Keeping your (food) cool: From ice harvesting to electric refrigeration

By Emma Grahn
1920s icebox

If you haven't done your spring cleaning yet, think about starting with the fridge. Thanks to electric refrigeration, we're able to store more food, longer. This flexibility of when and what we eat has become an integral part of the American diet.

Leftovers: Whether you love them or hate them, you've probably eaten them. Some of us even plan on leftovers, cooking up a batch of something on Sunday to last us the whole week. Though they seem like a routine aspect of daily life, leftovers haven't always been as easy to save as popping Tupperware in the fridge.

Silent Hostess Cookbook, "What to do with Leftovers," 1932

So how did this all come to be? We save leftovers because we have a convenient device for keeping them cold, and perhaps we can't even imagine life without it: the refrigerator. Though we're accustomed to today's sleek, stainless steel models, Americans experimented with preserving food with cold well before this appliance became a standard fixture in most households. And the history of storing food by keeping it chilled goes hand in hand with the evolution of what and how Americans eat—a concept we'll explore in the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, opening in July.

Early cold storage systems in America were located not in kitchens, but underground. A seven-foot pit found at Jamestown is believed to be modeled after an English-style ice pit. There may have been a hut built over the pit to trap cold air and help preserve perishable items like meat, packed in ice and straw for insulation. A more elaborate icehouse was found at the former site of the President's House in Philadelphia. The octagon-shaped pit, built in the 1780s, has a stone lining to reduce heat loss, and it would have contained ice brought from a nearby body of water. Not far from this museum in Alexandria, Virginia, an ice well from around 1793 has recently been restored.

Filling the Ice House, 1934, by Harry Gottlieb

The natural ice harvesting industry in America began to take off in the early 1800s. Frederic Tudor, who eventually earned the nickname "Ice King," had ambitions to establish a national supply chain, distributing ice from New England to the rest of the country. The process of ice harvesting looked somewhat similar to crop harvesting, with horses pulling plow-like ice cutters across frozen lakes and ponds. Before ice could be cut, snow had to be cleared from the surface. The ice was also measured to ensure that it was thick enough—anything less than eight inches would melt too quickly during transportation to far-flung locations.

1920s icebox

By the end of the 1800s, many American households stored their perishable food in an insulated "icebox" that was usually made of wood and lined with tin or zinc. A large block of ice was stored inside to keep these early refrigerators chilly. By this point, cold had become the clear choice among food preservation methods, proving less labor-intensive and more effective at preventing spoilage. Other techniques, like salting, drying, and canning, erased any appearance of freshness and required more time to prepare. Iceboxes also presented a new way to save prepared foods—or leftovers—that previously might not have lasted beyond one meal.

An ice delivery sign; women delivering ice

With the advent of electric refrigerators, leftovers could be kept longer at more consistent temperatures—meaning they'd be more reliably safe, too. There were a variety of experiments and attempts to come up with an electric refrigeration system that worked well for the home. One device that showed some initial promise was the DOMELRE, or "domestic electric refrigerator," released in 1914. It was a small cooling device that could be used in any icebox to replace the ice itself. It offered more careful temperature regulation, but the market wasn't ready for electric refrigeration quite yet; it was neither reliable nor affordable enough.

A General Electric Monitor top refrigerator, 1930s

Over the next few years, manufacturers experimented with various versions of an electric refrigerator for the household. The first refrigerator to become widely popular in American homes, the General Electric Monitor top refrigerator, was introduced in 1927.

In the 1930s, many Americans happily began giving up their ice boxes filled with blocks of melting ice for newly affordable electric refrigerators, which allowed more space—and longevity—for leftover food. It was unthinkable to throw away food during the Great Depression, and refrigerator sales grew thanks to discounted prices offered by manufacturers. The real bump in refrigerator sales, however, started in 1935, when New Deal loans encouraged Americans to make the switch to electric.

General Electric stackable glass dishes

Leftovers became valuable—not just as a way to save money but also to make money. General Electric was one of many manufacturers that used the idea of leftovers to promote its new refrigerators. It produced cookbooks that provided tips and tricks for transforming Sunday's roast into something new and delicious, and sold stackable glass refrigerator dishes emblazoned with the GE logo.

Wonderlier Tupperware nesting bowls, around 1954

As home cooks enjoyed their convenient new appliance, innovators like Earl S. Tupper looked for additional ways to extend the shelf life of leftover food, promising to save time and money for the American housewife. Today, Tupperware is so commonplace it's hard to imagine our kitchens without this handy tool. First coming to market after World War II, Tupper's airtight plastic containers were being sold at "hostess parties" by 1951. Salespeople would demonstrate the distinctive "burp" that meant the container was sealed, promising longer lives for leftovers. Brownie Wise, whose story is told in the museum's American Enterprise exhibition, became known as the "Original Tupperware Lady." She popularized the home party model for Tupperware's marketing and sales, and the business took off.

The Taylor Foundation Object Project will give visitors a closer look at how refrigeration, leftovers, and Americans' desires for greater freedom, flexibility, and happiness in the kitchen, impacted daily life.

Emma Grahn is a Project Assistant for The Taylor Foundation Object Project.

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