Birth of the Cool
In the 1930s, nothing said sophistication like aspic. Up-to-the-minute modern hostesses engaged in a frenzy of savory jelled-salad making, all thanks to the newly perfected electric refrigerator.
Such gracious living had been a long time coming. Until the mid-1800s, Americans kept food from spoiling by storing it in streams, cellars, snow, and ice. It was a system that worked better in the cool seasons. In the heat, bacteria bloomed so rapidly that killer food poisoning was referred to as "summer complaint."
The icebox extended shelf and human life. In common use by 1838, the wooden cabinet lined with zinc or tin and insulated with sawdust, cork, or seaweed held ice above or below the food. Water from the melting ice drained into a pan. It was an imperfect solution. Sometimes the water would overflow the damp box. A 1929 Collier ' s magazine article noted: "Slime accumulates [in the drainpipes] constantly and should be removed with a long-handled circular brush. If your overflow pipe connects with an outside drain, be sure there is a trap to prevent poisonous gases and odors from flowing up it and contaminating foods in the box." Plus, says Pearl Buchbinder, 95, the icebox "was a good hiding place for mice."
Cold comfort. To stock the box, city people bought ice, and country dwellers harvested it. In Robinhood, Maine, where Faith Reyher Jackson, 86, grew up, ice cutting was an all-town, all-day event, done at a neighbor's pond in the dead of winter. "They used saws and these big tongs to pull it out," she says. Then it was hauled from home to home on a horse-drawn cart, packed in sawdust, and put in the family's icehouse, where, she says, it lasted for months. City people depended on a delivery from the iceman. "Kids would chase him down the street, and he'd chip off a piece of ice and give it to them," says B. J. Smith, 84, who was reared in Lima, Ohio. Customers used a card in their window to place orders. The iceman, with a burlap or leather pad protecting his shoulder, would hoist a block weighing up to 100 pounds. When commercial icehouses opened in the early 1800s, they were considered a business with a future. But by the end of the century, pond ice was polluted. That, and unusually hot summers in 1889 and 1890, pushed ahead the advent of refrigerators.
In 1911, General Electric presented a machine that compressed chemical gases to cool air. By 1920, there were some 200 different refrigerator models on the market. Even the New Yorker raved: "A little water is put in some mysterious place: A few minutes pass, a magic door opens, and a tray of small ice cubes appears before your startled eyes." But such marvels were not for everybody or, in fact, almost anybody. Most machines were powered by motors so large they were housed in separate rooms. That inconvenience was trumped by cost. One 1922 refrigerator ran $714 (the equivalent of $7,856 today). A competing invention, the Crosley Icyball, required putting part of the machine over a kerosene burner every 24 to 36 hours. But the industry's biggest problem was the coolants that, on occasion, leaked and killed people.