by Diana Bulls
Ever since human beings began cooking food as opposed to eating things raw, some enterprising soul has tried to come up with tools that would help make cooking and kitchen chores easier. Rock and wood tools eventually gave way to those made of metal, dull edges became sharpened, woven containers were replaced by clay, etc. etc. Each decade had their own “improvements” as so articulately stated in the 1882 edition of the Journal of Domestic Appliances: “Year by year domestic inventions of every kind are increasing; and no matter whether we desire to clean knives, or make stockings, peel potatoes, black shoes, make butter, wash clothes, stitch dresses, shell peas, or even bake our bread, all we have to do now is turn a handle…”
Today our kitchens are filled with wonderful devices and gadgets that chop, slice, grind, beat or whip, although we usually flip a switch instead of turn a handle. Magazines, catalogs, the internet and late-night television all tout hundreds of “must haves” for your kitchen. Some may be potentially useful, but just as many are downright silly (like the fat magnet, for example).
Let’s take a look at some bygone kitchen hand tools that can still actually be used and, by the way, also make great collections.
GratersGrating tools are generally made of metal and feature different sizes of slots so many kinds of foods can be grated. The shreds produced by a hand grater are thinner at the end than in the middle, allowing the food to melt or mix together more easily. Using a grater can also “stretch” the amount of food you have. Although graters are most commonly used for hard foods like cheese, carrots, and nutmeg, they can also be used for soft foods like boiled eggs or potatoes.
Cheese, a world-wide food staple for centuries, became very popular following the Enlightenment period when people thought eating meat spread disease. Farmers quickly took advantage of this new thought and expanded their dairy herds, developing a great variety of cheeses along the way. Unfortunately the cheese would often harden before being totally used up and would have to be scraped with a knife.
Sometime around the 1540s, a Frenchman by the name of Francois Boullier came up with an idea for a tool that could grate cheese. Some food historians say that Isaac Hunt came up with a similar tool during the same time period. Maybe the two worked together. We don’t know for sure, but what we do know is that the basis for a very handy kitchen tool came into being.
As sometimes happens in the history of kitchen tools, circumstances occurred to make those first cheese graters disappear for several hundred years. Europe was hit by drought in 1555. Dairy herds were depleted and the huge surplus of cheese ended. In fact, cheese all but disappeared from French culture and cuisine. It took another economic disaster, the Great Depression, and an enterprising American to bring the cheese grater back from oblivion.
Jeffery Taylor owned a cheese shop in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and he also had his share of surplus hard cheese. He had evidently read about Boullier’s invention and being a clever man, thought he could make his own grater. For his prototype, he used a metal shower drain, sharpening the holes with a file. He began selling the tool in his shop and it became a local success.
During the Depression, when food was hard to come by and housewives had to use all means to stretch what food they had, Taylor came up with the sales pitch that his tool could increase the volume of cheese, so housewives could make “more” with “less”. He began marketing and selling his tool as the “greater” and the grater has been in most every American kitchen ever since.
Choppers and Slicers
Knives are the essential cook’s tool; they are used to chop, butcher, slice and cut. Smaller paring and utility knives were developed to take on the chopping and slicing, and a variety of chopping blades continued to be developed. By 1841, Catherine Beecher, an educator and proponent of female education, was advising young women that the “kitchen furniture” should include “strong knives and forks, a sharp carving knife, iron cleaver and board, a chopping tray and knife…”
Early chopping blades had wooden handles located directly above the cutting blade. Many of these choppers were used with a wooden chopping bowl. Other chopping knives were made of steel, some with two blades and some with single blades. There are even bell-shaped choppers. By the 1920s blades were straight, as well as serrated and corrugated or grooved.
Many of these kitchen gems can still quite easily be found, and for very little money. The usual places (yard sales, thrift stores, flea markets, Grandma’s house) harbor all kinds of kitchen treasures. Expect to pay as little as 25¢ and as much as $10 (for something very unusual). Internet auction sites, like eBay, and antique stores will have older and rarer examples for higher prices. Vintage graters that don’t have patent numbers are usually older than those that do.
Many of the early manufacturer’s of graters and chopping blades have passed on into oblivion, but their wares still live on. I couldn’t do without my “Mouli” grater for example or my red-handled steel chopper. I am sorry to say though, that my poor wooden chopping bowl finally split in half. It sits on a kitchen shelf, waiting for Jim to get around to gluing it back together. Sigh.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.