll just have to wait and see.