Posted on by Cleverona Kitchen

Kitchen History: How the Refrigerator Came to Be


It’s hard to believe that in 1930 only 8% of Americans have a refrigerator at home. Now almost 100% of households have a refrigerator with 24% even having two! A refrigerator is a home appliance that transfers the heat from the inside to its external environment so that the inside compartment is cooled to a temperature below the room temperature. The refrigerator's cold temperature lowers the reproduction rate of bacteria, reducing the rate of spoilage. But it wasn't always that easy and refrigeration has come a long way from being an ice storage facility to the more complicated appliance in your kitchen. Take a look at the refrigerator's journey!


For over centuries people have relied on icehouses for refrigeration. A stone tablet from 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse ordered by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari. It is the earliest recorded form of refrigeration to date. Icehouses are an ingenious way of storing ice throughout the year. They are mostly brick-lined with the majority of the building below ground. These houses were built near sources of water where they could harvest ice during winter. Cut ice and snow would then be stored in the icehouse and packed with insulation such as straw or sawdust.

The Icehouse was introduced in the UK in 1660 and until the 1920’s they were still importing ice from Scandinavia. Importation of ice declined at around 1900 largely due to the development of factories where ice was started to get made artificially.


Artificial refrigeration started with William Cullen in 1755 when he designed a refrigerating machine that managed to create a small amount of ice. Though the experiment was somewhat successful, it had no practical application at that time.




ice harvesting delivery


icebox ad

Ice became much cheaper with the capability of artificially producing it and the invention of the ice cutter. Now the Icebox became more domestically common and icehouses generally disappeared. Iceboxes, also known as cold closets, are an early 20th-century kitchen appliance that was invented by an American cabinet maker named Thomas Moore in 1902 in which he used to transport butter. This allowed him to sell the product firm, unlike his competitors. His first model was a cedar tub fitted with a tin container inside and ice between them all wrapped in rabbit fur to keep insulated. Later versions would be cabinets with hollowed walls lined with tin or zinc. The ice would sit on a tray on top of the box allowing cold air to circulate in the storage compartments below. A drip pan would be placed on the bottom to catch the water and needed to be emptied daily.

Iceboxes were the very first refrigerators, as the public aptly first called them. It was only after the invention of the powered refrigerator did people began calling them Iceboxes and started calling the electric ones refrigerators.


The first practical vapor compression refrigeration system was built by James Harrison in 1856 and by 1861 a dozen of his systems were in operation in breweries and meatpacking houses. Commercial refrigerators and freezers were already in use 40 years before home units were common. Though commercial units were available, they still used gas systems such as ammonia or sulfur dioxide which often leaked and were still not safe to use at home.


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In 1913 Fred W. Wolf invented the first refrigerator for home use named Domestic Electric Refrigerator or DOMELRE. It was a factory-manufactured, ready-to-use refrigeration unit that could be mounted on top of an icebox and plugged in. It was an attempt to build a simple, “inexpensive” household refrigerator. The unit cost $900 equivalent to an average person’s annual salary at that time. The patent eventually ended up in Frigidaire’s hands in 1922.


It was only until 1927 when GE introduced their refrigerators that we saw more people owning domestic refrigerators. GE’s refrigerators quickly gained the name “Monitor-top” because they had a compressor mounted on top of the unit, that resembled the gun turret on the Civil War ironclad ship named the USS Monitor. The Monitor-top was first sold at $525, but within a few years models were selling as low as $200, making GE’s Monitor Top refrigerators affordable for many Americans.









Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used toxic gasses like ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide as refrigerants and several fatal accidents have happened in the 1920s because of leakage from refrigerators. In reaction to this people started leaving their refrigerators in their backyards. A collaborative effort began between three American corporations, Frigidaire, General Motors, and DuPont to search for a less dangerous method of refrigeration. In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. aided by Charles Franklin Kettering invented a "miracle compound" called Freon.


Freon was introduced in the 1920s and expanded the refrigerator market during the 1930s providing a safer, low-toxicity alternative to previously used refrigerants. Despite freon being safe, it posed a looming threat to the environment. 


Freon is now infamous for greatly adding to the thinning of the earth's ozone layer. Not only does Freon itself harm the ozone layer, but the manufacturing of Freon releases another product into the atmosphere. This gas, called HFC-23, is also harmful and contributes to global warming. 


Most of the CFCs are now banned or severely restricted. Brands of Freon containing hydrofluorocarbons are instead used, but they, too, are under strict control as they are deemed "super-greenhouse effect" gasses. They are no longer used in aerosols, but to date, no suitable, general use alternatives to the halocarbons have been found for refrigeration that is not flammable or toxic, problems the original Freon was devised to avoid.


retro fridge
The 1950s brought improvements in style and performance, so consumers could choose different designs of refrigerators. In the early 1970s freon was labeled an environmental hazard and was replaced. Since then, modern refrigerators use variations of tetrafluoromethane as a refrigerant.


Refrigerators designed in the 1980s were more practical and were mostly built to last long. Chlorofluorocarbons were removed and made refrigerators safer and workable in the eyes of consumers and manufacturers. The amount of energy consumed by a refrigerator in the mid-80s was approximately 1700 kWh per year.


In the 1990s the refrigerators were sleek and modern. Consumers favored contemporary and fashionable designs, and as a result, bulky fridge-freezers of the past disappeared from the markets. 


Each decade during the 20th century improved energy efficiency as climate change gained notoriety in the public eye. Energy consumption fell to just 850kWh per year and as of today, typical refrigerators are very energy efficient. They can use just a third of the energy that model of a similar size would have consumed in the 1970s. Energy efficiency on a contemporary refrigerator can go below 460kWh per year, which is a reduced amount. 


Today refrigerators are more about safety and efficiency and sizes range from the size of a microwave to one as big as a closet. How much energy does it consume? Is it safe for the environment? These are questions asked by consumers and answered by the manufacturers. Regardless of what refrigerator you may have or are going to purchase, they all still serve the same purpose as they did more than 100 years ago. To preserve food.