The “We Remember Blog” recalls –
Refrigeration in the 1940s & 1950s
Part #1 – Pre 1946
Note – This is the first post in a three-part series on refrigeration in the 1940s and 1950s. Part #2 will be published later this week and the final post early the week of 9/22.
Cold storage has been used for hundreds of years to preserve perishable foods. In Europe and early America, deep cellars were built under most homes and buildings. These cold, damp cellars were regularly used to store perishable foods.
Freezing was used as a method to preserve meats and fish as far back as the Vikings who cut ice from rivers and streams during the winter and stored it in well insulated cellars where it was used to keep meat and fish frozen the rest of the year. The practice of storing ice from the rivers and streams continued until the early 1900s when new technology allowed for the commercial manufacture of ice. Whether harvested from rivers and streams or commercially manufactured, ice was stored in and sold from big, well insulated warehouses that were called ice houses. Through the 1950s, every town had at least one ice house.
Although home refrigerators were invented about 1918 and numerous models were available by the late 1920s, the economic problems caused by the great depression made them an unaffordable luxury for most families in the 1930s. Then during World War II, the production of household durable goods was shifted mostly to the production of war goods and many appliances such as refrigerators were just not available to the general public
Ice Boxes – As a result, electric home refrigerators did not come into widespread use until after World War II. Instead, when Pat and Frank were growing up most homes used ice boxes to store their perishable food products. These ice boxes were heavy wooden cabinets and had hollow walls which were lined with tin or zinc and insulated with various materials including cork, sawdust, and seaweed. Most ice boxes had several insulated, wooden, brass hinged doors on the front of the cabinet. (See picture on the left) One door, usually at the top of the box, (Top right in pix) provided access to a compartment where a large block of ice was housed. As this block of ice melted, cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the other sections of the ice box. That is where the perishable foods (accessed by other doors) were stored and kept cool. As the block of ice melted, the resulting cold water was collected in a bottle or drip pan. Some of the finer models had spigots for draining ice water from the catch pan or holding tank. In cheaper models a drip pan was placed under the box and had to be emptied at least daily.
The owner of an ice box had to replenish the melted ice on an almost daily basis, normally by purchasing new ice from an ice man who went door to door delivering big blocks of ice or by walking to the local ice house and hauling a block of ice home in a kid’s wagon. When we were growing up, most ice men had horse-drawn wagons on the back of which they carried huge blocks of ice sometime measuring 10 by 10 foot. The ice on the back of the ice wagon was usually covered with flannel or burlap tarps which provided some degree of insulation and slowed the melting process. As the ice man went from house to house, he would use a knife like, sharply pointed tool known as an ice pick to carve out smaller 10 or 20 pound blocks of ice from the big blocks on his wagon.
The process of cutting the ice blocks at each customer’s house would leave the bed of the ice wagon filled with small slivers or chips of ice. Although Pat won’t admit to doing so, Frank remembers following the ice wagon up and down the back alleys with his friends and jumping on to the wagons when the driver was gone to take chips of fallen ice as treats during the summer. After the ice was cut to the proper size, the ice man would pick it up with a tool called ice tongs, sling the block over a leather rug that he kept on his shoulder and carry the block of ice into his customers house. Some houses and apartment buildings had small, outside doors that opened directly to the ice box from the back porch. When the residents were not at home, the ice man would take a block of ice and insert it directly into his customer’s ice box through this door.
Note – Be on the lookout later this week for the 2nd post in this three-part series on refrigeration in the 1940s and 1950s.
Pat & Frank Fleming – September 2014
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