Artifact Corner: Ice Box

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at an unassuming box that sits next to a wall in our kitchen. This is an ice box from the 1870’s. It has a wooden exterior, and the inside of it is lined in either zinc or tin. Inside the zinc or tine box you would place ice and the foods you needed to keep cool. An ice box like this was not necessary during the winter, for those of us who live in a northern climate. It was most likely only really used from late Spring through early Fall. Let’s learn a bit more about ice boxes and the history of refrigeration.

The dilemma of how to preserve foods have been with us through almost all of human history. Since we as a species settled down, and started farming, we needed to find a way to make our food stuffs last more than a couple of days. There are many ways to preserve food, and we won’t go into all of them in this episode, but a very effective way was to keep it cold. Mold can not grow, and therefore spoil your food, at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. While our forbearers likely didn’t know the exact temperature that mold would grow at, they knew keeping food cold would make it last longer. The first recorded use of refrigeration technology dates back to 1775 BCE in Ancient Sumer. It was there that the region’s King, Zimri-lim, began the construction of an elaborate ice house fitted with a sophisticated drainage system and shallow pools to freeze water in the night. The Greeks and Romans would use snow placed in deep storage pits keep their food cool. Using ice houses or ice pits was a common practice throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in warmer climates.

The first form of artificial refrigeration was invented by William Cullen, a Scottish scientist. Cullen showed how the rapid heating of liquid to a gas can result in cooling. This is the principle behind refrigeration that still remains to this day. Cullen never turned his theory into practice, but many were inspired to try to realize his idea. Thomas Moore, an American businessman, created an icebox to cool dairy products for transport. He called it a “refrigiratory” until he patented “refrigerator” in 1803. In 1876 German engineering professor Carl von Linde patented the process of liquefying gas that has become part of basic refrigeration technology. His findings led to his invention of the first reliable and efficient compressed-ammonia refrigerator. Refrigeration rapidly displaced ice in food handling and was introduced into many industrial processes. In 1927 General Electric introduced the “Monitor-Top,” which became the first refrigerator to see widespread use – more than a million units were produced. The compressor assembly, which emitted a great deal of heat, was placed above the cabinet. These refrigerators used either sulphur dioxide or methyl formate as a refrigerant. Up until 1929, refrigerators with vapor compression systems had caused several fatal accidents when the toxic gases leaked. Research was initiated to develop a less dangerous method of refrigeration, leading to the discovery of Freon, which became the standard for almost all domestic refrigerators. Freon is not the most environmentally friendly, and so most modern refrigerators use a chemical cal HFC-134a.

Our ice box was a very common thing to have in your home in the 1870’s. Refrigeration technology took some time to take hold, and an ice box was not complicated to own or operate. Our ice box is in good condition, even though the hinges are a little worn. It is a wonderful glimpse into the late 19th Century kitchen, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,