7.8 Some Like It Cold: A History of Your Fridge

Some Like It Cold: A History of Your Fridge

The flip side of cooking is to keep things cool, and this episode is about how historical housewives did (or mostly didn’t) manage that.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

If you, like me, have grown up with a refrigerator, you may not appreciate just what a miracle it is. The mechanics of heating things up have been more or less under humanity’s control for millennia. The mechanics of cooling things down? That’s only been accessible to the average housewife for something under 200 years depending on where you live, and in some places not even now.

As early as 1931, one writer declared that “It is not extravagant to say that our present form of civilization is dependent upon refrigeration” (quoted in Jackson, 13).

If that was true in 1931, how much more so today? To put things into perspective for those of us privileged folks, let me point out that on a hot day, meat and fish will last only a few hours. Fruits mold and salads wilt within days. Root vegetables can last 20 days if kept dry, but only if kept dry.

In 1896, journalist Alfred Henry Lewis wrote “the only barrier between us and total anarchy is the last nine meals we’ve had” (Lewis). He was talking about labor reform and treatment of miners, and why they sometimes fell into criminal behavior. But his sentiment has been echoed many times, often with a lower number of meals. Large portions of your next nine meals are probably sitting in cold storage right now, which is how you can be reasonably sure you’ll get them and at a reasonable quality. Even if it’s not in your own personal fridge, it’s in the grocery store’s fridge or the restaurant’s fridge or in refrigerated transport. Take the cold storage away and most of us wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where the next nine meals were coming from.

So how did a historical housewife manage? Well, partly they simply dealt with hunger when times were bad and often with malnutrition even when times were good. But they also managed with an amazing string of ingenuity that we are still benefiting from today: butter, cheese, and yogurt were invented because they last longer than milk. Bacon, sausage, jerky, and smoked fish because they last longer than fresh meat and fresh fish. Raisins, jam, pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi because they last longer than produce. Crackers and croutons because they last longer than bread. Even candied nuts because they last longer than fresh. I could go on. Some of those are extremely tasty and might never have existed if all women had had American-sized refrigerators and a chest freezer. But such methods took skill and an enormous investment of time, and much of it was done by the humble housewife.

If you were an urban housewife, you might not have a lot of fresh food to preserve, so your time wasn’t spent there, but you might well shop daily and even twice a day because buying the evening’s meat in the morning might not be good enough.

Some women knew all along about the preservative properties of cold. The Inuits could freeze fish because that’s how cold the air was much of the time. But the larger civilizations largely did not exist in places where that was an option. And when they thought about cold at all, making life easier for the average woman was not top of mind. No, top of mind was chilled cocktails for the head honcho.

So in the 18th century BCE, the king of Terqa (in Syria) had an icehouse built, which (according to this surviving tablet) “never before had any king built.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Quite a statement, which the writer was definitely not qualified to make. But the purpose of the ice was for cooling drinks (Jackson, 16).

In Egypt, the pharaoh got his wine chilled by having slaves continually dampen and then fan the earthenware jars, for evaporative cooling. It’s good science, but not good labor policy and definitely not an option for your average housewife (Jackson, 17).

Ancient Persia did better. They had underground tunnels that channeled water from the mountains. The tunnels were naturally cool, so you could both store ice in them, and even sometimes create it with the help of wind catchers that drew up cool air.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

These worked so well that you didn’t have to be king to enjoy them. Even ordinary people could enjoy an icy drink or a refreshing dessert and it is not a coincidence that the words sorbet and sherbet both come to English by way of Persia (Jackson, 19-26).

But still, woman cannot live on sorbet alone, and it’s in China that ice was used for the extremely practical use of lengthening the life of fruits and vegetables and meat (Jackson, 94). Empress Wu Zetian (episode 2.3) had a court official whose job it was to arrange the regular storage of court ice (Chen, 244). The Chinese were not immune to the allure of a chilly dessert and they have a claim as inventors of ice cream. I myself am not sure that a mixture of fermented buffalo milk, flour, and camphor should count as ice cream, but I’ll let you decide (Jackson, 31).

Filling an Ice House during the Ming Dynasty (Wikimedia Commons)

Aside from the Chinese, the other civilizations using or making ice, whether they be Greek, Roman, or Renaissance Italian, were primarily doing it to provide pleasure to the rich, not help to the masses.

The ordinary housewife knew that heat didn’t do her leftovers any good, but when the household guides said to store something in a cool place, that meant in the cellar or down a well or at least away from sunny windows and the fire. It was nothing like your temperature-controlled fridge.

The idea of a freezer was so far removed from their thought process that some people weren’t even sure food could be preserved in ice. Sir Francis Bacon, who is more or less the man who laid out the scientific method as a way of finding truth, used his method on this subject. He bought a chicken, packed it with snow and monitored it for decay. He was pleased to report that the chicken “succeeded excellently well.” It showed no signs of putrefaction. How long he could have kept it frozen is unknown because he himself was not doing excellently well by this point, and he died before he could take the matter farther (Jackson, 52).

The point is that a housewife had cold at her disposal only if she lived in the right place, and even then only if the weather was right. There were icehouses, but they were plagued with problems and couldn’t always be stocked anyway, and in most parts of the world, it simply wasn’t worth the trouble to build one.

One place that could count on ice, at least for part of the year was New England. There it was possible to cut ice in the winter and feasible to keep it until the summer. And a man named Frederic Tudor had a plan to make that possible elsewhere too. In 1805, he decided to sell ice to the West Indies.

This was, to put it bluntly, the most laughably stupid idea anyone had ever heard. Everyone from the newspapers to the investors had a joke at Tudor’s expense. But he was nothing if not stubbornly optimistic and he eventually made it to Martinique with 130 tons of ice. Or at least it was 130 tons when he left Boston. It was less when he arrived, and it continued rapidly melting while the good people of Martinique looked at him curiously and wondered why they would pay good money for that. They saw no use for it. So instead of selling large chunks of ice, Tudor was reduced to churning ice cream himself and selling that. Happily, the good people of Martinique did see the use in ice cream, but the overall venture still came out to a loss.

Slaves unloading ice in Cuba, 1832. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Frederic Tudor had a long career of setbacks, but he eventually deserved the title of Ice King. By 1820, he was shipping ice to the West Indies and the American south. By 1833, to Calcutta, India. No longer did you have to be a pharaoh or a king to enjoy an iced treat or a cool drink. Ordinary housewives could enjoy such things too (Jackson, 138-157), at least in certain parts of the world.

The US was the home of industrialized ice because it had the right climate, an entrepreneurial spirit, and vast distances that made it hard to get your product to market without ice. That was incentive. Perhaps Frederic Tudor’s brightest idea was in figuring out that the big money in ice wasn’t ice cream. It was food preservation. By the late 1800s most American households had an icebox. This was a tin or zinc-lined wooden box. At the top it had a compartment for ice. Below were shelves for your food and a drainage hole at the bottom. It wasn’t very efficient by modern standards, but it was a whole lot better than what housewives had dealt with for millennia (Wilson, 225).

The food stored better, but the ice had to be replaced daily. Women got their ice from ice men who brought it door-to-door on wagons. Tudor may have been an Ice King, but the ice men gained a less than savory reputation. Husbands suspected them of flirting with their housewife customers, or perhaps worse than flirting. Employers suspected them of theft. It’s hard to find evidence with a product that melts into nothing. But most of all there was the question of empty promises about quality (Jackson, 164).

You may think that ice is ice. Where does quality come into it? But remember natural ice came directly out of ponds and lakes. Twigs, dirt, algae, sewage. All was potentially trapped in that ice, especially as demand grew, pushing ice companies into more and more questionable locations. Some icemen delivered artificially made ice, which had been around since 1834, but as usual, was slow to catch on (Jackson, 161-171).

Demand for ice, whether natural or artificial, was high. American women bought every day in 25, 50, 75, or 100 pound blocks (Grahn).

During World War I, girls took over the ice delivery because the men were away. Image from NARA

The ice industry was going strong, and they knew exactly who to target. A 1915 publication of the ice industry included this advice for ice companies. “The home newspaper is the best medium through which to reach the real buying factor—the housewife. . . [The salesman] should let the public know that ten cent’s worth of ice may save a dollar’s worth of food . . . The catchword ‘Mother’, appropriately illustrated will catch the eye . . .  An ad to ‘Mrs. Newlywed’ will lead her to devour every word you tell her about the importance of starting her household duties with a well-iced refrigerator” (Ice and Refrigeration, 262).

Note that refrigerator here is a common word for icebox. It’s not a fridge as we know it.

An ad from the 1916 Montgomery Ward Catalog. You put the ice block in at the top. Your food went on the shelves below. Note that the meltwater drained through the pipe at the back. You needed a refrigerator pan in the bottom compartment to catch it, and that had to be emptied regularly. Image from Montgomery Ward catalog, 1916, p. 716.

The same publication announced results of a survey, concluding that the average American family paid $10.75 per year for ice (Ice and Refrigeration, 314), which meant it was well worthwhile, even for families in lower income brackets. The largest group of people was fit into the $1000-2000 per year bracket (US Internal Revenue, 5).

The effect on housewives was two-fold. They kept food cold themselves, easing the shopping and the leftovers burden. But perhaps even more transformative was the elimination of her total dependence on the seasons. Today many people talk wistfully about eating locally and in season. If you have resources, that can be done, but for the majority of human history, what that actually meant was vitamin deficiencies and a very monotonous diet.

The 1850s saw the first refrigerated rail cars bringing meat and produce out of the great American interior to the eager and booming eastern cities. The 1880s saw the first refrigerated ships bringing tropical fruits out of the tropics, and both American and Australian meat all over the world (Jackson, 193). By refrigerated, we still mean packed with ice to keep it cool. It is true that refrigerated produce may not be as good as tree ripened, freshly picked fruit. But in the days before refrigeration, tree-ripened, freshly picked fruit was not necessarily what was on offer for women who didn’t own the orchard. The fruits in their markets had often been picked unripe because time was needed to get them to market. And even so they might well be rotten or nearly so by the time anyone bought them (Jackson, 201).

So Americans, living in a land of vast distances, paid the icemen and loved their iceboxes for getting food across those vast distances. In 1910, the NY Tribune marveled that people now expected eggs or apples year-round (quoted in Jackson, 202). And the spoiled 21st century me is saying Only eggs and apples? I thought those stored really well. Even outside the fridge they do pretty well.

In 1914 the British travel writer Winifred James wrote “Whoever heard of an American without an icebox? It asserts his nationality as conclusively as the Stars and Stripes” (quoted in Rees and Jackson, 179).

From which you can conclude, that outside of America, most people did not have an icebox. That’s partly about access and culture, but it’s also about fear. Salesmen with rotten food had been a real concern for millennia, so when salesmen began selling food that was days or even weeks old, obviously it was not fresh! It would make people sick and the salesmen themselves were lying scoundrels. In Paris, one poor store owner had to drag his newly purchased refrigeration equipment out into the streets smash it to bits in order to appease his customers (Jackson, 186).

And still more change was on the horizon. General Electric put the first domestic electric fridge on the market in 1911. It cost a cool $1,000, or in other words, nearly the annual salary of the majority of America. Your $10.75 annual bill for ice looked really good compared to that, which is why the survey concluded “The probability of the household refrigerating machine supplanting the use of ice in the family refrigerator is… not at all imminent.” (Ice and Refrigeration, 314).

The truth of that statement all depends on what you call “imminent.” Admittedly, the early fridges were plagued with problems. Even if you had a thousand bucks lying around, not everyone had enough consistent power to keep them constantly running, which meant disaster for the contents. Also, they broke a lot, and might leak the coolant gases, which (just for fun) were poisonous. So you really could be killed by your fridge. No less a person than Albert Einstein designed a fridge that was safer, but then they discovered better coolant gases, so that got better (Wilson, 235).

Once we’d overcome the minor detail of death by fridge and the other minor detail of exorbitant price, the fridge was an obvious improvement over the icebox. When the icebox was new, it was a marvel the way it kept your food fresh. By 1920 American women expected fresh food as a given, and the invention that had been a miracle to previous generations was now decidedly less than marvelous.

One writer complained “Somebody has had to wipe up the wet spot where the ice man set the cake while he was waiting… Somebody has had to pull out the pan each day from underneath and empty out the water… Somebody has had to keep smelling around the ice-box, day by day, to see when it began to get foul and needed scouring” (quoted in Wilson, 234). It was too much work, in other words.

By 1935, half of all Americans had an electric fridge (Wilson, 234), The rest of the world’s housewives were as slow to catch on as they had been about iceboxes. Partly that was an access issue. But even in places with the necessary wealth and infrastructure, the fridge was seen as an American mistake.

In 1948 only 12% of British households had one. Buyers still thought sellers would pass off old food as fresh. And sellers thought refrigeration sullied the greatness of their food. Also European women were used to shopping twice a day, so theoretically they didn’t need a fridge. If you ask me that’s a chicken and the egg question there, but at any rate the rest of the world was not eager to jump on this particular American bandwagon (Wilson, 241-242). The world has converted in the past 60 to 70 years, depending on where you live, and whether you could afford to convert, though American fridges remain the largest in the world (Rees).

But at the time, the rest of the world was uninterested, so it was left to the Americans to take the next step too: a freezer. The icebox had never frozen anything of any quantity. The early electric fridges didn’t have a freezer compartment. The same questions about safety existed about frozen storage as had existed about just cool storage.

Fortunately there was a woman on hand to tackle that question.

Dr. Mary E. Pennington had a PhD in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. She had three years work experience with the Philadelphia Bureau of Health.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

So when the newly health-conscious US government wanted to form a Food Research Laboratory, her friend Harvey Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry, thought she was perfect for the top job. Mary said she didn’t think they’d hire a woman. Harvey said just take the civil service exam anyway. So she did and he collected the papers and without her knowledge or consent he changed her name to Dr. M.E. Pennington. She had the highest score, so the feds offered Dr. M.E. Pennington the job. She wrote her acceptance, which is how they found out that she was not a he. Whereupon they said never mind we have no precedent for hiring a woman, even a totally 100% qualified woman. Whereupon Harvey Wiley said you also have no precedent for not hiring someone purely on the basis of gender. Whereupon they said okay, yeah, point, and Mary got the job in 1906 (Robinson).

As head of the Food Research Laboratory, Mary formed the scientific basis for safe storage and transport of poultry and eggs. In 1917, she reported on the question of whether produce could be frozen and the answer was yes. Green peas, string beans, asparagus, and corn on the cob could be hard frozen and preserved. It was “not applicable for household use” but very useful for hotels, restaurants, and suppliers (Ice and Refrigeration, 272)

And why was it not applicable for home use? Well, in 1917 people didn’t have high quality freezers. Or for the most part any freezer at all.

Clarence Birdseye invented flash freezing in 1925 (Wilson 240), and went to market with frozen, food in 1930.

Or I should say “frosted” food because a little market research at the time showed that people with a family history on the farm thought of frozen as bad. It meant food ruined by cold weather.

Image: 1938 corporate logo, Wikicorporates

Birdseye’s initial line of frosted foods included 18 meats, peas, spinach, cherries, loganberries, raspberries, oysters, haddock, and sole (Strasser 274), which I have to say, is quite a lineup. I certainly can’t buy frozen loganberries at my local grocery store.

The concept of raspberries in February was a miracle that even refrigerated ships had not produced. It was “the most revolutionary idea in the history of food”, at least if you believed the company’s own marketing copy (Strasser, 274).

The rest of the copy makes it clear that frosted food liberated women from more than just the seasonality that had limited their menu choices since the dawn of time. The ads gushed about how the peas were already shelled, the cherries already pitted, the spinach had no grit or sand. It’s hard for a modern cook to really grasp just how unprepared food used to be when you bought it: shells, pits, and grit were the least of it. If you bought chicken it might still be alive. Even if dead, it might very well have all body parts including feathers still attached. Buying it frosted eliminated a lot of housework.

For the first 30 years, the magic of year-round produce kept produce as the top seller for the frozen food industry. Until the 1960s, when produce was no longer exciting enough, and frozen meat, seafood, and prepared foods took over. By this point, the farm was a distant memory in most families, and frozen no longer meant ruined, so manufacturers could use the word. Frozen pre-prepared dinners led to a curious statement from Susan Strasser, historian and author of Never Done: A History of American Housework. She writes that “frozen dinners took the guesswork out of eating, not just out of buying food: now the dinner you ate tonight could look, taste, and smell precisely like the one you ate last week” (Strasser, 276).

I’m going to leave you to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing. Strasser didn’t comment, and no more will I.

If you are among the many women who own a fridge and freezer combo, you probably don’t realize just how much work it has saved you. Author Kathleen Ann Smallezreid wrote “When a housewife returns from the supermarket and whisks things into her refrigerator and closes the door, she has closed the door of the springhouse, the milk and butter pantry, the root cellar, the cheese room, the smokehouse and the covered well. At the same time she has turned her back on the preserving kettle, the pickling crock, the pudding bag, the vinegar barrel. As for the icehouse, the ice wagon, she has put them behind her too. Ice does not make the storage box cold. Instead the box makes ice for all her needs” (quoted in Jackson, 198).

One of many sources today was Tom Jackson’s Chilled: How refrigeration changed the world and might do so again. My website has loads more, plus a transcript, and pictures at herhalfof history.com. Follow me on Twitter @her_half where my post on Martha Gellhorn went viral! Or you can follow me on Facebook where the exact same post did not go viral. Gellhorn, if you don’t know, was the only woman to land on the Normandy beaches (alongside 150,000 men). She was a journalist but her request to come along had been denied, so she stowed away in a toilet and then disguised herself as a stretcher bearer. My most favorite comment among those I got was the all caps “Why is this not a movie already?” to which I completely agree.

Next week, assuming I get me research and writing act together,  I’ll talk about that whole word housewife and where it comes from and who gets to be one or has to be one and all that. Don’t miss it. Thanks!

Selected Sources

Chase, Theodore, and Celeste Walker. “The Journal of James Savage and the Beginning of Frederic Tudor’s Career in the Ice Trade.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 97 (1985): 103–34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25080946.

Chen, Jinhua. Philosopher, Practitioner, Politician: The Many Lives of Fazang (643-712). Leiden, The Netherlands ; Boston, Brill, 2007, brill.com/viewithbook/9789047420002/Bej.9789004156135.i-542_012.xml. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Grahn, Emma. “Keeping Your (Food) Cool: From Ice Harvesting to Electric Refrigeration.” National Museum of American History, 20 Apr. 2015, americanhistory.si.edu/blog/ice-harvesting-electric-refrigeration. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Jackson, Tom. Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do so Again. London Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016.

Ice and Refrigeration, Volume 52. United States: Nickerson and Collins Company, 1917. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ice_and_Refrigeration/1Zc7AQAAMAAJ?hl=enandgbpv=0. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Lewis, Alfred Henry. “Further Facts in the Case of Mark Hanna.” New York Journal. (New York, NY), Oct. 13 1896. https://www.loc.gov/item/sn84024350/1896-10-13/ed-1/. Accessed 6/17/2022.

Montgomery Ward Co., and MBJ Collection. Montgomery Ward Catalogue 1916. Internet Archive, Montgomery Ward Co., 1916, archive.org/details/MontgomeryWard1916/page/n1157/mode/2up. Accessed 18 June 2022.

Rees, Jonathan. “The Huge Chill: Why Are American Refrigerators so Big?” The Atlantic, 4 Oct. 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/the-huge-chill-why-are-american-refrigerators-so-big/280275/. Accessed 18 June 2022.

Robinson, Lisa Mae. “Regulating What We Eat: Mary Engle Pennington and the Food Research Laboratory.” Agricultural History 64, no. 2 (1990): 143–53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3743804.

Smallzried, Kathleen Ann. The Everlasting Pleasure: Influences on America’s Kitchens, Cooks, and Cookery, from 1565 to the Year 2000. United States: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

United States Internal Revenue. “Statistics of Income Compiled from the Returns for 1917 Commissioner of Internal Revenue.” 1919. https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/17soirepar.pdf. Accessed 6/17/2022.

Wilson, Bee, and Annabel Lee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York, Basic Books, 2013.

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