Friday Food History: Thank Goodness for the Fridge!

Dear Readers,

Last month, I wrote about the five-volume set of housekeeping "manuals" published by the long-gone "Women's Institute" school of domestic arts in Pennsylvania. As I've been flipping through Volume I, first published in 1918, I ran across drawings of the precursor to the modern refrigerator, the icebox.  Remember how bewildered Mrs. Patmore was over the arrival of a new refrigerator at Downton Abbey (c. 1922)?

Here are two sketches of the icebox that Mrs. Patmore might have had in her kitchen prior to the arrival of the new-fangled refrigerator, from the Women's Institute Library of Cookery (Volume I):

These contraptions kind of remind me of fancy wardrobes for your food: note the elaborate wood panelling and carved detail on the facing of the smaller icebox (you can click on the photos above to enlarge).  The air was supposed to circulate naturally inside the box as the ice melted.  The Women's Institute manual actually calls these two contraptions "refrigerators" instead of iceboxes, writing of them,

All refrigerators are constructed in a similar manner, having two or more layers of wood between which is placed an insulating material, such as cork, asbestos, or mineral wool. The food compartments are lined with tile, zinc, or other rust-proof material, and the ice compartment is usually lined with rust-proof metal, so as to be water-tight and unbreakable.

But what did you do to keep food cold in the early 1900s if you didn't have a fancy icebox?  The authors admit that "...there are many communities in which it is not possible to procure ice conveniently, thus making it necessary to adopt some other means of keeping food."  (Please click here for an interesting story about the 1800s American "Ice King," who pretty much single-handedly popularized ice for household use.) 

The cellar, said the Women's Institute, was the place for most households to keep their food cold (without ice).  They provide the following illustrations for how to preserve food in your cellar:  

Left to right: A cellar cupbord for canned goods; a bin for storing "fruits, potatoes, and other winter vegetables;" and a screened-in wall shelf, recommended by the authors "because it prevents the attack of vermin and permits of ventilation."

As a last resort, for "[t]he woman who lives in an apartment where there is no cellar and who does not wish to keep ice in the refrigerator through the winter," was the "Window Box":

This design looks like wishful thinking.  How exactly are you supposed to keep the thing from falling off the side of your apartment, and, more importantly, how cold is it where you live?  When the sun hits it, I'd think that box would turn into a little oven.  Not the place I'd store milk and eggs, but that's just me. 

I, for one, am now extra-grateful for my modern refrigerator, which helpfully tells me exactly what temperature my food is being stored at, chirps at me when I forget and leave the door open (I killed my parents' avocado-green '90s fridge as a kid one hot summer's day by leaving the door open, but that's another story...), and even makes its own ice.  Magic!

Yours Truly,