Skip to Main Content

McGuffey House Architecture: Kitchen


The kitchen was used primarily for cooking, food preparation, and quite possibly for domestic laundry chores. We do know the south wall behind the hutch conceals a brick fireplace [Figure 1] that has since been sealed awaiting future restoration. This fireplace would have served several purposes - providing heat in the winter, a chimney flue for cooking, and a place to boil water for laundry, bathing, and general house cleaning needs.

Kitchen Fireplace

Figure 1: Partially Exposed Fireplace
McGuffey Museum October 2001


Where did the McGuffeys get their water? One source that we can say with certainty is the cistern [Figures 2, 3] located beneath the side porch. This beehive-shaped, brick-lined reservoir probably held between 500 to 1000 gallons of rainwater that was captured by wooden gutters and tin downspouts. There would have been an iron pump used to draw the water from the cistern.

In 1877, an article entitled, "Cisterns for Storing Rain Water," advised that cisterns "should be constructed of the most durable materials... Good, hard-burned brick, laid in hydraulic cement, is the best material." It is also quite likely there was a hand-dug well located at the rear of the house, but not too far from the kitchen. It is worth noting pails of water were heavy [a gallon of water is 8 lb.], so the wells needed to be close to home.


Figure 2: Excavation of McGuffey House
Cistern, March 2001

Coal Cookstoves

Initial open fireplaces used cordwood as the primary heating and cooking fuel, but by the 1840s small cast iron stoves [Figure 4] manufactured in Cincinnati and Hamilton were widely used for heat and cooking. By 1859, when the Junction Railroad connected Hamilton and Oxford, coal would have begun displacing wood as the primary domestic fuel source. Soft coal was being mined in eastern Ohio as early as the 1830s and shipped down the Ohio River by barge to Cincinnati. You will note the cast iron mantel and decorative fireplace cover in the History Room were specifically made for coal-burning fireplaces.

Cookstove 1860

Figure 4: Cookstove
Williams Cincinnati Directory 1860

Summer Kitchens

It would have been unusual for most Oxford residents to have had a separate summer kitchen. Summer kitchens were a rural southern and Germanic immigrant tradition and most non-Germanic people living in Ohio who had migrated from Pennsylvania, such as the McGuffeys [Scottish heritage] did not traditionally use summer kitchens. Most cooking was done in the house or even in the basement, where there is another fireplace directly below this one. (Chrisholm Farm, part of a German Mennonite settlement near Trenton, had a large, two-story summer kitchen behind the main farmhouse.)


Behind the plexiglas you will notice the ghost profile of the set of stairs [Figure 5] that once descended it into the kitchen away from the door. A late 19th century butler's pantry was removed and the original stairwell configuration was restored during the renovation. We have preserved this ghost remnant as a way visually indicating the profile of the lower stair when rehabilitation of the house began. We believe the boxed staircase now follows the same profile when the McGuffeys were in residence. The simple paneled woodwork is typical of the Federal vernacular style.

The cut lumber would have been brought by wagon to the house where carpenters using hand planes would have made the molding profiles. Behind this wood surface are 18" vertical boards. This wood was cut from virgin timber that began life as seedlings ca. 1700! Also notice the footstep wear on the risers toward the upper section of the staircase. These are the same stairs William Holmes McGuffey would have descended when he taught lessons to his pupils on the side porch.

Some of you may wonder why the staircase is so steep and narrow. The stairwell is extremely confining, so small, the stair treads are only 29 inches wide and 9 inches deep. Part of this can be explained by the fact that interior space was at a premium, so builders were reluctant to "waste" valuable floor space on large stairways. This staircase was also intended exclusively for domestic use; guest and special visitors would have used the more formal front staircase. Today's architects tell us no building code in America would permit such a staircase to be constructed.

Kitchen Stairs

Figure 5: Kitchen Stairs
(Federal Vernacular Style Staircase)

Woodwork and Trim

The original kitchen retains much of its Federal style woodwork and trim. Note the narrow moldings that frame the doorways and compare these to the more robust moldings in the rest of the house. These moldings are most likely original to the house and would have been milled locally or even on site. Along the east wall of the kitchen is a section of wood molding that is called a chair rail [Figure 6]. The chairrail helped protect the plaster wall surfaces from encroaching chairbacks and also adds a measure of visual interest to the room. The portion where the chairrail has been cutout is where a partition wall was formerly located.

Kitchen Chair rail

Figure 6: Chair rail


Throughout the house there are small windows above the doors. These are called transoms [Figure 7]. Transoms served both a functional and aesthetic purpose. When opened, transom windows allowed for better air circulation during Oxford's hot summer months and also allowed more light into the house's interior.

You will also note the door leading into the Library is considerably larger than the other doors. The door facing present-day Oak Street originally had an uninterrupted view to the street and was most likely the side door to the house, while the present-day door to the north facing Spring Street would have in all likelihood been the formal entrance to the house. This makes sense, since the north elevation faced Miami's campus and Spring Street, the primary street bordering the south side of the original campus.

Transom Window

Figure 7: Transoms

Soffits and Faux Graining

The section of wood panels within the door frame between the kitchen and the dining room is called a soffit [Figure 8]. You will observe that some of the white paint in the soffit has been removed, showing a gold-colored paint below. This paint is called faux graining [Figure 9] because of the way it imitated real wood grain.

This faux graining technique was very popular during the 19th century. One of the best instances of faux grained woodwork in the area can be seen on the William Howard Taft Birthplace National Historical Site in Cincinnati. This museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year.

Paneled Soffit

Figure 8: Soffit

Faux Graining

Figure 9: Faux Graining

Stephen Gordon, Curator
Fall 2006

Continue to Brickwork

William Holmes McGuffey House and Museum

We aim to collect, preserve, interpret, and exhibit materials relating to the life of William Holmes McGuffey, the McGuffey Eclectic Reader series, the history of Miami University, and 19th-century domestic life and architecture of southwest Ohio.

Hours of Operation

Thursday - Saturday
1:00pm - 5:00pm

McGuffey House and Museum observes Miami University closings and other special events.

Summer Hours 2024

Thursday - Saturday 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM


Saturday, May 25 for Memorial Day
Thursday-Saturday July 4-6 Independence Day