The History of the American Kitchen Sink.
It's about time
we recognize the dishwasher!
Humans are notorious inventors. We have invented all kinds of things over the past 100 years. Humans are also very single minded most of the time. It is only a noted few who think outside the box. Those humans are called eccentric; sometimes they are kindly called visionaries. In any event, the vast population of humans is incredibly talented at refining inventions; few are talented or successful at changing paradigms. Allow me to illustrate. Let’s take the automobile for example. I believe Mercedes Benz was the very first automobile invented, well over 100 years ago. It not only amazes me, but it frustrates me to realize that we are still driving that same invention – merely refined, not re-invented. We are still using a piston engine, gasoline sucking vehicle. Is there no one who can realize that this is 100 year old technology, and the time has come to make a radical change? Yes, finally there is a visionary that bucked the system. His name is Elon Musk. In March of 2019, a world record was made. It was the first time that an all electric car manufacturer outsold EVERY other car manufacturer in a month. I happen to have purchased one of his early Model X "computer on wheels" in 2016 and have over 30,000 miles of mostly autonomous driving and three years of fun.
With the onset of running water, the kitchen sink became one of the most important and contemporary appliances in the home, second in line to the stove. Numerous activities were performed at the kitchen sink: food was washed and prepared; many household chores were also completed there. As a result of its conventional significance, the sink was built characteristically large in size and suspended on a wall or set atop some sort of floor support. Also influential to its design was the absence of the counter top. As such, the sink was a stand-alone appliance. It featured a full backsplash and wall-mounted faucet, resembling a trough, in-depth and width what we now call Farm Sinks. Despite its hefty appearance, comfort was integral to sink design especially since a great deal of time was spent in the kitchen by the lady of the house.
Let's look at the structural dynamics of the first modern sinks. Living in the early days was no easy task. Women bore the difficulties of backbreaking and time-consuming domestic duties such as cooking, laundry, gardening, and cleaning. The Amish of today, still work like that. Anything to ease their stress was welcomed. Unbeknown to them, simple ergonomics were employed in the production of the original Farm sinks: proportionate user height and sink depth. As there was no standard for countertop heights, each sink was naturally placed at a height convenient to the user. Accordingly, it was customary to see sinks with varying heights from home to home. A tall user would have a sink installed higher off the ground and vice versa. Common sense dictated the installation. Additionally, in the absence of the counter top., the user was able to stand directly in front of the sink, preventing any unnecessary bending to reach into the sink. The sinks were not especially deep as a very deep sink would be difficult for both a short and tall user. Choices were limited back then, unlike today. In a way, that was a good thing. Virtually all of the installations could have been installed at a height comfortable to the user. That is certainly not the case now.
Let us consider ergonomics for a minute. Ergonomics is the applied science of equipment design, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. In the case of sinks, the height of a person, whether they're right or left-handed and even their family size is taken into account in the design process. All of these things directly affect sink depth, drain location and more importantly, the comfort of the user. The most comfortable position for any standing individual is generally upright, hands to the side. Once the hands are extended forward, discomfort builds. The further forward you have to reach, discomfort multiplies. The same applies to bending at the waist. Couple both adverse situations and the end result is a prescription for back pain.
Believe it or not, the advent of the kitchen countertop impaired the ergonomic advantages of the original Farm Sink. How can that be?
When we entered the age of mass production kitchen sinks and kitchen cabinets could finally be built by the thousands, at a fraction of the cost of earlier methods. Kitchen cabinets were now standardized and built-in production facilities, prompting the use of countertops with integral sinks. So, what is wrong with that you ask? Those uniformed kitchen cabinets were perfect for a select group of people; those who measured 5'4 to 5'10 in height. You see, all kitchen cabinets and appliances were originally designed for a base height of 34 1/2" plus the thickness of the countertop. An industry standard that has never changed, and will likely never change - even though we are getting taller each generation. Secondly, sinks that were installed in a countertop required a significant amount of countertop space in front of and behind the sink to account for the stability of the countertop. This required that the sink recede, away from the user, causing the user to bend significantly more at the waist in order to work in the sink. Moreover, metal was a very expensive product during this phase of our history. Hence metal sinks were shallow in depth, to save on cost. This was ideal for some but not nearly as efficient as the deeper sinks of times past. Later, the double bowl sink was invented. This presented a very resourceful way to wash dishes. Dirty dishes could soak in one bowl filled with hot, soapy water, while the other would contain clean water for rinsing. The double bowl sink has been the mainstay of the American kitchen for decades now. Partly due to the fact that we, as humans, have a tendency to take familiar objects and transform them into an even better looking product, frequently placing a great deal of limitations on ergonomic or functional design. A good and somewhat humorous example is that of the horse saddle. It was ideal in the faculty of riding horses but with the invention of the bicycle, it was subsequently modified into a saddle or seat for the bicycle. To this day, the bicycle seat is referred to as a saddle and provides little or no comfort to the rider. Joel Barker recently invented a new seat for the bicycle (he owns the patent on it). It features two pads (one for each cheek) that pivot slightly forward and backward, synchronized with the natural motion produced by pedaling. It is called the Easy Seat. Perhaps you have seen it for sale in the Sky Mall magazine found on most aircraft. Did it catch on? Nope! Now we are essentially stuck in an old paradigm and prefer the discomfort of a refined horse saddle made to fit a bicycle. A similar situation occurred with the American kitchen sink. We designed a Double Bowl sink to wash and rinse our dishes, pots, and pans. Once the dishwasher was conceived, it seemed that we forgot to redesign the sink and became complacent for quite some time. For over 90% of today users, the need for a Double Bowl sink has become unnecessary. Yet, most manufacturers continue to build them. Others have recognized the futility and developed a few interesting refinements such as the bowl and a half sink, or the bowl and a quarter sink. These double bowl sinks feature a very large bowl on one side and a small or tiny bowl on the adjacent side. Generally, it is expected that the garbage disposer will be installed on the smaller side. Back in 1998 I contacted all of the major sink manufacturers and suggested they consider making single bowl sinks with rear corner drains. Virtually none of them had any interest. I found a company to build these sinks for me and eventually opened my own factory bulding them myself. Oddly enough, every sink company that I contacted back then is offering single bowl sinks with rear corner drains! I also pioneered the first workstation sink. The Galley Sink company followed shortly after, and they have the most amazing marketing department I have seen in this business. I have to say I am quite jealous! Kohler followed shortly after and then just about all sink companies seemed to find workstation sinks were the way of the future.
Let's get back to ergonomics! Today, the farm sink, as long as it offers a relatively small distance from its front to the bowl, Custom sink manufacturers, like we are, can offer different heights and drain locations to significantly and positively affect the user comfort becoming as comfortable as its predecessor. Individuals designing custom kitchens now often opt for a custom sink as it offers the user a significant amount of added comfort. Remember when we talked about the most comfortable standing position? Well, where the water drops in a sink is the defined work area of that sink which correlates directly with individual stance and overall comfort. If you have to extend far away, and bend at the waist to work under the water, a backache is assuredly in the making. The custom sink offers three ergonomic advantages: front-to-back customizing based on faucet selection and the height of the user, tailored depth based on user height and drain location based on the handedness of the user. How are these improvements delivered by the custom sink? Simple, a determination of the faucet type and location will give the sink designer 50% of the information required. Knowledge of the height of the user is the other 50%. Equipped with this information, a fairly accurate conclusion can be made as to the appropriate front-to-back dimension that will support water release at a convenient location for the user. The height of the user also determines bowl depth which is also important. A very deep sink will be extremely uncomfortable for a short user. He or she will experience difficulty reaching the bottom of the sink. Likewise, a tall user will find a deep sink intolerable. The extra bending required to reach the bottom will certainly become a lower backache at some point. Thus, a relatively shallow sink is recommended for a short or tall user. There are certain consistencies that hold true with regard to user height and sink depth: a person measuring 5.5 to about 510 in height can handle a slightly deeper sink, as it is easier for them to reach the sink bottom without having to bend at the waist as much as a taller person.
When shopping for a sink, it will be helpful to keep the following depth considerations in mind. Single bowl sinks with rear corner drains should not be deeper than 8" if under mounted. Single bowl sinks with center drains or rear center drains can be deeper because the drain location precludes much work done at the bottom of the sink. Double bowl sinks need to be deeper because cookie sheets and larger items do not fit inside the bowl completely, so they must be washed fitting partly inside the bowl - hence deep bowls are a must.
Drain location has been pre-conditioned by mass production entities for quite some time. They maintained that a center drain was deemed perfect, suitable for a right or left-handed user, providing an equal amount of comfort. The fact that most sinks featured a drain dead center was, in my opinion, the creation of men and women who had never cooked or cleaned a dish. There is no logical reason what-so-ever for having a center drain. The drain should be located in the rear of the sink. This pushes the plumbing back to the rear of the cabinet creating increased usable space inside the sink cabinet. Secondly, the rear drain offers a greater expanse of uncluttered floor space inside the sink. Place a large platter or pot inside a sink with a center drain and watch the sink begin to fill with water because the platter or pot is plugging the drain. Custom sink design offers a drain placement based on the handedness of the user. In order to fully appreciate this, close your eyes and picture yourself scraping a dish of unwanted food into the sinks garbage disposer. If you are right-handed, you will undoubtedly be holding the dish in your left hand. You will scrape the dish with your right hand. Notice the direction of the movement of your right hand, leading from the back then moving towards the right. Now, does it not make sense that the garbage disposer is located in the right rear corner? The converse holds true for the left-handed user. Custom sink owners are on the rise and can testify to the significance of the above benefits. They liken the difference to the feel of tailored garments versus off-the-rack clothing. Not surprisingly, custom sinks are generally a great deal more expensive than mass produced sinks, however, it is possible to find a mass-produced sink with some of the features required for added comfort. Whatever your preference, it is my hope that this account will at least enhance personal perspective. As with all things, history exists to teach by example, through refinement and innovation intrinsic to the generation of today.