Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ice Boxes vs. Refrigerators

Jonathan Rees

I’ve written previously here about the good and bad sides of suddenly being able to access the world’s biggest libraries through Google Books when you have a research project that you’d like to finish someday. Another Google experiment that debuted while I was working on Refrigeration Nation was Google Ngrams.

Ngrams, if you don’t know about them, chart the frequency of words or phrases as they appeared in volumes scanned by the Google Books project against the years that those books were published. (See Eric Schultz's post from last month.) Yes, it is incredibly easy to lose several hours playing with this research tool. Luckily for me, I already knew what I wanted to chart as soon as I heard of it:


That is the chart for “ice box” vs. “refrigerator.” (For what it’s worth, icebox [one word] looks almost identical.) What I really appreciate about that chart is that it basically illustrates something that my research already told me: before the electric household refrigerator came along, “ice boxes” were called “refrigerators.” Before explaining that statement a little better, let me define terms. While often used interchangeably with the word “refrigerator” by people over sixty, an ice box in the historical sense refers to a box with ice in it designed to keep perishable food fresh. The first ice boxes were made by carpenters in the 1840s, designed to take advantage of something new in American life: the regular household delivery of large blocks of ice that could be obtained daily in large cities and even small ones. Now, instead of going to market every day for your vegetables or fresh meats, consumers could buy for more than one day of meals at once, and keep the extra food in their ice box.

While incredibly convenient, ice boxes had their drawbacks. For example, you couldn’t open the door to your ice box all that often, or else the ice in it would melt too fast. Ice boxes were also hell to clean, particularly as ice cut from lakes and ponds in the early days of the ice industry often had natural sediment in it. If the smell of any food permeated the wood inside and got into the insulation, the whole appliance would become worthless. Also, if you kept the wrong products together in an ice box (butter and fish, for example) one would often end up smelling like the other.

Nevertheless, Americans gradually warmed to the ice box.* You can see that in the gradual increase in frequency of the use of the term refrigerator in that Ngram, especially after 1880 as the insulation became better and refrigerator companies began to mass-produce them for the first time. How do I know that they don’t mean “refrigerator” like the one in your kitchen now? They hadn’t been invented yet.

But while the first even remotely successful electric household refrigerator didn't debut until 1915, inventors were working on them at least a decade earlier because of the failings of the ice box as described above. This led to a need to differentiate the electric household refrigerators that they aspired to create from the useful but annoying boxes that so many people had in their kitchens at that time.  Hence, the coining of the word “ice box.”

The prime period for the growth of electric household refrigerators in the United States was the 1920s. That was when refrigerator producers gradually settled on a new refrigerant, Freon, and created a mechanism that was both reliable and quiet enough for household use. Refrigerators were one of the few goods for which sales actually increased during the Great Depression, as their value over the ice box in terms of convenience and effectiveness was just that clear. Based on my research, the ice box essentially disappeared during the 1950s as electric household refrigerators became so cheap and the country so prosperous that basically anybody could afford them. When that happened, the use of the  word “ice box” declined with the appliance that it represented.

Is a Google Ngram scientific?  Of course, not. That’s why I didn’t put it in my book. Is a Google Ngram good enough for a blog post? Of course it is, which is why I just wrote this. Trust me, the actual research squares with this interpretation. If you don’t believe me, then buy my book and see for yourself.

* Yes, bad puns are inevitable when discussing refrigeration of any kind. Why do you ask?


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post, Jonathan. I'm curious to know if you have a theory for the "dip" in the use of the word "refrigerator" in the 60s/70s? Were companies marketing refrigerators with different words or phrases? Did the technology become saturated and therefore boring to the press and authors (until the addition of new features, like cold water)? Just wanted to take your temperature on the issue, so to speak.

Unknown said...

Hello, my name is Deborah Delp and I would like to correct a statement you made about the invention of the ICEBOX. "The first ice boxes were made by carpenters in the 1840s". According to my genealogical research into my husband's family tree, the first icebox was invented by Thomas Moore (husband's 5th great-grandfather) in 1803. He gave permission to then President Thomas Jefferson to use his invention. Following is a note from Moore to Jefferson: "Thos. Jefferson President of the United States has permission to use one of my patent refrigerators of any size and for any purpose he may think proper. June 1st 1805. Thos. Moore". Please note that Moore already obtained the patent for his invention by 1805. If you care to discuss/refute this claim you may contact me at:

Unknown said...

Do people still have iceboxes? I noticed a company the other day unloading a lot of ice. With all the ice they had, I don't think it would be able to fit in a refrigerator. My only explanation is that the company buying the ice was going to use it for sculpture making or they have to use a lot of ice to cool something.