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A Brief History of the Refrigerator

From ice boxes to space-saving marvels, here's how the refrigerator became the modern appliance we know and love.

Associate Editor
woman posing in front of vintage fridge
Photography by: Getty / George Marks

Can you imagine a kitchen without a refrigerator? It's hard to believe, but the way that home cooks keep their groceries cool is relatively new. If you're wondering who invented the concept of refrigeration, it's hard to say—people first began freezing water in China in 1,000 B.C., and many societies (including the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews) stored snow in insulated materials to keep foods cool, according to the International Journal of Refrigeration. In the 18th century, Europeans often collected ice in the winter and salted large pieces before storing it deep underground, and this Colonial Williamsburg Foundation report says the practice would help ice keep for months. Before the advent of the refrigerator, people spent a lot of time preserving food—canning, smoking, drying, or salting.

 

It wasn't until the early 1860s that Americans were introduced to the icebox, an early precursor of the refrigerator. Tim Buszka, a senior associate product marketing manager with the Whirlpool Corporation, says the icebox became more commonplace for middle and upper-class families in the 1890s. "There's not one real clear inventor of the modern refrigerator," Buszka says. "It was mostly auto companies who created early refrigerator models—Frigidaire was owned by General Motors way back when."

 

The earliest models of the refrigerator really just had one feature to them—a chunk of ice. According to archival records from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the icebox was an insulated cabinet with a compartment containing ice that kept perishable foods cool. Fresh ice would have to be inserted into the fridge every week or so.

 

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ice box illustration
Photography by: Getty: Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Contributor

When the first home refrigerator was introduced in the early 1910s, Buszka says it was a luxury for even the wealthiest Americans. "Back then, the cold box itself would exist on the first floor in the kitchen and you had a supplemental unit in the basement," Buszka says, explaining that the first air compressors were extremely loud. 

 

It wasn't until early 1920s that companies like Whirlpool introduced the earliest forms of the single-unit refrigerator featuring a brand new technology—evaporative cooling. It was a self-contained unit, and "wasn't cheap at the time, but didn't require the same amount of installation and maintenance of earlier models," Buszka explained.

early refrigerator
Photography by: Science & Society Picture Library / Getty

According to Pacific Standard magazine, only eight percent of American residences had a refrigerator in the early 1930s—but by the early 1940s, almost 45 percent of American homes had ditched ice boxes and installed a refrigerator.

 

The Whirlpool models produced en masse in the early 1930s had top freezers. Design features that we know and love now, like wood trim handles and bottom-drawer freezers came along later. Beginning in the 1950s, Whirlpool kicked off the trend of designing refrigerators and other appliances in vivid colors, including signature hues like "harvest gold" and "avocado green." And in the 1970s,  design features like side-by-side doors were introduced.

 

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Woman using an old refrigerator
Photography by: Daily Herald Archive / Getty

"Between the 1930s and 1970s, the evolution of refrigerator design focused on configuration, evolution, and organization," Buszka says. "But the development we're most proud of is energy-efficient refrigerators during the 1980s. People think of the refrigerator of being very power dependent, but in reality, they can run on as little power as one incandescent light bulb."

 

In the 21st century, all refrigerator models are anchored in cutting-edge technology and have features that are increasingly customizable. And Whirlpool is looking to revolutionize modern refrigerators by returning to their 1920s roots. "Old ice boxes were basically the first four-door refrigerators, where each door had a specific function beyond supporting cooling," Buskza says. "In some markets, we've launched [four-door] refrigerators that have quick grab zones for kids who have to stand on a chair to access the fridge."

 

More innovative functions currently in development include "total coverage cooling," which is a design feature that pipes cold air to each and every shelf in the fridge, which means you can finally place milk in the back of the fridge without worrying it'll freeze. Now that's truly far out.