In the Midwest — especially in the prairie farmhouse — the kitchen door of many homesteads provided direct entry into the back of the home. The kitchen was the central access core for sharing values and for meeting family and friends.

Many times you’d just walk in through the unlocked door, call out your arrival and take a seat at the kitchen table.

There was always a pot of coffee percolating on the stove and the smell of freshly baked goods wafted throughout the room from the cast-iron oven.

If you were a friend over for a visit, you always entered the house from the kitchen door and never the front door. Using the kitchen door meant you were always free to help yourself to whatever you wanted to eat and drink.

To ask permission first was to be rude and to take on the role of an uncomfortable unknown.

The front door was for strangers and deliveries.

The kitchen door held access to community values and acceptance was guaranteed for those you knew and loved.

Today — in the cities and the suburban urban core — the kitchen door is usually just a secondary exit to escape a fire. There is no warmth or humor found in accessing an urban kitchen.

Kitchens in the city are small pustules of cramped inconvenience that encourage more eating out than cooking in.

In the city, you buy your coffee on the street corner; your baked goods are bought from a bodega. One is left to wonder how leaving behind Kitchen Door Values has changed the connective tissue of an ever-industrialized American lifestyle.

Has abandoning our prairie mindset to the rotting woods fostered salvation in the hills or silence in the valleys?

Have we traded the dream of a City Upon a Hill for the despair of an immoral country rendered flat and faceless in the plains? Without a kitchen door everyone is forced to use the front door. Everyone becomes a stranger.

Everyone becomes unfamiliar. Everyone is a visitor and never family. Duty goes undiscovered and left to dust. Were you raised in a house with a kitchen door? Was that door ever locked?

Did people step into and out of your house as they wished, or were there strict rules for visiting that included knocking first? Do you have a kitchen door now? If you do not have a kitchen door, what room does your second entrance lead to and do your friends and family enter your home through that door or the front door?

25 Comments

  1. My grandmother had the always-open back door. My mother’s mother lived in the house her parents had built in 1914, and the door was always open. There was always room for the relatives who needed it. As folks moved away from that center, family became more formal, distant. The few times we got together were filled with recollections of the happy times, when people truly learned to like each other. The time and the place were there to do it.
    We live in a condo now in the woods, and our daughter has an open door policy that has percolated up to the adults. It’s a good life. Many of us have thought of moving onto our own acre somewhere else in the woods, but then we wonder why.

  2. Hi Sandy!
    Wow! What a great story!
    My grandfather lived in a small village of 400 people and everyone in town had an open door policy, too. You never EVER went to the front door or the people inside the house would panic as they tried to “look right” for unexpected company. If your kitchen door opened you could relax because someone you knew wanted to see you and they didn’t care how you looked.
    It was always strange to find people I didn’t know blowing into my grandfather’s house when I used to visit him. When we’d visit his neighbors I had to be taught to “go ’round back and just go in…” I never really mastered the blunt entrance without knocking or making a lot of noise so the people inside would know I was there.
    You only locked your door when you were going out of town for more than a day. When people would visit you and find the door locked they knew you were gone on vacation and they’d keep an eye on your house for you.
    Today, a locked house means an invitation to steal whatever’s inside that needs the false protection of a tumbler and key.

  3. David,
    This Open Kitchen Door Policy is a Southern thing, too. To this day, I have never entered my grandparents’ house through their front door. To do so would just be weird and unfamiliar and way too formal. My grandparents sold the house they lived in for 30+ years about ten years ago and bought another in the same neighborhood. Even when we visited their new house for the first time, we went straight to the kitchen door to enter.

  4. That was poetic. As a child of the midwest living in metro Los Angeles I’ve given up worrying about the kitchen door wondering if we’ll abandon the front door, too. Blogs like this one aren’t helping.

  5. Emily —
    Do you have a kitchen door where you live now?
    Growing up in Lincoln we had a kitchen door and I had to train my non-Midwestern friends to use that side door and not the front door when they came over. They didn’t understand the why of it and the best way I could explain it back then was, “when the kitchen door rings, we know we know you.” They didn’t understand why that made any difference. The living room and its front door access was reserved for entertaining strangers while the kitchen was for friends and hanging out.

  6. Hi Doug!
    Ah! I feel for you! I think the West Coast is more “kitchen door” friendly than the East Coast only because 99.99% of my Midwestern friends who actually got up and out went to California and not New York. 😀
    It is a sad thing our kitchen doors have been replaced with a Kitchen Window — where we look out and others can’t get in — if we even have that luxury of a view. Most houses are forts now with a reinforced front door that keeps out both strangers and friends. The kitchen door is triple-locked and dead-bolted and is only an access point for escaping fires and S.W.A.T team entries.

  7. David,
    I do not have a kitchen door and I am also hard-pressed to think of any friends that do. Houses just aren’t constructed that way anymore, are they? Interestingly enough, my grandparents that sold their old house and bought a new one had the new one built exactly like the old one! It looks different because it is in a modern style, but the floorplan and layout are exactly the same. In fact, the way it is situated makes the kitchen door more conveniently accessible than the front.

  8. Emily!
    Yes! We don’t really have Kitchen Doors in new architecture. Why? Why has that floorplan been abandoned? Was it because of a change in design ideals or a modification of our pioneer morality?
    Several Nebraska farms I know well do have direct Kitchen Door access you mention while the front door is overgrown and ignored. It’s a fascinating thing to see.

  9. This is an interesting post because we used a modified version of the kitchen door entry when I lived in New Jersey.
    Our old house had three entrances. One in the front — I never used that entryway and didn’t have a key to that door. A side entrance that was the door that we always used to get into the house. It lead into a little hallway that went to the kitchen or immediately to the basement.
    And, we had a backdoor and little stoop right in the kitchen. I don’t think we ever opened that door, even though it opened into our backyard and would allow easy access to our garage and driveway located in the back of the house.
    Anyone coming to the front door was a stranger and as a kid we were warned to not open the door for strangers. The side door was for familiar people and the family. Nobody ever knocked on the kitchen door and I don’t think there was a door bell there.
    Somehow, everyone knew these rules.
    We never ever left any doors unlocked when I was growing up. Everything had to be safe and secure at all times.
    Our current house has a kitchen door, but it leads to a garage that was added to the house before we moved in. I assume in the old days, that would have been the preferred entrance for familiar people.
    Our new house will have three doors. A front door, a side door and a kitchen door (a sliding glass door). However, I don’t expect anyone to ever use the kitchen door or the side door because they are out of the way and the pathways and landscaping will guide everyone to the front door.

  10. David,
    The Kitchen Doors have been abandoned because we are a security-obsessed society. We fool ourselves into thinking that deadbolted doors and alarm systems will keep us safe.

  11. Chris!
    I love it! There must be some kind of “Midwestern floorplan” that is a carryover from the prairie pioneer days where the kitchen was the necessary lifeblood of the house. That room fed you and warmed you and kept you company.
    It is interesting how modern architecture has replaced the kitchen door with the garage door. People are kept warm in their cars, they eat in their cars, people spend time with each other to chat in cars. The garage, and it giant, uninviting, hideous door, houses the prized car and an empty garage indicates the absence of a house filled with life.
    My, how far we’ve come to fall so far behind what we really value.

  12. The garage door is interesting. It might be the new kitchen door.
    I’ve noticed when it gets warmer, people will open their garage doors and leave them open. Friends and family will enter through the garage door which usually goes into the kitchen, while strangers will go to the front door.
    The open garage is also a gathering place where you can see people sitting on lawn chairs drinking beer from an old refrigerator located in the garage.
    I’ve also been thinking about my relatives in the country. They might not lock their doors, but they always have dogs who can smell strangers the second they pull off the main road onto the long country driveway. You might not see them at first, but by the time you get to the house, there usually are four or five dogs wagging their tails (if they know you) or snarling (if they don’t).

  13. Chris!
    Yes, it’s a sad thing the garage has replaced the Kitchen Door and the front porch as a gathering place. Thieves also know this now and people are urged to shut their garage doors because leaving them open is an invitation to quickly get ripped off.
    You’re right about the farm dogs! They do herd around you and have a pack mentality if they don’t know you. Sometimes you have to honk your horn to get those inside to come out and call off the dogs! 😀

  14. David,
    Do we need to live in fear of our neighbors more now than in past generations?
    Is our society really becoming more sick and depraved or is it just more out in the open?

  15. Emily —
    I think neighbors need to have a vested interest in each other. As we build up and away from the street level we are forced to become more withdrawn and internal and separate and that’s a bad thing.
    Depravity has always been with us — it’s just better Demonized now than it used to be.

  16. Growing up in suburbia, I never had this experience, but I was mostly able to go over to friends houses whenever I wanted, and I’d walk in if they were expecting me and the door was unlocked.
    The garage door thing reminds me of a friends house that had a code key to get in the garage entrance to the house. I don’t think they used the front door that much. The kids didn’t have a key to it. I think all of her friends knew the code too, so we’d often go in through that door.
    Once, when her family was away, we went in her house to get something or take care of her dog or something… I forgot. So I think some families have this policy in some ways. Most people have fences, so it’s a bit difficult to go through the back door and not the front. I think some people do this though, if they don’t have dogs. My family let everyone in the front door, because you couldn’t walk in the garage! We couldn’t even fit the cars in there.

  17. Hi Stacy —
    Thanks for sharing your experience with creating a community! That’s fascinating stuff: The keycode has replaced the open door kitchen policy.
    Fences are strange things. They don’t keep things in or out. They are only visible boundaries that can wound like weapons. In really small towns you don’t see fences — even white picket ones. Everyone is in the town together. Everyone owns everything and each other.

  18. Yeah, I think its easier for young people who grow up in suburbia to create a community than it is for the adults who live there. Kids go to school and stuff, but adults only go to work. I think this explains some of why some churches are so strong in suburban communities. People are looking for a community to join.
    This also explains so-called ‘soccer moms’ or moms who try to hang out with their teenager. These are parents (they can be moms or dads) that haven’t found a real sense of community elsewhere and try to borrow from their children’s community.
    The fence was to keep the dog in the backyard. The latch broke sometime ago, making it difficult to get either in or out.

  19. Right on, Stacy!
    There is a tremendous disconnect between children and their parents today and instead of sitting down and speaking to their children as equals, many parents choose to instead stand on the sidelines to “support” their kids by screaming at them.