Mel’s Musings: The iceman cometh!

During the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, iceboxes were regarded as an item of furniture.

Iceboxes were uniquely American. They were designed to be both functional and decorative. They were as much an integral part of the American kitchen as the cook stove and the dining table.

For nearly 70 years, from 1880-1950, they gracefully provided the cooling power for food preservation.

Though iceboxes were in use during the early part of the 19th century, their use did not become widespread until the mid 1880s. Some iceboxes of the late 19th century were quite ornate, and featured such accoutrements as brass-claw door handles. Iceboxes made after 1920 tended to be plainer, with latches and handles of industrial steel.

Typically, ice was stored in the upper left compartment of the icebox, while perishables were stored in other sections. Because of the increased demand for ice, the selling and home delivery of this commodity burgeoned into a profitable industry.

By the early 1930s, even small towns that didn’t have an ice-producing plan would usually have an ice house that stored ice for resale to customers.

The company that delivered the ice often had regular routes in rural districts. The ice was delivered by truck, usually once a week. The customers were supplied with a card with a brightly-colored number in each corner of the card with numbers 25-50-75-100.The customer would place the card in a window conspicuous to the delivery man showing how much ice the customer wanted. This way, the iceman would know how much ice to deliver without first going into the house to take an order.

The first commercial transportation of ice came in 1799, when ice was cut from a pond on Canal Street in New York City and shipped to Charleston, S.C.

Because ice was such a precious commodity in the 19th century, boxes for storage were used as early as 1830. The refrigerator itself had been invented in 1803 by Thomas Moore of Baltimore, Md. His design consisted of two boxes, one inside the other, separated by insulating material. Ice and food were stored in the inner box. By the 1850s, systems had been developed for placing ice at the top of the box and circulating air around, thus melting the ice and cooling the air.

The production of iceboxes reached its peak in the 1880s. In 1880, the winter was unusually mild and the Hudson River did not produce the expected crop of ice. Wholesale prices soared in New York to between $4 and $5 per ton.

That same year, Judson A. Baldwin of Shelburne, Vt., developed the Baldwin dry-air refrigerator. In 1888, the company managed to produce 100 of the boxes.

The electric refrigerator came on the market in 1913, and by the mid-1920s, in many areas of the country, it was rendering the conventional icebox obsolete. While iceboxes were still being used into the 1950s, the supply of delivered ice had dwindled drastically, while the supply of electricity grew more abundant and cheaper.

Most upscale iceboxes were made of oak, with pine used as a secondary wood. From the 1880s through the early 1900s, there was a large variety of iceboxes with a vast assortment of styles and sizes offered to the American public.

The Sears and Roebuck catalog of 1900 offered iceboxes of Michigan ash, ranging from $6 to $11. The larger Michigan Double door refrigerators went for as much as $30, and were billed a being “manufactured from the very best selected kiln-dried ash.”

The majority of oak and ash iceboxes were stylish, if not rather similar in appearance. The styles ranged from Mission Oak to the highly decorative Eastlake style, complete with faucet and tumbler stand.

There was also the “Old Maid” refrigerator, complete with sideboard and china closet in antique ash in the 1890s. It was offered by the Grand Rapids Refrigerator Company and sold for $25.

At the same time, Northern Refrigerator offered their Glacier for only $10, in the more common variety of the period. It was “warranted to keep ice longer and food better than any other” refrigerator.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Wisconsin Peerless was also available in oak and ash. The Peerless assured the consumer the “no elm or inferior wood was used in the unit.” It offered seven walls of tin to preserve ice, with “perfect circulation and cleanable flues.”

Even today the icebox is not totally obsolete. Railroad refrigerator cars and even some refrigerated trucks carry ice to keep their cargo cool during shipment.

The invention of the icebox came out of our inherent desire to strive for a better quality of life. More than any other invention, the icebox probably did more to change the dining habits of the average human.