Article image
Original photo by ShalenaOlena/ Shutterstock
10 Little-Known Stories Behind Your Kitchen’s Most Commonly Used Items
Read Time: 8m
Article image
Original photo by ShalenaOlena/ Shutterstock

Putting away groceries, cooking dinner, washing up — there’s a lot that goes on in our kitchens, so it makes sense that many of the items inside them go more or less unnoticed, at least when it comes to asking the deeper questions. If you’ve never stopped to wonder who invented the whisk or how long humans have used cheese graters, you’re not alone. But the backstories on these 10 kitchen items may just give you something to think about while you’re waiting for the water to boil.

1of 10


An electric compression domestic refrigerator, 1934.
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

Humans have long consumed perishable foods that require refrigeration, even without modern cold storage — though it’s never been an easy feat. In more recent history, Americans in the 1800s relied on ice houses: underground chambers lined with stone that stayed cool thanks to ice collected from rivers and lakes. By the end of the 1800s, much smaller indoor ice boxes became popular, which kept foods cool by using an actual block of ice inside a wooden or tin cabinet. The modern refrigerator slowly emerged thanks to decades of innovations that introduced electric appliances and chemicals such as Freon. General Electric introduced its “Monitor Top” refrigerator in 1927, which became the first widely popular model thanks to a cookbook campaign that promoted tricks, tips, and reusing leftovers. Still, most American households wouldn’t own an electric fridge until after World War II.

Make Every Day More Interesting
Receive Facts Directly In Your Inbox. Daily.

By subscribing you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

2of 10


A rusty carving fork on a wooden counter.
Credit: photographyfirm/ Shutterstock

Eating with your hands is often considered bad etiquette, but at one time in history, it was preferred. Prior to the 10th century, forks typically had just two to three tines and were used to skewer food for serving or hold it during cutting. That changed in the later 900s, when Byzantine royal Theophanu, who became Holy Roman empress, introduced the practice of eating with forks, though using the utensils was typically an upper-class practice. Fork usage slowly spread through Europe over the following centuries, though the implements were often lambasted as being too delicate or “feminine” in some cases, and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church saw them as an excessive display of wealth that insulted higher powers. (In some cases, they were even seen as tools of the devil.) Fork usage eventually caught on more widely by the 1700s, and the utensils have claimed their space in cutlery drawers ever since.

3of 10

Stand Mixers

Close-up of a mixer in kitchen.
Credit: Everett Collection via Getty Images

Hobart Manufacturing Company, an Ohio-based kitchen equipment brand, got its start with stand mixers around 1908. Company engineer Herbert Johnson was inspired by watching bakers knead bread, and by 1914 the brand released a line of commercial dough mixers that became so popular that even the U.S. Navy made them standard issue on its ships. Within a few years, Hobart Manufacturing expanded into home kitchens with its H-5 model, which could slice, strain, and more with a handful of attachments. Model K — the predecessor to KitchenAid-branded models — hit kitchen countertops in 1937, though the punchy pastel paint colors (like “petal pink” and “island green”) would come two decades later in 1955.

4of 10

Cheese Graters

Pieces of parmesan cheese and an old grater.
Credit: Leemage/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Historians believe humans began experimenting with cheesemaking between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Grating and shredding, however, may have come much later; some of the oldest known cheese graters date back to the ninth century BCE in Greece. Archaeologists working in modern-day Tuscany have unearthed bronze graters from tombs belonging to the ancient Etruscans. Some researchers think the kitchen pieces were used by warriors who blended wine and cheese to make a ceremonial beverage.

5of 10


Girl wearing apron, removing cakes from oven with pot holders.
Credit: Steven Gottlieb/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Potholders protect our hands from blistering burns, though textile historians believe they’re a more recent kitchen addition. Most potholders in museums are no more than 250 years old, and those that survive are typically thinner, unpadded versions meant to cover teapot handles. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “potholder” didn’t even emerge until 1888. That doesn’t mean our ancestral cooks grabbed dishes barehanded; hooked metal pot grabbers and lid lifters were commonly used tools, along with less-decorative towels and rags. As for quilted and embellished options, researchers believe potholders picked up popularity in the mid-1700s to early 1800s, when they were sometimes decorated with anti-slavery messages and sold at fairs and bazaars hosted by abolitionists.

6of 10

Microwave Ovens

Microwave on a kitchen table with vegetables.
Credit: ShalenaOlena/ Shutterstock

Microwaves are electromagnetic waves capable of being bounced off distant objects for radar detection, and microwave ovens actually descended from radar technology developed during WWII. (The first microwave oven was developed after an engineer working on a radar apparatus accidentally melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.) When shot at food, microwave radiation makes water molecules inside the food vibrate, which creates the heat that cooks your dinner.

According to food historian Andrew F. Smith, the earliest microwave oven was bought by a Cleveland restaurant in 1947; the $3,000 price tag made the new tool more or less unattainable for home use. Smaller, more affordable units were developed by the 1960s, but these were found to leak harmful levels of radiation. By the 1970s, designs had improved and microwave ovens were deemed safe. But it took the partnership of the convenience food industry — who created microwave-safe packaging designs — and a slew of instructive newspaper articles, pamphlets, and cookbooks to teach the home cook how to use this new tool. As of 2001, over 90% of U.S. homes had a microwave.

7of 10


Eggs in a bowl with wire whisk.
Credit: cglade/ iStock

Up until the 19th century, most women made their own whisks out of bundles of birch sticks. This type of whisk is still used by some chefs for delicate sauces and whipping meringue, and can be a great alternative for whisking on easily damaged non-stick surfaces. Wire whisks, with the classic hot air balloon shape, came into use in the early 19th century, and the first rotary beaters were patented in the 1860s. Featuring one or two interlocking whisks powered by a hand crank, they cut down on the bicep-building work of whisking. These rotary beaters still have their place in the kitchen: They can whisk meringue in half the time of an upright, electrified mixer without leaving dregs of unbeaten egg at the bottom of the bowl.

8of 10


 A close up photo of a chef hands grilled a barbecue pork ribs.
Credit: Kanawa_Studio/ iStock

Before the 20th century, outdoor meat cooking was done on massive grills, spits, or in barbecue pits lined with hot coals. Hot, heavy, and time-consuming, this was labor usually performed by groups of men, and in the South, enslaved men. But in 1897, the charcoal briquette was patented, cutting down on time and labor, and in the 1950s, the classic and compact Weber kettle grill was developed. Developed from a Lake Michigan buoy, its lightweight design and stylish shape opened grilling to all.

When retailers began marketing home grills, they targeted men because there was a tradition of men cooking barbecue, but also because men were usually the breadwinners. The thought was that women wouldn’t be interested in buying another cooking appliance when they could just use their stoves. By targeting men, advertisers were finding a new market for cooking, and men were being motivated to feel that cooking outdoors over a fire was a very masculine thing to do. To this day, professional grill masters and pit masters are typically male.

9of 10

Ice Makers

Close-up of a scoop of ice.
Credit: Chuck Wagner/ Shutterstock

At the beginning of the 19th century, the ice industry was rapidly expanding. New England was the world’s leader in ice production; ice cutters used new horse-drawn blades to cut ice off of frozen lakes. The ice was insulated in ice houses, and could stay frozen until the following October. According to food historian Jeri Quinzio in her book Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, by 1800 ice was being shipped to the West Indies, and in 1833, a Boston ice merchant began making regular shipments to Calcutta.

Ice became cheap and readily available by the mid-19th century, which spurred an abundance of iced drinks. The ice would have been brought into bars, soda fountains, or ice cream parlors in large blocks and skillfully chopped into different shapes by the resident bartender.

The first mechanical ice-maker was patented in 1851, and was designed “to convert water into ice artificially by absorbing its heat of liquefaction with expanding air.” Initially, the machine was meant to help treat yellow fever patients. Ice makers were first added to consumer refrigerators and freezers in 1953, and the fridge-door ice dispenser we're familiar with today was introduced in 1965 by Frigidaire.

10of 10


Four colored straws next to a variety of fruits.
Credit: Giorgio Trovato/ Unsplash

The earliest depiction of a straw is on a seal found in a Sumerian tomb dated to 3,000 BCE. It shows two men using what appear to be straws taking beer from a jar. Beer brewed in Ancient Mesopotamia and Sumeria was unfiltered, so it was full of grain and chaff that floated on the surface. The straw allowed drinkers to access the beer underneath. While most of these ancient straws were made from reeds, museums have examples of extraordinary early straws, including a pure gold straw and a gold and lapis lazuli “drinking tube,” both from the ancient city of Ur in what is now Iraq.

Straws didn’t become popular again until mid-19th-century America. Cocktail culture was thriving and rye straws (made from rye grain) were used to sip spirits from drinks that were packed with ice, fruit, and mint. The sherry cobbler, one of the most popular cocktails of the mid-19th century — made from sherry, sugar, and citrus — became famous in part because a straw was needed to drink it.

Paper straws were first developed at the turn of the 20th century as a “cheap, durable, and unobjectionable alternative to natural straws,” in the words of inventor Martin Stone, for use in soda fountains. They were originally made with waxed manila paper to replicate the color of rye straws. Today, paper straws masquerade in the bright colors of mid-20th-century plastic straws, and some businesses are returning to using straw straws as an environmentally conscious option.