A pantry is a room where food, provisions or dishes are stored and served in an ancillary capacity to the kitchen. The derivation of the word is from the same source as the Old French term paneterie; that is from pain, the French form of the Latin panis for bread.
In a late medieval hall, there were separate rooms for the various service functions and food storage. A pantry was where bread was kept and food preparation associated with it done. The head of the office responsible for this room was referred to as a pantler. There were similar rooms for storage of bacon and other meats (larder), alcoholic beverages (buttery) known for the "butts" of barrels stored there, and cooking (kitchen).
In America, pantries evolved from Early American "butteries", built in a cold north corner of a Colonial home [more commonly referred to and spelled as "butt'ry"], into a variety of pantries in self-sufficient farmsteads. Butler's pantries, or china pantries, were built between the dining room and kitchen of a middle class English or American home, especially in the latter part of the 19th into the early 20th centuries. Great estates, such as Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina or Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, Ohio had large warrens of pantries and other domestic "offices", echoing their British 'Great House' counterparts.
Common uses for the butler's pantry are storage, cleaning and counting of silver [European butlers often slept in the pantry as their job was to keep the silver under lock and key.] The wine log and merchant's account books may be kept in the butler's pantry. The room is used by the butler and other domestic staff; it is often called a butler's pantry even in households where there is no butler.
First developed in the early 1900s by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company in New Castle, Indiana, and popular into the 1930s, the Hoosier cabinet and its many imitators soon became an essential fixture in American kitchens. Often billed as a "pantry and kitchen in one," the Hoosier brought the ease and readiness of a pantry with its many storage spaces and working counter right into the kitchen. It was sold in catalogues and through a unique sales program geared towards farm wives. The popularity of the Hoosier would herald a gradual shift towards increased cabinetry and workspaces in the American kitchen until they, like the pantry, became all but obsolete. Today the Hoosier cabinet is a much sought-after domestic icon and widely reproduced.
Traditionally kitchens in Asia have been more open format than those of the West. The function of the pantry was generally served by wooden cabinetry. In Japan a kitchen cabinet is called a "Mizuya Tansu". A substantial tradition around wood working and cabinetry in general developed in Japan, especially throughout the Tokugawa era. A huge number of designs for Tansu (chests or cabinets) were made, each tailored towards one specific purpose or another.
The idea is very similar to that of the Hoosier Cabinet above, with a wide variety of functions being served by specific design innovations. See the Tansu page for a more complete listing of different designs and more extensive information.
In the last chapter of These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a descriptive account of the pantry that Almanzo Wilder built for her in their first home together in DeSmet, South Dakota. It details a working farmhouse pantry in great detail which she sees for the first time after her marriage to Wilder and subsequent journey to their new home.
Pantry raids were often common themes in children's literature and early 20th century advertising. Perhaps the most famous pantry incident in literature was when Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer had to do penance for his getting into his Aunt Polly's jam in her pantry: as punishment, he had to white-wash her fence.
This design book is an unprecedented domestic history of the emergence of the pantry in American homes over the past 300 years.