In the modern era, a kitchen without a refrigerator is nearly unimaginable. Fridges have become so familiar that it’s even common to see miniature versions in offices, garages, and even dorm rooms. But have you ever stopped to wonder about refrigerator history?
Who came up with the idea of refrigeration and how did we get to the ubiquitous use we see today?
What is Refrigeration?
To begin examining refrigerator history, we’ll start by defining what refrigeration is. Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from an enclosed space to lower the temperature. Cooling is primarily used to keep perishable goods at a temperature low enough to prevent spoilage.
Today, this process mostly occurs automatically in our kitchen fridge. However, the history of refrigerator dates all the way to ancient times. Ancient people in China, Greece, and even Egypt found ways to store ice to keep perishable foods cold.
Over the years, people developed numerous techniques for keeping food cold. Eventually, people discovered how to store and even create ice. This development leads to added convenience and fewer spoiled foods.
Why is Refrigeration Important?
Modern refrigeration has drastically improved daily life. By providing consistently low temperatures to store perishable goods, fridges have increased food safety and minimized food waste.
Also, modern refrigeration allows everyday consumers to eat a wider variety of foods resulting in a lower risk of nutritional deficiency.
Refrigerator’s Ancient Precursors
In our technological progress-induced vanity, we often believe that ancient people were less apt than we are today. Well, there are countless of ways ancient civilizations were maybe smarter than us modern folks as they were often able to pull off engineering feats we wouldn’t be able to achieve without electricity and other modern conveniences.
For instance, ancient engineers in Persia (modern-day Iran) were able to store ice and keep food cool in the middle of the desert in the so-called yakhchals, or ‘ice pits,’ as early as 400 B.C. The yakhchal is an ancient engineering marvel that can still be found standing today in the Middle East and across east and central Asia.
The yakhchal is an insulated dome-shaped underground refrigerator made of a water-resistant lime-based mortar known as sarooj. Sand, clay, ash, egg whites, goat hair were often added to the mix to make the sarooj waterproof. The mix needed two days to be kneaded.
A yakhchal was kept cool with help from ice carried from the mountains or with diverted water through an intricate system of underground water channels. In some cases, the yakhchal was kept cool through a genius system of wind-catchers that kept the entire dome cool.
The yakhchal was so effective that the water stored underground in it froze overnight. This ancient refrigerator was likely used to store drinking water, food, and other perishables by local communities living in the desert. Yakhchals are still being used today in some parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan to make and store ice.
Another ancient predecessor of the modern-day refrigerator is the so-called pot-in-pot refrigerator. Just like the yakhchal, this ancient cooling device is based on evaporation cooling technology.
The pot-in-pot refrigerator also known as the Zeer pot was first used in ancient Africa and it is still in use today by modern preppers looking for off-grid alternatives to modern conveniences.
Making this evaporative cooler is relatively straightforward, and the whole device shouldn’t cost you more than $15. The only major downside of this “fridge” without electricity is that it truly works in climates with less than 10% moisture. In other words, it was designed for desert conditions primarily.
So, if you live in a location with more than 10% humidity, use the Zeer pot to store fruit and vegetables. Don’t try your chance on foods that can easily spoil such as dairy products, meat, leftovers, and so on.
How does a pot-in-pot refrigerator work? The Zeer cooler consists of two clay pots and a layer of wet sand between them. The outer pot should be porous to let the water evaporate while the inner pot should be glazed to prevent humidity to reach the food.
The idea behind this ancient cooler is that as the moisture in the layer of sand evaporates it draws the heat from the glazed pot keeping any contents cool. That’s why you’ll need no extra moisture and a constant source of dry air to help with the evaporation.
Ice Houses and Boxes
Typically located near rivers, the ice house was one of the earliest forms of refrigeration in the Western world. Unlike yakhchals and Zeer pots, which use evaporation to reach lower temperatures, ice houses kept things cool through insulation.
These structures would be settled deep into the ground to promote a cold environment. People would carry ice or snow from nearby mountains covered it in sawdust or straw and store it in this external building for months to keep goods cool.
By the 1800s people began to use what was commonly called an icebox. This relatively compact device allowed users to be able to store ice inside the home.
Often, these boxes were made of wood, lined with cork, tin, or zinc, and included a drip tray to catch ice melt. Despite the development of electric refrigeration, ice boxes would remain popular until the early 1900s.
The First Refrigerators
By the 1720s, a scientist named William Cullen made the acute observation that evaporation created a cooling effect. As this observation was shared across the world, the nineteenth century saw a boom in the development of cooling technology. Although, it would still be quite some time before in-home refrigeration became common.
While Cullen displayed his scientific prowess by demonstrating his artificial cooling technique in 1748, the first refrigeration design didn’t debut until 1805. However, this design by Oliver Evans remained just that, a design. It wasn’t until 1834 that Jacob Perkins built the very first practical refrigeration machine.
As refrigeration developments continued throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, one common problem remained. Old refrigerators used toxic gases to foster cooling. Often, these toxic substances would leak and lead to fatal accidents.
The high number of deaths associated with refrigerator leaks eventually lead to a cooperative research program aimed at finding a safe alternative to ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide. This American group finally discovered Freon, the key to the widespread adoption of electric refrigeration.
In 1927, the General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator hit the market. This machine was the first electric fridge to become widely popular in American homes. It also consumed just 244 kWh per year, which was insanely energy efficient according to modern-day standards.
When New Deal loans became famous in 1935, these GE refrigerators began popping up in many kitchens. Monitor Tops are so sturdy that some of these units are still functional today.
Modernization of Refrigerators
While the top cooling refrigerator made a significant impact on American homes, it wouldn’t be until after World War II that the production of refrigerators would start to blossom. These machines were more sophisticated than previous top cooling systems.
By 1939, refrigerators were bottom-cooled and featured both a fridge and a freezer. Postwar production saw a rapid rise in the number of households that owned a refrigerator. To be more specific, about 85% of American homes had a fridge in their kitchen.
Improvements in the 1950s
By the 1950s, modern refrigerators began to feature new and improved features. Advertisements for fridges were targeted at homemakers and touted as an essential addition to any kitchen. At this point, it became increasingly trendy to decorate your kitchen with a color scheme.
Big colorful refrigerators would match kitchen cupboards and walls.
It was around this time that advanced features like auto-defrost and automatic ice machines started beckoning to consumers. Combined with curvy design, these stylish refrigerators became iconic of the time.
Big Freezers of the 1960s
As futuristic designs swept the market in the 1960s, so did larger freezer designs. It was around this time that frozen dinners were becoming a mainstay in the American diet, and fridge manufacturers happily accommodated. Appliances in the 1960s held the promise of a future full of ultra-convenience.
Innovation in the 70s and 80s
The 1970s saw a return to the boxy design of the first fridges from the 1940s. However, along with this aesthetic change, came a focus on manufacturing smaller more energy-efficient models. Various governments around the world called for improved standards to protect the environment.
In the 70s, another significant shift in refrigerator history occurred. Scientists discovered that contrary to prior analysis, CFCs used to cool refrigerators were not entirely safe. While these chemicals were not directly causing fatalities like the hazardous substances in fridges from the 1800s, they were destroying the ozone.
Scientists began to develop different chemical substances to cool modern refrigerators without damaging the protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere. By the 1980s fridges were being produced without CFCs.
As was the trend with most appliances in this era, sensibility was made a top priority.
Refrigerator design of the 80s became increasingly pragmatic and featured sturdy, utilitarian design. These refrigerators were the safest to date and used less energy than previous models.
Double Door Fridges of the 1990s
While the 80s gradually faded into the 1990s refrigerator history would change once again. The design would once again focus on modernism. However, unlike the curvy futuristic models of the 60s, “modern” refrigerators produced in the 90s were designed to be sleek.
Refrigerators grew in size and began featuring French-style double doors. Additionally, many fridges of this era added convenient ice and water dispensers to the front of the appliance. Stainless steel facades made their appearance in this decade.
With growing awareness of climate change came increasing concerns about energy consumption. In the 90s refrigerators continued to become more energy efficient, a trend we see continued even today.
Modern Day Refrigerators
Today it seems nearly impossible to imagine a kitchen without a refrigerator. As smart technologies continue to develop, they increasingly integrate with every facet of our daily lives. This trend advances in the development of new fridges.
Today’s refrigerators are even more energy efficient than refrigerators of the past and come in a wide variety of sizes and styles to suit every need. While double-door fridges are still common, it is also common to see innovative “smart” designs that are compact and efficient.
In addition to common features like lights on the interior, new fridges frequently feature a wide variety of temperature controls to maximize food storage capabilities and energy efficiency. Some models on the market today even come with compartments that can function as either fridges or freezers!
Although the world of modern appliances is brimming with options to suit most consumers, there are plenty of options available for those looking to bring a taste of the past to their homes.
Using vintage refrigerators can be extremely dangerous given the nature of the chemicals that were coolants. However, there are a few companies, such as The Big Chill, that are designing retro stylized appliances without the severe downsides.
These fridges look like something from decades past, but function as safely and efficiently as the most technologically advanced “smart” refrigerator. By catering to customers interested in vintage style, these companies are saving the environment and protecting consumers.
Refrigerator technology has come a long way from the days of collecting ice and snow from nearby mountaintops. With each generation, we have seen an increase in development that has added convenience, safety, and efficiency to this ubiquitous appliance.
Fridge technology has been vital in improving overall life quality. In fact, without proper refrigeration, it would be much more difficult to ensure adequate food safety. Food-borne illness would be a much more prolific problem, and daily life would be much less convenient.
As technology develops further, we can only hope to see the continued development of cooling domestic cooling technology. Today’s homes are becoming increasingly diverse and finding appliances to fit with the newest trends can be challenging.
However, if refrigerator history has taught us anything, it’s that fridges will continue to follow the directions of the time.
I’m Asma Sheikh, a home cook and recipe developer with a passion for all things food. On my blog (The Kitchen Advisor), you’ll find everything from healthy weeknight dinners to decadent desserts, and everything in between. So whether you’re a seasoned home cook or just getting started in the kitchen, I hope you’ll find something here that inspires you to get cooking!