In America, refrigeration is ubiquitous. By 1963, 99 percent of American households owned a refrigerator, and by 2009, more than a quarter of people in the U.S. owned at least two fridges [PDF]. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary simple acts like making and storing ice once were. Two recent books trace the history of refrigeration, noting how far we’ve come in the way we chill and store food and drink.
Egyptian Pharaohs made slaves fan their wine all night to cool it down; now we have fridges that can keep our wine cold and hook up to our WiFi network to boot. In between, we learned how to make edible frozen fish sticks and keep our butter cold but not too cold. Science writer Tom Jackson’s Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again and Refrigerator by Colorado State University history professor Jonathan Rees are both concise rundowns of how humanity has attempted to preserve food and chill its booze since ancient times. Here are 15 icy-cool things you might not know about refrigeration that we learned from the books.
1. THE FIRST ICE SOLD IN THE CARIBBEAN CAME WITH INSTRUCTIONS.
In 1806, New England ice merchant Frederic Tudor arrived at the Caribbean island of Martinique with 130 tons of ice, determined to create a bustling market for ice in a place where most people had never seen it. He arrived with a ship packed tightly with ice and insulated with straw, only to realize he needed a serious marketing plan. He found that while locals may have been impressed with the cold treat, they had no idea what they would need it for. As he struggled to offload his melting stockpile, he ended up handing out instructions with each purchase that he sold dockside to advise people on keeping their ice from turning to water immediately (he suggested wrapping it in a towel).
2. EARLY ICE SUPPLIES CAME IN JAGGED CHIPS ...
It wasn’t until 1825 that Nathaniel Wyeth, a New England ice supplier, invented a kind of saw-plough that a horse could pull across a frozen pond or river to cut the ice into regular blocks. Because these even slabs fit together more efficiently than rough-hewn chunks, storehouses could pack more ice in together, revolutionizing the business.
3. ... AND IN THE 19TH CENTURY, YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T WANT TO EAT IT.
Massachusetts ice harvesting depicted in an 1852 drawing. Gleason's Drawing Room Companion via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Even the cleanest ice cut from lakes had a little bit of algae inside. And cheaper ice was even grosser: To increase ice yields, harvesters drilled through the first layer of pond ice so that it sank a little, bringing more water to the surface to then freeze into thicker ice. But that trapped leaves, dirt, and anything else on the pond’s surface inside the frozen block. Ice harvested near cities was frequently made with contaminated water filled with factory pollution and sewage.
4. THE FIRST U.S. REFRIGERATION PATENT WAS FILED BY A DOCTOR.
was a Florida doctor looking for a way to keep fever-stricken patients from sweltering. Hoping to cool the air with cold water, he created a compression system in the 1840s. But it ended up freezing the water instead of chilling it. He patented it in 1851 and went into the refrigeration business—only to lose all his money to cheaper ice imports from New England.
5. REFRIGERATION PIONEERS WERE JUST TRYING TO KEEP THEIR BOOZE COLD.
James Harrison, a Scottish-born journalist, invented the first functioning refrigerator in the 1850s using ether. According to Jackson, he used it to chill beer. Decades later, a French monk would get the credit for the world’s first domestic refrigerator. In 1911, General Electric acquired the rights to Abbé Marcel Audiffren’s electric refrigerator, which he had made to chill wine. GE sold its model for $1000, about twice the price of a car at that time.
6. GE GOT INTO THE FRIDGE BUSINESS TO SELL ELECTRICITY.
Before every house had televisions, computers, cell phones, and air conditioning, electric plants made much more power than they could sell. Fridges run up electricity bills because they run 24/7—a perfect way to encourage power usage. GE introduced the Monitor Top fridge in 1927, when some electric utilities were offering customers discounts for getting fridges in the hopes of making up the cost in the long run. “Ultimately, GE only started to build refrigerators in the hopes that the power they consumed would help the firm’s electrical utilities division,” Rees writes in Refrigerator.
7. THE FIRST REFRIGERATORS WERE HUGE.
In the latter part of the 19th century, a fridge could weigh 5 tons. (They were too big to install at home, obviously.)
8. INITIALLY, INSTALLING A HOME FRIDGE MEANT CUTTING UP YOUR FLOOR.
The first self-contained fridge, sold by Kelvinator, didn’t come about until 1925. The company’s first home refrigerator came in two parts—the machinery and motor went in the basement, and connected through the floor up to an ice box filled with refrigerant.
9. FREEZERS DIDN’T COME UNTIL LATER.
were not on the minds of early fridge pioneers. The earliest fridges didn’t even have freezers. But they were cold enough to freeze water into ice by placing it near the machinery inside.
10. FLASH FREEZING WAS INSPIRED BY INUIT FISHING PRACTICES.
Clarence Birdseye traveled to Canada in 1912 to make a fortune as a fur trapper. Instead, he got the inspiration for flash freezing. He learned how to ice fish in Labrador from Inuit locals, and noticed that the fish he caught froze almost instantly. Once thawed, the fish tasted perfectly fresh, unlike the soggy, tasteless frozen fish he had had before. While slowly lowering the temperature of fruits, vegetables, and fish causes large ice crystals to form, breaking the cellular structures that make up the food, at temperatures as low as -40°F, things freeze so quickly that only the smallest ice crystals form, preventing cell damage. Birdseye went on to sell America’s first commercial frozen food, and develop the freezer cases you see in grocery stores today
11. WEIRD APPLIANCE ACCESSORIES ARE NOT NEW TO TODAY'S SMART HOME AGE.
In the 21st century, you can buy refrigerators that come with televisions and connect to WiFi, but vaguely useless fridge tech is nothing new. “The ability to make ice cubes at home was the refrigerator’s ‘killer app’ of the 1920s,” as Jackson writes, but fridge makers quickly tried wackier things to stand out from the crowd of competitors. In 1937, one company sold a refrigerator with a radio built in.
12. A WOMAN FOUGHT HARD TO GET BUTTER TRAYS IN REFRIGERATOR DOORS.
In the mid-20th century, refrigerators were designed specifically to target women, who were presumably doing all of the cooking in the stereotypical Leave It to Beaver American household. Unfortunately, most companies didn’t have any female executives, so they had to hire women to come in and advise them. In 1942, one such consultant, Lurelle Guild, tried to convince a company called Servel to design their refrigerator doors with a butter compartment, since the door is warmer than the inside of the refrigerator and the butter would thus be softer. Since butter was considered a luxury item, the company decided to ignore Guild’s advice. Sadly for Servel, Guild’s idea is now a standard fridge design.
13. EARLY FRIDGES WERE STRONG.
A well-stocked refrigerator in Maryland, 1942. Image Credit: Marjory Collins, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
The home fridges of the early 20th century were incredibly well-fortified. In 1939, as proof of their fridge’s sturdy structure, Frigidaire got a 4-ton elephant to stand on top of it, then opened and closed the door to prove that their seals were airtight no matter what happened. The picture ran in newspapers across the country [PDF].
14. IT TOOK A WHILE FOR FRIDGES TO CATCH ON OUTSIDE OF AMERICA.
In the 1880s, French citizens revolted over a fruit merchant’s refrigerator warehouse, arguing that he couldn’t claim his fruit was fresh if it had been refrigerated for days. Only a third of the U.K. had a fridge by 1965, preferring to use old-school larders and cellars instead. But eventually the fridge caught on. By 2011, 99 percent of Brits owned a fridge, and 93 percent had a freezer [PDF].
15. WITHOUT THE REFRIGERATOR, THERE WOULD BE NO SUPERMARKET.
Refrigerated train cars and ships made transporting fruit, vegetables, meat, and other perishables across the world possible. It’s why you can eat Chilean raspberries in January in Massachusetts. Supermarkets wouldn’t be able to store all the food they sell without fridges, nor would people be able to buy an entire week’s worth of groceries at one time if they didn’t have somewhere cold to keep it at home.