A Look Back in History: Victorian dumbwaiters of the Pa Dutch People

Dumbwaiter in the Victorian wing of the 1804 Town Crierís Home measures 6í7 tall with 20.5î deep shelves holding a number of pies.
Submitted Dumbwaiter in the Victorian wing of the 1804 Town Crierís Home measures 6í7 tall with 20.5î deep shelves holding a number of pies.

Nowhere are there as many early American bakers and cooks than in the rural PA Dutch Country, where housewives had to feed large families of farm children, not to mention hired farm hands and extra helpers at harvest time. These self-sufficient “Haus Fraus” (house wives) had traditional large kitchens in which they fed the household at long kitchen tables, where they also prepared these large meals.

After a tedious working day on their one or 200 year old farms, these native farm women earned a reputation for being excellent Americana cooks; way of life which became a unique expertise in the annals of American home cooking. So unique that cabinetmakers of the PA Dutch Country created pierced tin pie cupboards for their needs in feeding such very large families, which were hung in the cellars of the farm homes where the pies were kept cool, enabling the wife to feed her family all week long.

Lester P. Breininger, a beloved rural Dutchman, often quipped that the “P.” in his middle name stood for pie, since he was a born and raised Dutchman who loved eating pie which sustained his productive life. But there is no getting around it; the average PA Dutch family consumes a volume of homemade pies with a variety of ingredients. Friday was the traditional day of the week that the Haus Frau baked her pies, bread, and cakes, etc.

Since farmers always brought home a large bag of flour when they made their weekly trips to the local gristmill, farmwives usually had enough flour to bake for their weekly needs. Quite often the ingenious house wife was clever enough to bake additional bake goods that could be given to friends or sold at their farmhouse driveway in order to put extra cash in the family’s cookie jar.


However, when the Victorian period of time occurred, PA Dutch cooks whose gift at baking was well known decided to have a Victorian dumb-waiter installed in the Victorian home of their kitchen. In this way, they accessed their large tin pierced or screened pie cupboard down in the cellar hung from the cellar rafters. A thrifty cook could make a large number of baked goods and store them away in the cellar by a dumb-waiter mechanism that easily allowed her to bake a quantity and hide them out of sight until she wanted to sell them or entertain extra company. This must have been the case of the Kutztown’s Town Crier’s Victorian kitchen attached to the 1804 historic stone masoned mansion on Main Street.

Since Conrad Cupp was also the clerk of the Kutztown village market and Town Crier in 1817, it is very likely that his wife, Eva was one of those gifted PA Dutch bakers since the dumbwaiter in the Victorian brick wing of the Town Crier’s house was still in excellent shape when I bought it, as well as the five fireplaces that once heated this home. But the ancient bake oven that was attached to the original kitchen walk-in fireplace in which she baked her pies, etc. had been torn down years ago.

Mrs. Cupp and later occupants, must have been the envy of Kutztown housewives since her dumbwaiter allowed her quick access to the large ground cellar below for storing pies in her cellar pie cupboard but the door of the portable dumbwaiter compartment also contained an ironing board which was hinged shut when not in use. The dumbwaiter consisted of seven shelves, many of which were narrow the proper height for shoofly pie or AP cake, leading one to believe that Mrs. Cupp or a later owner were outstanding bakers. The carved open case staircase leading upstairs may possibly have been for a border or guests in the later Victorian period of Kutztown.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.