Early Refrigeration Only in Large Homes

The refrigerator is so commonplace today we scarcely notice its presences in our homes. But when it first appeared, its social effects were wide-ranging.

Early home refrigeration machinery required lots of space.

To begin with, home refrigeration was a luxury.

Only the owners of the largest homes typically were able to afford the new convenience. And only the largest homes had the space to accommodate a technology that was at first little modified from its commercial and industrial precursors.

A large home (Spadina House) that could accommodate the earliest home refrigeration machinery.
[Heritage Toronto]
This 1934 Kelvinator had machinery and cooling compartment in the same unit.
[HHCC Collection]

A Practical Home Refrigerator

Household refrigerators became practical as soon as it was possible to combine refrigeration machinery and a cooling unit in a single cabinet.

The big breakthrough in bringing refrigeration to the home was the development of the unitary refrigerator. By ‘unitary’ is meant an appliance that combined all of the equipment necessary to cool food together in a single cabinet.

The innovation was to become one of the most influential new household appliances of the twentieth century, the home refrigerator.

The unitary cabinet refrigerator could be used as an instant replacement for the ice box. No complex installation – no need to reserve a lot of space for refrigeration. Just plug it in, and it could stand in the kitchen where the old ice box had stood.

Fresh Food for Longer

Refrigerators did a better job of keeping food fresh than an ice box.

Although the first refrigerators were easy for the householder to accept as a simple replacement for the ice box, it soon became evident that they did the job much better.

The most important single advance in the kitchen was reliable temperature control. As long as the power stayed on and as long as the refrigeration machinery did not break down, the food stayed cold. The refrigerator achieved food storage temperatures that were lower than those experienced on average with the ice box. And those temperatures were constant.

Perishable foods could be kept fresh, appetizing and nourishing, right in the kitchen, for much longer than had ever been possible before. The potential effects on nutrition were obvious. The equally significant effects on life in the home and in the country, were considerably less obvious at first.

At last… fresh foods available in the kitchen, any time.
[HHCC Collection]
Just twist the knob, and the temperature at which food was stored could be raised (counter clockwise) or lowered (clockwise) easily.
[HHCC Collection]

Constant Cold, at Fingertip Control

The temperature control, or thermostat, put the housewife in control of food storage temperature.

We’re very familiar today with the control that technology gives us. But when the first refrigerators entered the home, the thermostat must have seemed almost magical. Just twist the knob in one direction, and the temperature went down. Twist in the opposite direction, and the temperature in the refrigerator went up again.

This new control over food storage temperature was in contrast to the ice box. After the new ice block was put in place, you had to stand back helplessly and simply let the internal temperature rise slowly over the next day or two, until the next block of ice arrived.

The refrigerator’s thermostatic temperature control, a self-regulating device, put this new appliance in the same league as that other marvel of early twentieth century engineering, the automobile. Just adjust the accelerator and the vehicle speeded up. Step on the brake and it slowed down again.

The thermostat of course incorporated technology that made it possible to determine the temperature in the food storage chamber and to activate a switch that turned on the refrigerator’s motor when that temperature got too high. After the compressor had run for awhile and the chamber cooled off again, the power was switched off. The temperature at which this switching occurred is called the set point for the thermostat and was adjusted higher or lower by twisting the temperature control knob.

Little wonder that people soon began to refer to the early twentieth century as the modern age.

Chilled Luxuries at Home

The refrigerator made it possible to keep ice cream at home and make ice cubes for chilled drinks.

In addition to keeping perishable foods fresh, the refrigerator could do things not even dreamed of with an ice box. The low temperatures that could be achieved within the coils of the cooling unit, called the evaporator, made it possible even to make and keep ice cream frozen for weeks.

The evaporator came to be called the freezer, because the homeowner could actually put a tray of water into it and take the tray out a few hours later full of ice. This was new ice, artificial ice, ice you could make in your own home.

Refrigerator manufacturers were the first to realize what an amazing product they had on their hands. Yet like any new technology, acceptance was slow at first. Most people are slow to give up things they are familiar with in order to adopt new and unfamiliar things, especially during the depression years when money was scarce.

So the manufacturers set out to communicate all of the benefits of this new technology in order to convince householders to buy it. These new treats, the iced drink, and ice cream sundae at home, seemed like the obvious way to start.

Luxuries like ice cream and iced drinks could now be available in the home for the first time.
This cutaway diagram showing natural cork insulation was used in advertisements for refrigerators in the 1920s.
[HHCC Collection]

Quality Construction

Quality construction and reliability were stressed as a selling point for early refrigerators.

Buyers of the times were quality conscious. In order to make the early refrigerator acceptable in the kitchen, manufacturers had to show quality through solid construction and reliability.

The gleaming, white enamelled exterior finish distinguished this new, metal-clad appliance from the old wooden ice box, and signalled a new definition of quality.

Like Ice, Only Better

Early refrigerator advertising stressed the similarities to a block of ice (with which the householder was familiar).

Not only the appearance of the refrigerator was unfamiliar, but no potential buyer had the faintest idea how it worked. The only familiar way of cooling food was by the use of a block of ice in the ice box.

So the cooling unit (evaporator), the visible centre of the refrigerator’s cooling effect, was first manufactured to be similar in size and shape to a block of ice. The homeowner could look inside the new appliance and imagine that the ‘thing’ that kept the food cold was just a kind of mechanical block of ice.

While heat can be stored, cold is just an absence of heat. The concept of storing cold is not really consistent with the theory of heat. But it was a popular notion, and the advertisers took advantage of this.

The idea of storing electrical power in a lead-acid battery had become familiar with the more widespread use of automobiles. In the popular mind, a block of ice ‘stored’ winter’s cold until it was needed on a hot summer day. So the refrigerator’s cooling unit, or freezer, was promoted as storing cold like an automobile battery stores electricity, like a block of ice stores cold. Notice that the evaporator was also similar in size and shape to an automobile battery.

Some early cooling units incorporated a hollow jacket containing a brine solution. The brine solution was cooled by the evaporator and continued to absorb heat, even when the refrigerator was not running. Thus the capacity to cool was maintained, or ‘stored’, much as the advertisement claimed.

Advertising early refrigerators in the 1920s as storing cold, ‘like ice.’
[HHCC Collection]
This model kitchen demonstrated not only ‘modern’ design, but an efficient layout.
[Archives of Ontario]

The Refrigerator in The Efficient Kitchen

Advertising of the 1920s and 1930s pointed out the efficiencies the refrigerator brought to the kitchen.

The unitary cabinet refrigerator could be reduced in size so that it eventually took up less space than the ice box. You could fit it into a compact space that included a stove, a sink and cupboards to store food and tableware. Only a few steps carried the efficient homemaker from refrigerator to food preparation counter, and then on to the stove.

Food could be kept longer so you didn’t have to go out shopping for groceries as often. As a result, the homemaker could be more efficient and spend less time in food preparation.

Cooked food that was not needed for this evening’s meal could simply be stored in the refrigerator and used again for tomorrow’s meal. The age of ‘leftovers’ had arrived. It was even possible now to cook enough food at one time for several meals and store the excess in the refrigerator. Then the efficient homemaker needed only to quickly warm up the cold food on the second and third days.

This whole notion of ‘efficiency’ in the kitchen was borrowed from the early twentieth-century ‘efficiency movement’ in industry. The theory held that industrial productivity could be increased if every job performed on the factory floor were performed in a standardized way, with the fewest possible movements in the least time.

Some Problems With Early Refrigerators

The first refrigerators were noisy, required frequent servicing and contained a noxious refrigerant.

In spite of the glowing promises of the advertisers, early household refrigerators were far from perfect. The appliance still had a number of qualities that made it hard for the homeowner to adopt it without reservation.

The system was subject to leaks of the refrigerant gas. And mechanical parts like motor, belts and pulleys seemed to need constant servicing. A drop of oil here, an adjustment there.

Motors needed to be oiled every three to six months drive belts had to be regularly replaced compressor parts needed to be removed and ground smooth at the same time as seals were replaced. Constant vibration would eventually crack the copper pipes used to circulate the refrigerant.

Engineering departments of the major manufacturers were working hard to overcome some of these limitations. But the difficulties were completely ignored by the advertising department, which simply redoubled it’s efforts to promote the new appliance’s benefits and stimulate further sales.

Some components of the early refrigerator that required frequent servicing.
[HHCC Collection]
Advertising graphics demonstrated that microbial growth was much less under refrigeration than at room or ice box temperatures.
[HHCC Collection]

Preserving Food from Microbial Contamination

Selling refrigerators involved demonstrating the benefits of keeping food at a constant low temperature.

Because of some of the problems of early refrigerators, the dubious homeowner still required plenty of convincing. One argument that few could resist however, was for the improved quality of food stored in refrigerators. To make their case, advertisers called upon the fledgling science of microbiology.

By the early twentieth century, the microbial nature of disease was widely appreciated. Refrigerator manufacturers took care to stress as well that it was microorganisms, microscopic fungi and bacteria, that were responsible for the spoilage of perishable foods.

Using microscopic views of the multiplication of food spoilage microorganisms, it was easy to show that food could be kept safely for 48 hours or longer under conditions of mechanical refrigeration. The ice box, however, with its higher average internal temperature could barely keep food fresh more than 24 hours.

No one wanted to expose their family to the unpleasant odours and health hazards of spoiled food. Letting food spoil was wasteful and expensive. What could be more desirable then, but a new refrigerator to prevent all this unpleasantness from happening?

No More Paying for Ice

Salesmen claimed that the new refrigerators saved money on buying ice.

Not only did the owner of a brand new refrigerator save money by avoiding spoiled food. They didn’t have to buy ice for it either.

Yes, economical operation was a strong selling point for home refrigeration technology. Electrical power was inexpensive and widely available, and besides, the home owner in the 1920s and 1930s was unlikely to be aware if a refrigerator used more power than light bulbs or not.

With a refrigerator in the home, visits from the ice delivery van were no longer needed.
[Archives of Ontario]
Iced coffee and ice cream cones – two ways to cool off in hot weather.

Cooling Off on a Hot Day

Life at home was more comfortable than ever before.

Comfort too was employed as a sales incentive. Refrigerators made for less work in the kitchen, so life was more comfortable.

And in hot weather, why you could cool off right away with an iced drink, or an ice cream cone. Recipes were offered for various kinds of chilled desserts – gelatine moulds, parfaits, sundaes, sodas, frappes, sorbets – the prospects were mouth watering.

With this type of advertising we begin to see for the first time the use of creative thinking by marketers to suggest consumer needs of which the consumer might seldom have been aware before. If you had lived through hot summer after hot summer without any cold drinks at home, then you simply looked forward to going to town where you might get a cold drink. Most people never dreamed of having a cold drink at home until the marketers made it seem desirable.

Unheard of Choice and Convenience

By making it possible to keep foods fresh longer, the refrigerator made greater choice in diet possible.

If perishable food spoiled in a day or two, the housewife was only inclined to buy one or two perishable items at a time. If she brought home sliced ham, then the family ate ham until it was used up.

But once the home had a dependable source of cold storage, the grocery shopper could bring home a selection of cold cuts, as well as chicken and fish. And the family could have a different evening meal every day of the week.

These choices were augmented by fruits and vegetables and an increasing array of cheeses and other dairy products. The fact that the consumer could now handle and demand a greater variety of foods meant that food producers responded to the demand. The result was the production of greater varieties of perishable food than ever before. The refrigerator had stimulated greater diversity in the marketplace.

This plate of assorted cold meats demonstrates the variety of dietary choices that was impractical before refrigerators.
Famed designer Raymond Loewy turned his hand to modernizing the refrigerator for Coldspot.

The Refrigerator – An Object of ‘Modern’ Beauty

By the 1930s refrigerator manufacturers were using designers to make the machines more ‘modern’ and aesthetically pleasing.

In order to sell more refrigerators, eventually manufacturers realized that they had to get away from the ‘ice box’ image. Mechanical refrigeration was a radical departure from the ice box, and its capacity to change home life was unique. It was time, finally, to escape the comforting similarity to the earlier appliance that had been so crucial to early acceptance.

Design change was going on everywhere. In the United States, the Sears Company that produced a refrigerator called the ‘Coldspot’ went to famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to re-design the product’s appearance.

Part of All That is Modern

During the 1920s the term ‘modern’ became popular, and was immediately applied to refrigerators.

Coined in the 1920s and used widely in the 1930s, the term ‘modern’ soon became synonymous with all of the potential that people dreamed of for the twentieth century. It symbolized the triumphs of technology in giving more control over the world and creating better lives.

‘Modern’ had a visual style too. It was symbolized by simple geometrical forms and plain undecorated surfaces. Modern designs often incorporated flowing curves, an effect referred to as ‘streamlining.’ The new visual style was applied to manufactured items as diverse as railway locomotives, automobiles, kitchens, sky-scrapers and soft-drink bottles.

A refrigerator in the kitchen became as much a part of being ‘modern’ as a home telephone or the latest streamlined model car.
The ice cube tray was a new feature in the kitchen, and the source of ice to cool any drink.

Ice… New Lifestyles – On Demand

From the earliest models, home refrigerators could make ice, the source of novel new life styles.

In the ever more ingenious search for ‘selling features’ advertisers focused on lifestyle. A new refrigerator would change your life. It could make you more comfortable, more sophisticated, more modern.

Great creativity went into making ice cube trays easier to use so that the refrigerator could become an endless supply of these convenient little chunks of concentrated ‘cold.’

The Creation of Desire

Refrigerator manufacturers advertised hard to create the desire for a refrigerator in every home, the latest model with the most features.

By the 1930s the passion for all things modern had been carried even to small town Canada by savvy marketers. Advertising stimulated public demand for the latest, the most modern appliances and other manufactured products.

Refrigerator manufacturers not only applied modern styling to their appliances, they also created new models every year or two to cater to an increasing demand for the very most ‘up-to-date’ household conveniences. A new refrigerator made the householder feel like a part of twentieth century ‘progress.’

A 1929 retail store, full of attractive refrigerator models.
[HHCC Collection]
The food items that fill this refrigerator were undreamed of in ice box days, but now they are a household necessity.

Unknown Needs May Be No Less Real

Advertising for refrigerators may have created the desire to purchase, but buyers soon found they needed the new appliances.

It is easy to identify the commercial motives that led manufacturers to try to sell their product by creating new desires in the minds of potential buyers. But unless those products eventually responded to real needs, they were doomed to failure.

People may be drawn by advertising or word of mouth to try a new product that they don’t really need for a year or two. But if the real need doesn’t exist, people stop buying and move on to the next novelty.

New Goods and Services for The Home

By the early 1930’s it was clear that new economic infrastructures were developing for production, sale and transportation of new taste delights and other life amenities (like cut flowers) for the home.

Industrial refrigeration had been available longer than refrigeration in the home. But until the demand for more perishables appeared at the consumer level, refrigerated industrial facilities were not in great demand.

This situation began to change rapidly as home refrigerators spurred an appetite for delicacies, like seafood and cut flowers, that were previously unimaginable.

Seafood is a good example, because it is highly perishable and it is produced only in coastal regions far from many of the large population centres that constituted potential markets. Some industries, like dairying of course, were early to adopt industrial refrigeration. So the technology for dealing with new forms of perishable foods was already well developed and ready to be applied to the growing demand.

The production of other ‘everyday luxuries,’ like cut flowers followed a similar pattern. Flowers are a perishable commodity produced primarily in rural areas at some distance from the towns and cities that form the potential market. Refrigerated transportation made getting this product to market more effective than ever.

Highly perishable items like seafood and flowers, required refrigerated transport.
Testing milk for quality – butterfat content – as part of the production process.
[Toronto Archives]

A New Era of Food Production

Refrigeration allowed for improved quality control in the production of perishable commodities like milk.

With mechanical refrigeration increasingly playing a role on the farm and in the milk distribution plant, the dairy products industry was producing and delivering higher quality products than ever before.

Milk could now easily be protected from spoilage microorganisms. And the process of pasteurization was now widely required to protect against transmitting disease organisms via the milk supply.

Pasteurization requires heating the milk briefly to a moderate temperature, but it must then be cooled rapidly and returned to cold storage. The process was only feasible on an industrial scale with mechanical refrigeration.

Advances in dairy science meant that it was possible to analyze the microbial content and chemistry of milk at every stage in its production. These analyses and the ability to retain milk quality during storage and delivery meant that very high standards could be met.

Expanding Retail Sales

Refrigeration led to expanded demand for perishable foods as well as the capacity for retailers to stock a greater variety.

Meat, cheese and fish had been sold in small shops for many decades. Without refrigeration, however, such operations remained small. A merchant could afford to stock no more of a perishable commodity than could be easily sold within a few days.

With commercial refrigeration units, however, small merchants could afford to stock more products, increase sales and grow from small to medium-sized operations.

The local butcher shop used refrigeration to become a meat market.
[Toronto Archives]
Refrigerated truck used for long distance food delivery.
[HHCC Collection]

Enhanced Transport of Perishable Goods

Refrigeration equipment could be installed in delivery trucks, making it possible to transport perishable products for long distances.

Commercial refrigeration equipment developed for food stores and warehouses could be easily adapted for installation in a truck too. The main innovation required was the provision of power to the compressor.

Truck mounted refrigeration units could be powered by a separate motor driven by diesel or other fuel, or by direct electrical current generated by the vehicle’s electrical system.

International Transportation of Perishable Foods

Refrigerated freight cars made it possible to carry perishable products for thousands of kilometres.

In the early twentieth century the greater part of transcontinental transportation of products and commodities was by rail. Limitations in highways and the reliability of trucks over long distances meant that transportation by road was largely a regional affair.

Railways had long dominated the inland transport of durable goods and commodities such as coal and wheat. The ability to refrigerate entire boxcars meant that perishable commodities could now be transported to and from remote areas in bulk as well.

Refrigerator cars being loaded with agricultural produce.
[Archives of Ontario]
The stove and other appliances and kitchenware joined the refrigerator in the growing collection of kitchen ‘things.’
[Archives of Ontario]

The Kitchen and The Abundance of Things

The refrigerator was only one aspect of the growing market for manufactured products for use in the kitchen.

The refrigerator was only the start of the modern appliances that would soon be needed in the kitchen.

A greater focus on the home kitchen and all of the new conveniences it could produce meant the development of many new products for cooking and food preparation.

Since early in the industrial revolution there had been many manufactured examples of ‘kitchenware’ – baking dishes, casseroles, serving platters, etc. But many more for handling ice, refrigerated beverages and a variety of refrigerated desserts, were now added to these.

The kitchen stove also began a process of technological evolution. And by the 1930s a proliferation of small electrical appliances like blenders and food mixers appeared.

A New Richness of Commodities in the Kitchen

As refrigerators became commonplace, the kitchen became part of the culture of abundance – the abundance of commodities and services.

Most homes could now afford to keep not just one kind of soft drink, but several. Not just milk, but also orange and other fruit juices.

Locally produced fruit was joined by citrus fruit produced in sub-tropical regions. Perishable vegetables like lettuce and broccoli became available for longer and longer periods of the year, not just during the immediate local growing season.

Refrigerators made fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products common in every kitchen.
Women attended the races, swam Lake Ontario and volunteered for the St. John’s Ambulance Corps.
[Toronto Archives]

Changing Role for Women

Extended storage time for perishable foods in the home meant women could spend less time shopping and more time on other activities.

Leisure outside the home, whether attending movies or socializing, became more a woman’s prerogative than before. And many women took the opportunity to take part or full-time work outside the home as well.

Women needed a more varied wardrobe to wear outside the home and could also spend more time shopping for clothing. The fashion and garment industries and retail trade all benefited.

Women Encouraged to Think of Themselves as Hostesses

As part of lifestyle appeal advertising, the role of hostess was promoted over the role of homemaker.

New roles for women were advertised in quite a thoroughgoing fashion. Promotional literature described the types of social events that women might organize and the kinds of entertaining they could do.

Not only were new entertainment formats, like the ‘bridge luncheon, suggested, but an entire menu was offered for each. Artwork even illustrated how the table settings for these events might look.

This menu for a bridge luncheon was printed in a booklet that came with a new Kelvinator refrigerator in 1929.
[Toronto Archives]
Luncheon guests.
[Toronto Archives]

Women Spend More Time Entertaining

The combination of leisure time and advertising motivation led women to spend more time in social, food-related activities, entertaining guests in the home.

For many of the ‘refrigeration related’ dishes described in promotional literature, full recipes were provided. The owner of a new refrigerator had everything needed to adopt these new lifestyles right away.

Note that women had always prepared meals for guests. The difference was the new connotations of style, sophistication and gracious living advanced by refrigerator manufacturers.

No doubt the manufacturers were hoping that conversation at these social events might naturally turn to the benefits of the new appliance in the kitchen that made so many of these innovative dishes possible.

An Improved Quality of Life

Through the development and marketing of household and consumer technologies, small town Canadians were living healthier, better nourished lives.

Small towns flourished and citizens prospered. The increases in commerce meant that more and more products and services could be found in small centres as well as cities.

Availability of more products stimulated demand, and the consumer society was born.

A town street scene.
[Archives of Ontario]
A milk production line where industrial methods were applied to agricultural produce.
[Archives of Ontario]

Food and Agriculture Industries

Through the development and marketing of household and consumer technologies, agricultural trades were becoming food and agricultural industries.

Refrigerated shipment and cold storage meant that agricultural industries could benefit increasingly from centralization and economies of scale.

Milk production, for one, was amenable to packaging, handling and marketing methods that had already been developed in the manufacturing sector.

The production line model came to be widely used. And small, local businesses – dairies, butchers, grocers – were crowded out by their larger, more centralized and more industrialized competitors. The food chain stores quickly followed.