Future on Ice

Defrosting the history of the fridge

By Eric Slatkin

At the turn of the 20th century, people spent a lot of time waiting for the man to arrive with a frozen block of ice to slide into an insulated metal box (icebox) so that perishables could be kept cool. Then came the electric refrigerator. Consumers and advertisers realized that this appliance was more than just an improvement on the icebox. The fridge gave rise to the supermarket, the frozen foods industry, and new methods of cooking. It helped establish the kitchen as a social hub, and provided a canvas for creative expression (what you display on your fridge says a lot about you). And similar to the automobile, it became a status symbol and a showpiece of cutting-edge technology. Below are some of the most important moments in refrigerator history.

1914  The DOMELRE (DOMestic ELectric Refrigerator) hits the market. It’s the first time consumers have been offered an alternative to the icebox (though most people will not be able to afford a refrigerator for at least another decade). A single-compartment unit with a freezer subcompartment inside, it’s sold with a newfangled gadget called an ice cube tray.

1923  The Frigidaire company, owned by General Motors, releases a self-contained refrigerator (which was developed nearly a decade before but not widely released). Up to this point, the fridge was in the kitchen, while the mechanical end (the motor, compressor, and condenser) lived separately, usually in the basement.

1926  In an effort to sell people new refrigerators, electrical trade organizations across the country stage expositions to educate potential consumers. This is footage from one such event, staged by the Electric League of Pittsburgh.

1927  GE releases the Monitor Top fridge, named for its distinctive ring compressor mounted above the fridge. Other innovative features include an all-steel cabinet (before this, doors were made of flimsy metal, or even wood), rudimentary slide-out shelving, and foot pedals to open the door. It’s a hit, selling more than 1 million units.

1930  Frigidaire releases the Hydrator, a special compartment for produce, with an adjustable slot to regulate the amount of air allowed in. (Used more as a marketing tool, these crispers didn’t really keep produce fresher back then, and they don’t now either, at least not on lower-end fridge models.)

1931  Frigidaire is the first to use Freon, an alternative to dangerous refrigerants like sulfur dioxide. Freon, a CFC (chlorofluorocarbon), is extremely damaging to the ozone layer—but no one knows this yet.

1933  The Ohio-based Crosley company, known mostly as a radio manufacturer, unveils the Shelvador, the first model with shelves on the inside of the door. The popular feature leaves competitors scrambling. In 1940, Crosley releases a model with a built-in radio on the door.

1934  Originally released in 1928, the Sears Coldspot gets a makeover by industrial designer Raymond Loewy, whose designs include the Coke bottle, the Lucky Strike package, the Greyhound bus, and other iconic American products. The refrigerator’s sleek, modern lines and economic use of space triple Coldspot’s sales in the first year.

1938  GE introduces a fridge with a butter keeper. Heat controls allow consumers to set their desired level of softness. This electrical feature isn’t grounded, however, and is known to shock people.

1939  Crosley puts in a hanging wire rack for eggs on the inside of the door of one of its fridges.

1941  52 percent of American households now have refrigerators.

1941–1945  A great deal of American refrigeration production is halted as factories aid the war effort. Frigidaire, for instance, manufactures .50-caliber Browning machine guns and aircraft propellers.

1947  GE markets the first fridge model with a completely separate freezer.

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