The Community Kitchen
“A four-course dinner delivered for $0.85… Wouldn’t it be ideal if at the end of a long day, the person responsible for the evening meal could make a telephone call and have a complete four-course dinner, not of the fast food variety, delivered to the kitchen ready to serve? In the early 1920’s Evanstonians could do just that for the modest price of only 85 cents per person. These meals were provided by the Evanston Community Kitchen, which originated as an experiment in cooperative housekeeping that drew nationwide attention to the city of Evanston. At one time as many as 150 families relied on this centralized cooking facility to deliver dinner every night. The women who initiated it saw it as a way to liberate women from the kitchen.
The idea for such a home-delivery service began just after the First World War. In the summer of 1918 the Evanston Woman’s Club, as well as organizations throughout the United States, was concerned about conserving food for the war effort. As part of their contribution, the club’s members canned seven thousand jars of fruits and vegetables, much of it coming from local wartime gardens. Half of the jars were donated to various charitable institutions, and the rest were sold, resulting in a net profit of two-hundred and fifty dollars for the club’s War Emergency Fund. The Federal Government rated this conservation kitchen as the most efficient in the nation.
In October of that year, Evanston faced its own emergency. The terrible Spanish influenza epidemic had reached Northern Illinois, and thousands pf people were too ill to take care of themselves. In many families all the adults were sick, and no help could be hired to care for the children. For two weeks, the Woman’s Club operated an emergency kitchen, serving an average of two hundred meals daily.
With the success of these two ventures, the club became interested in one of the most pressing problems of the post-war era. During the war many servants had been lured away from their jobs by higher paying employment, and they showed little inclination to return to the long hours and drudgery of domestic service. This left many families, long accustomed to household help, without anyone to perform tasks which, without the machines we are aided by today, took many more hours. This was especially hard on young mothers, who had the additional burden of caring for small children.
The Woman’s Club was worried about the results this “servant problem” could have on the future of the city and its family life. Many people were selling their houses and moving into the apartment buildings that were being constructed. Increasing numbers of families with older children dined in hotels, restaurants, or cafes, completely giving up the idea of a family dinner table. There was wide-spread concern that these trends would lead to the disintegration of the family. The club members knew that other cities in the United States had attempted to solve the problem of servantless homes by establishing centralized kitchens, A committee was appointed to see if such a solution would work in Evanston. Mrs. James Odell, Mrs. Rufas Dawes, and Mrs. Homer H. Kingsley, wife of public elementary school superintendent, were placed in charge of the investigation.
Hoping to arouse public interest, the club’s first step was to invite Charlotte Perkins Gilman to speak to its members on “The Waste of Woman’s Labor” in which she emphasized the centralized kitchen. At that time communal cooking was a radical idea, and many people were scandalized by it. Undaunted by this reaction, the club decided to send its committee to the East, where such kitchens could be observed. It returned convinced that Evanston could benefit from such a service.
Before a centralized kitchen could be set up, however, the problem of safely delivering the food and keeping it hot had to solved. The committee approached several firms and did much testing of thermal containers, but all were found lacking. They finally found a manufacturer with whom they worked to design their own glass-lined and metal container. It was composed of four inserts which could be filled and stacked, and an outer cover which was slipped over them. With this device, food could be kept piping hot up to five hours.
The original location of the kitchen was in the Woman’s Club basement. It was equipped with the most modern appliances of the day and employed six professionally trained cooks and another six helpers. All the meals were prepared in accordance with the latest theories in home economics, which at that time was just beginning to be studied on a scientific basis. A special van delivered the dinners at about five o’clock in the afternoon. The patrons were usually given a choice of entrée, and larger portions were allocated to adult males. Those who did not want home delivery could buy a variety of home cooked foods and baked goods over the counter.
The Community Kitchen did not pretend to be for everyone. It was not intended for families of limited means or for the rich, but for those middle class families who could afford servants, but could not find them. It was also thought to be a boon to the new class of working women. From the very beginning the experiment was such a success that it was written up by magazines and newspapers all over the country. Soon Mrs. Odell was traveling extensively, lecturing to woman’s clubs and Chautauqua audiences on the advantages of the centralized kitchen. Restaurant, hotel, hospital, school and public officials visited the Evanston facility.
By 1920 the Community Kitchen had outgrown the Woman’s Club basement, and in the early spring it moved to new quarters at 1519 Chicago Avenue. Sometime later, Mrs. Odell bought the kitchen and equipment and continued to run it as a business enterprise. By the mid-twenties the servant problem had become less acute, and the home delivery of meals was gradually discontinued as the need for it ceased. The desire for over the counter goods remained strong, however, and the Community Kitchen continued to serve Evanston until 1951, first under the direction of Mrs. Odell, and then under her daughter Mrs. Elizabeth Odell Welch.”
– Written by B. Kehoe
From: The Evanston Historical Society Newsletter Vol. XI, no. 1 January-February 1980
Source: Aunt Harriet, who included the original article with her memoir, The Odell Family
The Evanston History Center
A copy of this newsletter accompanied Aunt Harriet’s Odell Family History manuscript
* Mrs. Odell is my great-grandmother and Mrs. James Elizabeth Odell Welch is my grandmother. To find out more about how this project started, read the About the Author tab at the top of the page. Thank you for visiting The Community Kitchen.