Most visitors to our home have noticed and complimented our 1950s steel kitchen cabinets. We live in a brick ranch home built in 1958, in a suburban St. Louis neighborhood that could be the poster child for the baby boom era of American growth.
When we first moved into our house in 1991, the original owner had left us with blue and pink tile bathrooms, original sinks, original aluminum storm windows, plain modern wood closet doors throughout, and shag carpet in the living room. Our house was essentially a time capsule. All of these things may have been “cool” to some people, but they were old, dirty, and tired to us. So out they went. We did keep the finished basement, complete with knotty pine walls and a custom rathskeller bar.
With two young children and new mortgage that first year, there was so much updating to do we decided to leave the kitchen cabinets as they were—except to have them powder coated white to leave the putrid avocado green firmly in the 1950s. Putting in a new kitchen at the time was out of the question for us, not when we needed a new furnace and AC, electrical updating and a roof.
Today, our fifty-seven-year old Republic Steel cabinets are “retro”—and I have to hand it to the manufacturer, our steel cabinets have stood the test of time. I have to admit that it has taken quite a few years for us to embrace our steel cabinets as something we like when they had stood for years as a reminder of the new kitchen we couldn’t afford.
I discovered wonderful historic information about steel kitchen cabinets on the website Retro Renovation. The story of steel cabinets in the United States is a virtual history lesson in modernism, production methods, and early advertising. Among othe things, I learned that these steel kitchens, which emerged slowly from the 1930s, were called “hoosier cabinets,” and were advertised to be “vermin proof.” Diseases like diphtheria, polio, and flu were poorly understood, and killed thousands every year, so sanitation was important.
After WWII, steel plants were clamoring for new products to make, and in addition to cars, housing products were taking up the slack from war production. Selling new steel cabinets and modernizing prewar kitchens was big business between 1954 and 1964. Top metal cabinet manufacturers like Youngstown, Geneva, St. Charles, and Republic Steel fought tooth and nail for market share.
The United States may have won the big war in 1945, but there was a new war to fight in the 1950s and ’60s—and that was to sell new, modern steel kitchens.