Why We Shouldn’t Be Celebrating 100 Years of Refrigerators

Pre-war kitchen (1930s)Pre-war kitchen (1930s). (Photo: ellenm1 flickr CC)

A number of people in the media have been discussing the so-called “centennial” of the refrigerator. None of them have explained why. Regardless, the long, complicated history of the refrigerator demonstrates that to celebrate this centennial is to ignore the continuous, sometimes messy process of innovation and invention. It also marginalizes the complex history that made such innovation possible.

The first working artificial refrigeration systems date back to the mid-nineteenth century, but the first successful commercial systems didn’t appear until the late 1860s. What’s important to understand about these late-nineteenth century efforts in order to trace the history of the household refrigerator is that they all weighed about five tons and took up enough space to fill entire warehouses. Lots of entrepreneurs realized that shrinking those systems down small enough to fit in a kitchen would be incredibly lucrative because the iceboxes then in people’s homes were nothing but boxes with ice in them. Reliable, electric, automatic home refrigeration was an obvious improvement.

For this reason, many people were experimenting with home refrigeration about one hundred years ago, but none of these systems worked particularly well. Perhaps more important, none of the household refrigerators of that era looked very much like the refrigerators of the day. The most noteworthy difference between then and now was the separation of the machinery and the container. Some of these early refrigerators were machines meant to be installed inside existing iceboxes. A different type of refrigerator from this era required that users install the condensing machinery in the basement and cut a hole in the floor so that it could be linked to the appliance by means of a belt.

Obviously, only wealthy people could afford to cut holes in their kitchen floors, so only the wealthy bought these earliest refrigerators. Unfortunately for them, many of these early refrigerators didn’t work very well either. They broke down, or even worse, the dangerous gasses used as refrigerants during the early days of this industry leaked out unexpectedly, which sometimes led to fatalities. Faced with technological problems and a tiny potential market, the vast majority of early refrigerator producers failed. Their products quickly faded into obscurity.

So when exactly did the first modern refrigerator appear? The answer to that question depends upon how you define the term “refrigerator.” Let’s consider a modern refrigerator self-contained, with all of the machinery inside the unit rather than down in the basement, and with a container where the food goes. (Well into the 1920s, most refrigerator producers required customers to buy their own iceboxes.) Last, a modern refrigerator needs to have been mass-produced. A craft creation for a tiny market does not demonstrate that a particular innovation will stick around for the long haul.

The first household refrigerator is General Electric’s “Monitor Top,” first introduced in 1927. Called the “Monitor Top” because the machinery housed on the top of the unit reminded one wag of the legendary Civil War battleship, this refrigerator was mass-produced, reliable, self-contained and extremely popular. General Electric waited that long to release its first household refrigerator so that it could learn from the mistakes of all its competitors whose models constituted dead ends in the evolution of this appliance. This was the refrigerator that transformed this appliance from a plaything of rich people with money to burn into a necessity for people of all social classes.

Ultimately, the story of the refrigerator shows us that inventions are not defined by a singular moment of genius, but by a collaborative evolution – one which is hardly a continuous ascent. In today’s culture, we too frequently substitute superficial pieces of trivia – dates, statistics, and so on – for a more complex look at change over time. So can we please wait another thirteen years for the real refrigerator centennial? I’m pretty sure that refrigerators will still be around for the party.

About the Author

Jonathan Rees

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He is the author of Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances and Enterprise in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Refrigerator (Bloomsbury).

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