Refrigerators or Ice Boxes?

When I wasn’t sure if my Roaring Twenties characters should own refrigerators or iceboxes, I did some research. Iceboxes had been around for decades before the 1920s and were common in middle-class homes. These were, literally, boxes with a bottom door (or two or more) for food and a top compartment lined with tin for the block of ice. The ice compartment had a tube that drained the melted water down to a pan on the floor, which of course had to be emptied periodically, usually every day. The ice box had hollow walls that were insulated with cork, sawdust, or straw. They came in all sizes and some were quite fancy, like a piece of furniture, with carved oak exteriors. An ice man delivered ice blocks to the home every few days.

geRefrigerators were available in the 1920s thanks to the introduction of electricity in the home. General Electric supposedly produced the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911. But . . . the motors were noisy and not attached to the unit. This didn’t interest many people, since the ice box was silent and relatively inexpensive. Frigidaire produced a better model in 1923, and there were some sold to wealthy consumers, but not many. Refrigerator sales didn’t really take off until after World War II. So I have my characters using ice boxes. Except for David, the rich ex-bootlegger, who has an electric refrigerator in his house–and a radio too! He’s the sort to spend on newfangled technology. 

I came across this statistic: in 1920 there were 10,000 refrigerators made. Five years later, there were 75,000 made. The big boost in sales came as more homes were wired for electricity and more families became prosperous enough to afford new technology. (This was also the era for the introduction of vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, and other electrical appliances.)

Iceboxes came in many sizes, so prices aren’t easily comparable, but a 1923 ad for a white, enamel lined ice box was $27.95, and a larger steel one that held 100 pounds of ice was $56.95. Here’s another: 1920srefrigerator

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I researched refrigerators for the same reason as you. I knew most of my characters aren’t affluent enough to afford a refrigerator, but I thought maybe the club owner would have one in his club.

    I eventually decided against it because refrigerators seemed to be too expancive at least until 1927 (my story is set in 1926, the club was established in 1922), and anyway, iceboxes still seemed the best, less expensive choise for a business.

    Everyday life details are so tricky…

    • Wow, what a coincidence! I, too, am sticking with ice boxes.

  2. I have some refrigerator cookbooks from the 20s and 30s — they seem to have been an effort to promote new dishes that were easy to make with a fridge and freezer, like jelly molds and parfaits and salads.

    • You are probably right. I never considered that. But it was probably the same thing when microwaves were introduced–I remember all those microwave cookbooks that purported to teach you modern cooking.

  3. Looks like I’ll be quietly deleting the refrigerator from the background of one of my scenes, heh… Thanks for the tidbit here—very interesting! I must agree with Talia that I’ve seen period recipes for jelly molds…but then I guess you could probably make those in an icebox just the same, right?

  4. Making jello was one of the simplest ways to advertise “HEY GUESS WHO BOUGHT A FRIDGE?!” Yes, you can make it in an icebox, but it is far easier with a fridge.

    And, the decade with the most jello recipes in the average cookbook? The 50s. Unsurprising, really. But I had that answer already — my sister randomly texted me asking which cookbook had the most about a year ago. 😛

  5. My mother remembers having an ice box in their home in New York in 1944-1945, and having to empty the “water drawer” every day. “It was clumsy but not too bad,” she said. That’s just one household, of course, and I do not know what % of homes had ice boxes vs. refrigerators. I don’t need to know, but it would be interesting!

  6. My mother, who was born in 1913, talked about having an ice box. They didn’t use it in winter. Just put thinks on an enclosed porch off the kitchen. She also talked about her father and uncles cutting ice from local ponds and lakes and storing the blocks in an ice house for use in warmer months.

  7. Growing up, we always had a refrigerator of course, but my father called it an icebox.

    • I was born in the Fifties, but we called it an ice box, and I still do, even though I’ve never seen anything except a refrigerator.


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