Once my friend Chad came to see me. Upon entering the house, the first thing he did was go to the refrigerator, open the door, and stick his head inside to check out the contents. “I want to see how you live,” he said. This may not be the accepted protocol for visiting a friend in their home, but I think Chad was on to something. What’s in our refrigerators says a lot about us. If we are what we eat, then the refrigerator has become a huge part of who we are. It’s become so common that we may not give it a great deal of thought, but this one appliance has had a tremendous influence on the way we live at home. And yet, less than 100 years ago, people didn’t have refrigerators at all.
For most of history, refrigeration as we know it now just didn’t exist. Most food that wasn’t eaten spoiled. What was left could be preserved by drying, salting, smoking, or later, canning. In colder climes, people would store food in cellars, or in holes dug in the ground and lined with straw and snow.
In the 1860s, in-home refrigeration made a big leap forward with the introduction of the icebox, an early precursor to the refrigerator. By the 1890s, they were a common feature of middle-class homes.
The icebox (sometimes, confusingly, identified in vintage ads as a ‘refrigerator’) was an insulated cabinet, made of wood and lined with tin or zinc, with a compartment made to hold a block of ice. Ice for the icebox would be delivered by the ice man, in much the same way that milk was delivered by the milk man and the newspaper was delivered by the paper boy. A drip pan, which had to be emptied every day, collected the melted water. The ice lasted for about a week. Women would leave cards outside their homes, indicating what size of ice block was required. Some houses had a particularly convenient feature—a small door in the wall behind the icebox, a bit like a doggie door, that led to the outside. When the ice man came he could open the door and slide the new ice directly into the icebox.
Although commercial refrigerators have existed since the 1850s, the first refrigerator for home use wasn’t introduced until 1911. Early home refrigerators were designed to sit on top of an icebox; later models stood on their own, but required the installation of a compressor, usually in the basement, that was connected to the unit.
Refrigerators for home use didn’t truly take off until 1927, when GE introduced the ‘monitor-top’ refrigerator, a design that combined the compressor and the cold box into a single unit. (It got its nickname because people thought the compressor, which sat on the top of the unit, resembled the gunwale on the Civil War battleship the Monitor). Even then, a refrigerator was a bit of an indulgence. In 1927, the Monitor Top cost $525, which was a chunk of change back then.
In-home refrigeration made another big leap forward with the invention of Freon in 1928. Before then, compressors used toxic gasses like ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide, and in several cases refrigerant leaks became deadly. Alarmed that fears about noxious gases would keep people from having refrigerators in their homes, scientists from Frigidaire, General Motors, and DuPont came together to create Freon, which was equally effective at cooling and also wouldn’t kill anyone.
Refrigerators started to see widespread adoption in the 1930s. At the beginning of the decade, only 8 percent of American homes had one: by the end, that number had jumped to 44 percent. By the end of the 1940s, they were a common feature of American homes.
Though the refrigerator is, in the span of human history, a relatively recent invention, it’s now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine life without one. Out of necessity, or idleness, or some combination of both, you probably make your way to the fridge multiple times a day, and probably it never occurs to you to think: how did this great big box of frigid foodstuffs get here? But now, maybe you will. And now you’ll know.