Carthage’s Cooperative Kitchen

In the late 19th and early 20th century many Americans were experiencing a revolution in their kitchens. Changes in industry and the workforce, a more mobile and ethnically/racially diverse population, and a burgeoning middle class meant that there were more options and demands for new meals yet traditional methods for making them were changing or no longer available.

“Young Americans regularly found themselves living far from friends and relatives who otherwise might have offered help with cooking questions,” writes Helen Zoe Veit. And in her book “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal” Abigail Carroll argues a disappearing servant class, new affordable kitchen technology, and an industrial food-processing industry all had dramatic changes on meals after the Civil War.

And with all of these changes, American society responded with a variety of solutions. Cookbooks standardized meals and made culinary knowledge widely accessible. Home economics rose as a field to teach people to be more efficient and self-reliant in their own kitchens. And in many cases, as Carrol writes, women were expected to take greater responsibility for meals in their roles as housewives. The housewife now needed to “take on the work of the servant, turn it into a domestic science, and embark on it with cheerfulness and proficiency- all without remuneration.”

And indeed, many of these solutions were adopted widely and we still see them today. But there is one solution that seems to have been rather short lived that interests me. As I was reading Carrol’s book recently, I was struck by this brief paragraph:

Why not centralize cooking? Wondered women fed up with inept help who had no intention of assuming kitchen responsibilities themselves. In a cooperative arrangement, each member would take turns preparing an evening meal or contribute resources toward the hiring of a professional cook…Take, for example, a dining club established in 1907 in Carthage, Missouri. Members rented a clapboard house and outfitted it to accommodate dinner for sixty.

Valentine Democrat (Nebraska), January 27, 1910. Chronicling America.

What an idea, the possibilities! Can you imagine not needing to cook at home ever? Or living in a house that doesn’t even have a kitchen?

Partially because I would love to participate in a cooperative meal program like this and partially because my wife is from a town very close to Carthage (and I’ve been there several times), I was intrigued. And so, naturally, I had to learn more.

So I hunted down the primary sources and its just as cool as it sounds.

Carthage, Missouri’s Cooperative Kitchen doesn’t seem to have had a formal name, but it was operated by middle-class residents of the town from 1907-1911. Inspired by author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her view that housework was oppressive and harmed women’s mental health, families in Carthage organized the kitchen in a building on the edge of town.

The kitchen was the brainchild of Helen McGee, who later told reporters “one day, when a lot of us were together, I said: ‘Girls, I’ve got it; let’s start a co-operative kitchen- hire one set of servants, buy all our food supplies in lump, eat in one dining rood, get rid of cooking and dish washing, live better and spend less money…’ If I only had the power to make all men and women understand the simplicity of co-operation…this old world would be 100 per cent happier.”

When it was open, the kitchen was able to offer affordable meals and a social space for town residents, and it was hailed nationally as a progressive achievement and sign of better things to come for the American family.

Here’s what one report, written by Blanche McNerney in a 1910 edition of the Journal of Home Economics had to say about the Cooperative Kitchen:

In Carthage, Missouri, there was an energetic woman; there was the approaching heat of summer; and there was the anticipation of many pleasures cut short by the ever-present problem of keeping peace in the family by having meals on time. The energetic woman suggested to her friends of the neighborhood that they try an experiment. She proposed the “cooperative kitchen” as an agreeable and easy way of solving the food and servant question for the summer months.

The plan evolved and tried with success was as follows: A vacant house in the neighborhood was rented for four months, and a woman of ability found who would act as general manager and overseer of the servants. The house was a large, cheerful, old fashioned, colonial house with a huge yard filled with large oak shade trees, and with a very attractive veranda on two sides. The attractiveness of this spot increased the pleasure of those who might arrive before meals, or of any who wished to remain afterward.

Ripley County Democrat, December 16, 1910. Chronicling America.

The whole first floor was given over to the dining room and kitchen. The second floor furnished quarters for the manager and her family, while the third floor was devoted to servant’s quarters. Later, when it was made sure that the plan was to succeed, and the “kitchen” was to continue through the winter months, the extra rooms were rented to school teachers. This, of course, was a great accommodation to the teachers and a great help to the prosperity of the “kitchen.”

The original plan had been to include on the families within a radius of a block, but as time passed and the success of the scheme was assured, some bachelors and teachers applied for places. Although the house was located some blocks from the business section, it was very convenient to the car-line.

Each family having membership in this “kitchen” was to furnish its own table, table linen, silver, and any delicacies, such as preserves, jellies, etc. which give the meal an individual and homelike character. The rooms were large and the distance between the tables was sufficient to insure privacy of conversation if the voices were kept comparatively low. The bachelor’s table was fitted out by the manager- the men gladly paying for the necessary equipment.

It is not so difficult a matter to keep servants in such an establishment as in a private home, since the wages are good, there are several servants, and no chance for lonesomeness, and, although the hours may be long, every servant has two hours a day off duty, and a half day every other week. There are two cooks, a head cook and her assistant, a dishwasher, and the waitresses who belong to the regular corps of the “kitchen.” On alternate Sunday afternoons the waitresses are given a vacation and the children are allowed to assist the manager in serving the lunch for that evening.

Detroit Times, August 23, 1911. Chronicling America.

The manager is a woman of much ability who understands the scientific value of food. She prepares the menu, purchases the groceries, buying them in large quantities which of course lessens the price, and with the assistance of a board, composed of members of the “kitchen,” attends to the financial problems of the establishment.

The scheme of these Carthaginians is, perhaps, not entirely practical for those families with small children, unless the baby can be left with the nurse while the mother is gone. The nurse under such circumstances may take her meal later.

The “kitchen” has now been in working order for two years. The summer months are by far the most prosperous. Of late, the membership has been decreasing, due, perhaps, to the home instinct which prevails in most men. A business man usually prefers the quiet seclusion of the family dining room, and the more delicate dishes prepared to please him, to the large room with many tables and the comparatively unappetizing dishes prepared in large quantities. The first evil could be done away with by renting a whole dining-room, but the people who have this “kitchen” in charge are of moderate means and one object in the plan was to lessen expense. In such a place as the “kitchen,” however, the greatest amount of skill and the most careful supervision will not suffice to keep down the gradual tendency toward the regular boarding-house style.

The financial side of the problem has worked out in a manner entirely satisfactory to all concerned. Each adult member pays $3.50 a week, and a half price rate is given to children between two and seven years of age, and to family servants who do not require service. The following table of incomes and expenses for January, 1910, will furnish a very good idea of the finances. This month was an exceedingly trying one and expenses and incomes barely balance.

Carthage’s kitchen caught the attention of several other writers and home economists who wrote about its success and challenges. As with other cooperative kitchens started in St. Louis, Ann Arbor, and Evanston, Illinois, these articles tried to describe their work in ways that could be replicated by readers in their own neighborhoods. Here are some excerpts from a 1910 article in The World’s Work by E. Blair Wall, a Carthage resident and member of the kitchen:

We’ve got a new auto, but my wife cannot go out with me or learn to run it. She is always cooking, or has just cooked, or is just going to cook, or is too tired from cooking. It there’s a way out of this, with something to eat still in sight, for Heaven’s sake, tell us!”

This wail of our ex-Senator was interrupted by a suffering and skeptical mine-operator: “Never to hear a word about servants that have just left, or are here, or are coming to-morrow- perhaps! If you’ve got something, you’ll have to show us. We’re in Missouri, and we’re ready for anything!

The women were slower- maybe the dream was too beautiful. But they called a meeting of the interested people and organized a Cooperative Kitchen. The men took charge. The Kitchen was started with a membership of sixty people.

Two cooks, two waitresses, and a dishwasher constitute the working force, but an extra waitress is necessary in serving dinner. Oddly enough, the dishwasher is the most difficult to keep. Our dishwashers, with most discouraging unanimity, “gave notice” on the second day. A substantial increase in wages finally solved the problem….

The menus planned by the manager are surprising for the price. She buys in quantities, of course, so is able to command wholesale rates. Even that fact, though, in this reign of high prices hardly explains the Kitchen bills-of-faire. For instance, this is what we had yesterday:

Breakfast: Cereals, Tea, Cocoa, Coffee, Hot Cakes, Delicious Broiled Ham, Lyonnaise Potatoes. (Children may have eggs, milk, or cereals at any meal. Eggs and bacon are frequently served for breakfast.)

Luncheon: Chicken Salad, Macaroni and Cheese, Hot Biscuits, Apple Sauce and Gingerbread, Tea, Chocolate, Coffee. (As a rule, luncheon is planned with particular thought for the children. Dessert is rarely served at luncheon.)

Dinner: Broiled Porterhouse Steak, Stuffed Bakes Potatoes, Home-made Boston Baked Beans, Home-made Boston Brown Bread, Lettuce, French Dressing, Blanc-mange, Orange Sauce, Coffee.

Our manager has made a study of the nutritive quality and combination of meals to be served. Economical managing of what might otherwise be food-waste has had full consideration.

Detroit Times, August 23, 1911. Chronicling America.

Another large factor of our success is the true spirit of cooperation that prevails. If a light or grate-fire is burning uselessly, a member turns it off with never a thought that such leaks should be watched by somebody. In the matter of meals it is accepted that the food requirements of the greatest number must control; yet the personal “notions” are regarded to an extent that would be impossible except under the most home-like conditions.

Our social evenings are impromptu, as a rule. A dance for the children of the Kitchen and their little friends was one of our record events. Birthday dinners are celebrated, and evenings for friends promise to grow more frequent in the future.

One Carthaginian turned the light of his wit and his keen power of sarcasm on the Kitchen while it was a mere toddling, stumbling thing in its infancy. With an emphasis quite indescribable, he christened it “The Home of the Help-less.” But at the beginning of the last quarter this gentleman applied for memberships for himself and his wife. Last night he was heard to say, with a depth of meaning not to be limited:

“Think of it! THINK OF IT!” I haven’t heard a word about the servants we couldn’t get for three, long, l-o-v-e-l-y months!” He tipped back on the wide veranda and bit off a cigar emphatically: “I’m down as a life-member, let me tell you right now! The meals may be plain, but they are balanced. The quality makes up for any amount of frills and trimming. Besides, they keep a man in shape. He forgets what he has eaten when it leaves him comfortable. You couldn’t get me out of this thing! No more caressing the stomach for mine!

Though it was popular with the members, the kitchen did ultimately fail and folded in 1911. The reasons for its demise are several. A contemporary critic wrote in 1919 “its failure was attributed to the steady rise in price of materials and labor.” Historian Dolores Hayden simply attributed it as a consequence of a drought that raised food prices. In her summation, the concept was sound but it was unforeseen events that killed the kitchen. Abigail Carroll cites more complex factors that plagued all cooperative kitchen attempts like Carthage:

The reasons for the failure are no mystery. From a purely practical perspective, those who supported the idea of cooperative housekeeping could rarely reconcile the cost of three and four course dinners- the middle class standard of the era- with their reluctance to divert a greater portion of their incomes to the cause. From an ideological perspective, cooperative housekeeping disrupted traditional gender roles. Cooking for family had become such an important part of women’s identity (even if servants shouldered much of the actual work) that critics of both sexes saw meals prepared in a cooperative housekeeping situation as evidence of a homemaker’s negligence. Finally, cooking and eating dinner with family members in the privacy of an autonomous household had become a fundamental expression of American individualism, and cooperative housekeeping was simply incompatible with this ideal.

There was no way the Carthage Kitchen could ever cross these mountainous obstacles, as it were, and survive.

Rich Hill Tribune, June 9, 1910. Chronicling America.

Though it was relatively short-lived, the kitchen seems to have made an impact on the community in its time and served as an inspiration to other cooperative efforts around that time. As far away as Florida women’s clubs and other civic groups were discussing the Carthage Kitchen. Carthage got people’s attention, and made them think of the possibilities of cooperative food service.

Reading about the Carthage Kitchen makes me think of other cooperative activities that Americans have used historically to help themselves and their neighbors In 1930s Harlem, Black renters hosted rent parties to help cover the expensive cost of living. Langston Hughes, who attended many parties himself, said the parties were the product of high cost of living and inflation caused by the Great Depression. They disappeared in the 1940s, but returned after the war and through the 1950s when prices rose again.

A c. 1935 rent party card collected by Langston Hughes. Yale University.

And during the Depression the “Self-Help Cooperative Movement” also arose in Los Angles and spread nationwide to exchange labor for food and other goods to unemployed workers. But the movement died in the early 1940s due to political in-fighting and a return of jobs during World War II.

In our own century, mutual-aid networks have arisen in response to the covid pandemic (though mutual-aid has very, very long history). Will mutual-aid groups survive after the pandemic?

These cooperative efforts all seem to have been borne out of disaster- people who couldn’t pay the bills or find work created these things out of desperation with few other options. But perhaps the Carthage Kitchen was also a product of desperate times, albeit on a middle-class scale (founder Helen McGee was a member of a family that made a comfortable living off the real estate business). The lack of servants and prospects of women spending hours on end to feed their families were a “horrid nightmare” to the well-off families of Carthage.

So does this mean cooperative efforts only succeed in desperate times? And Americans will always abandon them when they can afford to live and work on their own? Maybe this is simplifying too much, but I think it’s worth thinking about. How can we make cooperative things sustainable in good times and bad?

If you’re interested in learning more about cooperative kitchens, check out Chapter 4 of Carroll’s Three Squares for more on Carthage and its companion kitchens. Or the writings of Dolores Hayden, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or Edward Bellamy. There were also a ton of early 20th century articles published in home economics and women’s journals that are easy to find online. Just try searching phrases like “cooperative kitchen” or “shared house work” and you should find several. Here’s one on starting your own kitchen published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1919 that I enjoyed.

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