By Noah Lederman
Humans can now store much of their food for as long as they need, thanks to the common household refrigerator. Not only has the refrigerator brought color and creative magnets to the family kitchen, it also has facilitated an age of comfort and consumption in industrialized Western cultures. Our culinary desires and consumption are not dictated by proximity to agriculture or concerns about spoilage. How the refrigerator has changed our access to and expectations about the availability of food have led us into an age of mass consumption which has, in turn, led to a dramatic increase in the expenditure of our planet’s resources and organisms in order to support that consumption.
Supermarkets are stocked with food from around the globe. In the United States, Midwesterners can purchase Atlantic char; California’s dairy products are found throughout the Northeast; and in Washington, DC, the strawberries, whether fresh or frozen, are from Mexico. But farmers’ and other food producers’ ability to transport their products over vast distances—storing them for large amounts of time without decay of sanitation or quality—would have had little impact without the accessibility of the common refrigerator. Indeed, the advent of the refrigerator, was the key to the sophisticated innovations in food transportation because it allowed for the preservation of all sorts of food in the home, thereby creating a hugely expanded market. Many take the household refrigerator for granted, but it was not until the late 1920s that the f refrigerators for household use were produced en masse. The average person had little flexibility, variety or convenience—there were no TV dinners or frozen pizzas—when it came to mealtime. Trade, when it came to food, was limited; food was locally sourced.
The concept of cooling food and produce, even before it was discovered to be a preservation technique, is not revolutionary by any means. The use of ice to cool drinks can be traced back to ancient times, even before Christ. A variety of cultures and civilizations cooled their drinks—the Jews, Romans, and Greeks used insulated snow. By the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, some food preservation techniques involved the use of low temperatures. Before then, the only means of preservation was salting and pickling, as is reflected in the large Atlantic cod trade that can be traced back to the Basques in Spain. In the United States, icehouses were introduced in the late eighteenth century, primarily throughout the east coast states of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. To accommodate the demand for large amounts of ice in the warmer summer climates, insulated carts transported the ice. Initially, the use of cooling for preservation purposes was almost solely for the delivery and storing of diary products, As cooling methods became more widespread, so did the realization that produce could also benefit. And scientific studies further expanded an understanding of how cooling could not only preserve, but also improve food quality; one notable study showed that egg quality dramatically increased when the eggs were refrigerated, compared to those that did not travel far and were stored in cellars.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the common household began to reap the complete benefits of in-home cold insulation. Up until then, most families’ only means of cooling and keeping food fresh were cheap ice-boxes. While household refrigerators had hit the market, they were unaffordable; the new refrigeration technology was expensive.
By 1936, however, over two million mechanical refrigerators were in circulation in the United States; five years later, that number had grown to three and a half million, growing exponentially from then on. At a time when other new electrical appliances, were flooding the market, the consumer was looking for convenience and time savings. Consumer demand supported new refrigerator designs from leading companies General Electric and Frigidaire. Freezer sections in super markets began to sprout up—Frigidaire even provided recipes for families that included necessary frozen food. Families could now buy greater amounts of fresh produce and frozen food in bulk; they needed fewer trips to the market, freezing up time for other activities. The advent of the household refrigerator allowed for a shift in society’s mindset toward that of access, ease and little thought for consumption levels. Consumers now had fresh food from across the country available to them, broadening the demand from meat, to fish, to vegetables.
Following the second World War, the refrigerator initially served to cement woman’s role as housewife. Many women who had had factory jobs during the war, found themselves out of work when the men came home. The marketers and advertisers for refrigerators targeted women as their audience—as the household members who would be using the appliance. Advertisements included words such as “femineered” to appeal to women. By “feminizing” the product, advertisers were conveying the message that it was simple and easy to use. But, at the same time, the home refrigerator also saved women time in the kitchen, providing them with time for other more fulfilling activity, including paid work outside of the home, that was on par with men, a significant societal and cultural shift. Indeed, many attribute women’s expanded opportunity for paid to be responsible for the first wave of feminism. No longer were women tied to the kitchen and the dinner table; there could always be a frozen meal available.
Although the age of electric appliances, most notably the refrigerator, expanded women’s opportunity it also led to less positive societal impact. Increased electrical consumption has led to the burning of coal and fossil fuels. The refrigerator required not only electricity to operate, but also chlorofluorocarbons in its manufacture. These CFCs have dramatically contributed to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone.
The rectangle box that is now common to every modern household has prompted a dramatic change in consumerism, society’s expectations of gender roles, and our physical environment. But interestingly, the consumer demand which sustained the refrigerator market has begun to come full circle. Increasingly, people are pushing back against frozen and convenience food, desiring to purchase their produce from local farmers. We are slowly realizing the impracticality and unsustainability of mass consumption and many—those who can afford it—are trying to fall back to traditional, locally sourced foods. What began as a seemingly simple benefit, became a catalyst for much more.
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Dawson. “The Effects of Farm Refrigeration on Marketable Quality of Eggs.” Poultry Science 35, no. 3 (November 15, 1955): 586-92.
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