From the Homestead Kitchen: When Cooking with Gas was New

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.

A review of Simplified Cooking in the June 1924 issue of Gas Age-Record praised the arrival of the book: “For a long time the gas industry has been looking for a cook book that would fairly represent it, and become an aid to the sale of gas and the promotion of cooking by gas. In this volume such a book arrives, and best of all, it is a compilation of the recipes of the most famous gas cook of the time, Mrs. Anna Peterson…”

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.

8 thoughts

  1. Interesting piece. What was left out of this article are thoughts about what might be the biggest paradigm shift for learning to cook with gas? Before gas, I would assume that people were using either coal of wood.

    Was there difficulty in learning how to light the range? (I dont think they used pilot lights in the 1920s)
    If you wanted to use a wood stove, you would need to start your fire a long time before you were ready to cook. With gas, a stove can be hot in minutes. (this would certainly change the timing of cooking the various parts of a meal considerably)

    Were there safety issues? with wood or coal I would think that smoke was always a serious issue. With gas the only smoke was from the food. But then again these would also have been non-vented gas appliances, so maybe telling people that the room still needs some fresh air ventilation might have been important? Perhaps this hazard was not yet appreciated, as the 1920s saw the general use of non-vented gas heaters in bathrooms and other parts of the house. (later known for their carbon monoxide hazard)

    Perhaps there was a learning curve about trusting the temperature? On a wood stove I think recipes described an oven as being just ‘hot’, or ‘very hot’.
    Thinking out loud, a wood stove can only get cooler over time (unless wood is added). However a gas stove will maintain a temperature continuously. Perhaps a wood stove cook would know to account for this and allow an item to cool down in the oven, but with gas you would need a reminder that food can easily become burned?

    Were there descriptions about being able to now make things in the home that perhaps could not be made before? The Homestead collection has a recipe book for the refrigerator and several pages are devoted describing how to make ice cubes(!) Certainly not something that could be created in the home before mechanical refrigeration. What new creations could only come when you are cooking with gas?

    History looking back can be fun but trying to experience history by placing yourself in a time period and looking forward is much harder.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jim. You are absolutely right to note that before gas, home cooks were using coal or wood as the heat source. Just thinking about the challenges of cooking with both makes my head spin: safety issues, respiratory illness, pollution…let alone trying to get a meal on the table on time. Pilot lights have come a long way. It was interesting to read about their history here: Funny you should mention the multiple ice cube recipes! One of the reviews for Mrs. Peterson’s Simplified Cooking heralded the book for NOT listing multiple recipes of the same dish, instead celebrating the fact that she simply chose the best version of a recipe for inclusion in the book so as to not overwhelm nervous cooks. And you know what I didn’t even think to mention in the post? The introduction of the microwave! Remember all the books that came out about how to cook whole meals in the newfangled appliance that took hold in the US in the 1980s?

  3. Microwave ovens. . . . yes, I thought about those after I posted also. While it is not included in the Homestead era I personally remember the shift of that paradigm! The biggest change was with the pans and utensils. Cook a “baked potato” without aluminum foil??? What? Dont use metal trays, instead you cook on PLASTIC !!???

    Today microwaves have moved our world as big a step faster as the gas stoves must have in the 1920s. Wood stove? You are cooking all day. Gas stove? you can make a meal in a few hours. Microwave? If I have to wait 10 full minutes to eat, I become frustrated.

    Microwaves also saw the (typically electric) ranges removed from the break rooms in businesses. (which is good because nobody ever cleaned them) Now the employer provides only the space, and the employees collectively buy the microwave. But they still leave them dirty. 🙁

    A different way to study history can be by looking at the paradigm shifts.

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