A Look Back in History: Victorian dumb-waiters of the Pa Dutch people

The rather large dumbwaiter in the Victorian wing of the 1804 Town Crier’s Home measures 6’7 tall with 20.5” deep shelves holding an astounding number of pies. Note the mechanics up above.
The rather large dumbwaiter in the Victorian wing of the 1804 Town Crier’s Home measures 6’7 tall with 20.5” deep shelves holding an astounding number of pies. Note the mechanics up above. Submitted photo

Nowhere were 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” (housewives) 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 two hundred year old farms, these native farm women earned a reputation for being excellent Americana cooks, a 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 that 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.

I was told how often the late famed Berks County potter, 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 Pennsylvania Dutch family consumed 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. and generations ago in an outdoor bakeoven, or in lucky, one which was attached to the home.

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 housewife was clever enough to bake additional baked 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 already 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 wing kitchen attached to the 1804 historic stone masoned mansion on West Main Street.

Since Conrad Cupp, the Town’s Crier, was also the clerk of the Kutztown village market listed in 1817, it is very likely that his wife, Eva was one of those gifted PA Dutch bakers since the dumb-waiter in the Victorian brick wing of the Town Crier’s house was still in excellent shape, 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 and other goods had been torn down years ago.

Mrs. Cupp and later occupants must have been the envy of Kutztown housewives since her dumb-waiter allowed her quick access to the large ground cellar below for storing pies in her cellar pie cupboard, and the door of the portable dumb waiter compartment also contained an ironing board which was hinged shut when not in use. Her particular dumb-waiter consisted of seven shelves, many of which were narrow, but the proper height for shoofly pie or AP cake, leading one to believe that Mrs. Cupp and perhaps later owners 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.