Go back to article: Refrigerating India

A brief history of the refrigeration of food practices

The first mass production of refrigerators began in the USA in 1918. By mid-twentieth century in the USA and the 1990s in Europe, the refrigerator/freezer had come to be regarded as an indispensable appliance. This energy-driven cold storage unit was to drastically transform food practices and diets in these places. Prior to the advent of the refrigerator, food shopping and preparation had to rely on the short storage time of food items once they were purchased. The life of raw, canned and prepared foods was extended by storing them in basements, darkened closets or in kitchen cabinets that were ventilated to allow the entry of cool outside air. Many homes built in the 1920s and 30s in the USA, including the home built in 1925 that I have rented in Berkeley, CA, over the past few years, still have these vented cabinets in the kitchens. In many rural settings in the USA, ‘storm cellars’ dug into back yards served a double purpose: cool storage for food and shelter against tornados.

The first cold food storage technology was the ‘ice box’, invented in the 1800s in England and widely used in the USA well into the mid-twentieth century. My great-grandmother’s ice box from her home in Cross Plains, Texas, has been passed down to me. It consists of two cabinets. Food was placed in the top cabinet, providing only enough cooled space for a bottle of milk, a few eggs and fresh vegetables. The refrigerant, ‘dry ice’ (a solid form of carbon dioxide) was placed in the bottom cabinet, which was insulated with zinc or tin. There was an entire industry devoted to producing and distributing dry ice daily to homes and businesses. My father’s first job as a teenager in Coleman, Texas, in the late 1930s was in a dry ice factory, where he cut and delivered ice to homes with ice boxes.

The first mechanically cooled refrigerator was produced in 1913. The Frigidaire Company began mass production for the US market in 1918. By 1929, one million refrigerators had been produced and sold in the US. The refrigerator’s cold storage temperatures were achieved through a combination of electricity, a compressor, coolants and a well-insulated container. The refrigerator revolutionised food shopping, food preparation, food storage and diets. Among other things, it allowed for shopping in bulk for vegetables and other perishables; the increased consumption of meat, milk products and bottled drinks; the consumption of foods pre-prepared by food retailers that could be stored and then reheated; and the storage of leftover foods for reheating and consuming at later meals. It also brought with it extensive changes in infrastructure and systems of provision of food, including the construction of refrigerated warehouses for wholesale storage, refrigerated transport to bring foods to retail stores, and refrigerated sections of the retail food stores where the products were displayed and sold.

Another cold-producing food technology, the freezer, joined the refrigerator in the mid-twentieth century as a stand-alone appliance and then was later incorporated into a single unit called the fridge/freezer. Shove and Southerton (2000) relate how the freezer became indispensable to food production and consumption in the United Kingdom over the course of a thirty-year period. In 1965, only three per cent of UK households owned a freezer. By 1995, ownership had increased to 97 per cent. They attribute this rapid diffusion to time pressures related to women entering the workforce in great numbers from the 1970s. Manufacturers marketed the freezer as a ‘time machine’ that would help women save time in all of their food-related tasks from shopping to cooking. The freezer was conjoined with the refrigerator in the 1980s and provided a ‘mini-supermarket’ within the home containing ‘freezer-dependent foods such as burgers, pizzas and iced cream…’ (Shove and Southerton, 2000, p 308). Today, the presence of one or more fridge/freezers in virtually every home in Europe and the USA has fostered a burgeoning industry of fast foods, frozen foods and convenience foods. Large sections of supermarkets are dedicated to cold storage dependent products such as dairy and milk, as well as to frozen foods. As Shove and Southerton write, ‘The freezers of today promise to help people cope with the compression and fragmentation of time. But in so doing they lock their users into certain practices and habits, at the same time requiring an extensive if routinely invisible supporting infrastructure’ (2000, p 315). Over the course of three generations in Europe and the USA, the refrigerator-freezer became an integral part of virtually every home and engendered a significant transformation of eating and food shopping habits.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180903/003