The Social Structure of the Family and the Evolution of Domestic Society.   By L. Augarten, D. Sun & K. Findlay

The Past

The definition of the nuclear family, and domestic society in America, has been redefining itself for as long as it’s been in existence. Each decade has had its own advances, modernizations and social changes, which affected kitchen life, how the kitchen was used, and who was spending time there.

Beginning in the early 1900’s, it became more common for men to commute to work.  This caused a shift in family dynamics.  The nuclear family was split up during the day with the children at school, men at work, and sometimes women, heading into work.  The man’s role became that of bread winner as opposed to patriarch.  For the mothers who did stay home, life became more isolating and monotonous.  It also became a sign of prestige for kitchens to be smaller and purely functional.  “Following the industrial ideal of specialization, architects now stripped all but food preparation from the room. The ideal size for a kitchen in the early 1900s had already shrunk from its nineteenth century expansiveness to ten by twelve feet.”[1]  This change in size resulted in the further isolation of the individual, usually a woman, preparing the food, and she was then forced to carry the prepared food into the dining room, formalizing the mealtime experience.  “Small kitchens and kitchenettes also eliminated the possibility of eating inside them, and by the early 1930’s one author was noting that small kitchens had forced “a good deal of eating outside the house.”[2]

Jumping ahead to the 1950’s and the end of the World War I, the Baby Boom was underway.  When the war began, America was still in the throes of the Great Depression.  When the men came home from the war, they returned to a very different economic society.  Consumer products were available which had not been previously.  It was the time of Betty Crocker, appliances for the kitchen that made life easier, TV dinners, and TV.  Dinner in front of the TV was a nightly family event in many homes.  The idealized nuclear family was composed of four – mom, dad, son, daughter – all living under the roof of a neatly kept single family home with a white picket fence located in suburbia. “In 1960, over 70 percent of all American households were like the Cleavers: made up of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and their kids.”[3]

As the children of the Baby Boom grew up in the sixties and early seventies, they rebelled against their parent’s neatly kept, tightly wound lifestyles.  Free love, flower power and acceptance were the order of the day.  Things got loose, and people often moved

out of their parents’ homes before they were married, either to live with partners or friends.  The kitchen became more of a shared space, no longer the domain of the matriarch only.

The Present

What is a “family”? For the past half-century, this country has accepted the nuclear Cleaver-like family, not only as THE norm but also as a moral barometer, despite the reality that this nuclear family model deviates from the realities of most of human history as well as the majority of the non-Anglo-Saxon world.

However, starting in the 70’s, the Cleaver family structure was shattered as divorce rates rose, births to unmarried women grew, and the average age of first marriage increased – all mainly due to the rising of real wages for women as they gained access to legal rights, education, birth control, and paid work while their male counterparts’ real wages fell when the economy weakened.[4] By the 1990s, more single women were having children without a male partner; co-habitation become prevalent; working mothers; interracial marriages, step families, and women choosing not to have children were all becoming widely accepted.  Entering the 21st century, the new “normal” is the old illegitimacy. The definition of a family has broadened considerably to include homosexual couples raising children; single parent households, grandparents (skip generation) households, kin-network households, and others[5].

Presently, only 23.5% of the households in this country are made up of nuclear families down from 45% in 1960. For the first time, the number of people living alone is greater than the number of nuclear families with the number of co-habitation couples nearly doubling in the past decade to 5.5 million.[6]

Furthermore, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a key threshold: more than HALF the births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage according to Child Trends, which analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Almost all of the rise in these non-marital births has occurred among co-habitation couples.[7]

There are many reasons for marital decline. Economically, men are worth less than they used to be. Fifty years ago, as many as a third of American marriages were precipitated by a pregnancy, with couples marrying to maintain respectability but nowadays women no longer need to rely on their male counterpart or remain in an unsatisfying (or worse) marriage for purely financial means.[8]

Culturally, strict gender roles have evolved considerably as well. Young women grow up assuming that they will be working outside the home. Today, women are still mothers, but few of them are full time housewives. They usually work outside the home but are still also the primary homemakers creating a difficult double duty. Women now juggle many tasks such as going to school, working full time, and supporting their child. Men’s traditional role has changed as well, they are no longer the sole breadwinners of the family; they are more emotionally invested in their children’s lives; and they take on household chores, with some being full time homemakers . Family life is no longer defined by the proper social rules but more about defining individual satisfaction and self-development.

Family values means valuing families, no matter what their form. Interior design needs to consider the evolving present day structure of a family to better address the needs of that family and fulfill the functionality of this family structure. Interior design has already been reformulated to suit the current family landscape. Spaces have become more open especially in the kitchen and flow into each other focusing on informality, flexibility, and inclusivity. Spaces are created to give people easy and causal gathering opportunities as the more formal and separated entertaining spaces have been outdated in a world of busy individuals with less support (especially in terms of maids and servants). Functionality, convenience, and efficiency are crucial points in any type of kitchen and interior design.   Single mothers and fathers have less and less time to focus on preparation and with the valuable time they do have, they prefer to focus on spending it with their families, whatever that definition may be.

Evolution is a natural process, and as societies change and grow, so too will the structures of the family. The transforming family will continue to have a tremendous impact on interior space. Resulting changes in structure will (hopefully) better cater to people’s needs and provide more efficient, and better support for future generations.

The Future

The definition of the family is ever changing, and as in the present day, the generations of the future will continue to place less and less importance on the notion of the ‘traditional family’, its traditional structure and the gender roles that are imposed with this view.[9] Current trends will only continue, the number of couples in prime childbearing years who will choose to live together without marrying will increase, and the concept of co-habitation without marriage will continue to increase, possibly even eclipsing the prospect of marriage in the traditional sense.

The lifestyle choices of women will continue to dictate population growth rates and family size.  Women will continue to pursue greater career and educational advancement, pushing them to have children later in life, often without a partner, therefore having less children and creating smaller families.[10] The number of same-sex couples will continue to increase as the notion becomes more widely accepted in our respective cultures, further diminishing the notion of traditional gender roles.

As advances in medicine and healthcare continue to increase, so will the life expectancy for future generations.  By 2050, the number of people living well into their 80’s and sometimes 90’s will increase10. As the average life expectancy increases, families will find themselves with at least four or five generations in the family alive at the same time, though not necessarily all under the same roof.[11] Families living in urban centers will find themselves interacting more and more with families of different ethnicity or of mixed origin, therefore increasing their knowledge, interest and understanding of other cultures and their lifestyles.

Looking to the future, how will all of these socio-economic changes come to impact the future of the kitchen? Kitchens will need to break the mold of a ‘standardized’ kitchen and each will become adaptable for whoever is the user.  Perhaps kitchens will be designed with a variety of counter heights, portable appliances for increased flexibility, and greater energy efficiency.  Life will be easier and more flexible.  Interior Designers will need to consider the individual needs of the family they are designing for, and ask themselves how they can plan and design the space to best fit these needs. However, these socio-economic changes will not alter the basic functions of the kitchen.

The kitchen will remain a place for cooking and preparing and storing food, and a place for social gatherings. Different types of households and cooks will use the space differently and will have

different needs for space, storage and layout.[12]A truly successful modern kitchen will need to be adaptable to the varying needs of the user, one who may be extremely different than the user of the past and present.


  1. “Selling to Ms. Consumer”
  2. “American Cultural History: 1950-1959”
  3. “Digital History”
  4. Tyler May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families In The Cold War Era.  Published by Basic Books. © 1999
  5.  “Family Structure Changes: 1950 to 1990s”
  6. “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage”
  7.  “The Changing American Family”
  8. “A ‘Normal’ Family
  9. “The Future of the Family to 2030”
  10. “Someone’s In the Kitchen”


Picture 1–A woman turning on the cooker circa 1940. (Photo by Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images)

Picture 2–1950s Family Watching TV

Picture 3— Friends enjoying food party in kitchen

Picture 4 Courtesy of New York Times– Single Mother with Child in Kitchen

Picture 5 Courtesy of Getty Image– Multicultural extended family

Picture 6 Courtesy of Getty Images– Father and Daughter in Kitchen

Picture 7 — 3 Generations cooking together. Photo Courtesy of

[4] “Family Structure Changes: 1950 to 1990s

[8] The Future of the Family to 2030”

[9] “The Future of the Family to 2030”

[10] “The Future of the Family to 2030”

[11] “The Future of the Family to 2030”