Before the refrigerator got its hum

Well into the 1930s, households used large blocks of ice to keep food cold in “ice boxes.” Some households chilled food only seasonally, taking advantage of cold temperatures by keeping perishables in the cellar, on the porch, or in window box refrigerators.

Women delivering ice during World War I, 1918

Women delivering ice during World War I, 1918

Courtesy of National Archives

“With ice as a refrigerant the condition of milk is doubtful 24 hours after delivery, fresh meat should be cooked within 36 hours, [and] . . . cooked meat and vegetables should be used within 48 hours after preparation. . .”

—Frigidaire Household Sales Textbook, about 1930

Ice delivery tongs, 1930s

Ice delivery tongs, 1930s

 

Blocks of ice—often harvested from local ponds—chilled the ice box by absorbing heat as they melted. Of course, that meant drip pans had to be emptied and water mopped up. 

Ice box, 1920s

Ice box, 1920s

Courtesy of the Sloane Collection

Window box, 1920s

Window box, 1920s

National Museum of American History Trade Literature and Special Collections

U.S. Patent granted to Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd, 1930

U.S. Patent granted to Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd, 1930

 

Absorption  refrigerators—unlike those with electric compressors—used a natural gas flame to maintain the heat exchange that cooled the food compartment; they had no hum. Many inventors, including Albert Einstein, patented designs for absorption units, but heavily-marketed electric refrigerators became the norm.