Back to all articles

The History of the Refrigerator
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

Early Attempts to Preserve Food

Refrigerators are a relatively new invention. However, attempts to preserve food have been going on since ancient times. Humans first began freezing water into ice for food preservation in 1,000 B.C. in China. Other early societies, including the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, used snow to keep food cool. As recently as the 18th century, Europeans collected large pieces of ice in the winter, salted it, and stashed it underground; this helped the ice last longer so that they could use it to keep food cool and prevent spoilage. Other early food preservation methods included canning, smoking, drying, and salting.

Early Attempts at Artificial Refrigeration

In the mid-1700s, inventors, scientists, and engineers began to work on the problem. Artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748. However, Cullen’s invention wasn’t practical for everyday use. In 1805, Oliver Evans created a blueprint for the world’s first refrigeration machine; Jacob Perkins built the machine in 1834. This early refrigerator used a vapor compression cycle to create cool temperatures. Years later, improved designs were patented by two African American inventors, Thomas Elkins and John Standard.

Introduction of the Icebox

Things really began to change when the icebox came out in the early 1860s. While there is no clear inventor of this piece of innovation, we do know that iceboxes were mostly manufactured by auto companies. (Frigidaire was owned by General Motors at the time.) The icebox itself was fairly simple in its design; it was made up of an insulated cabinet with a compartment for ice. It helped keep perishable foods cool, but fresh ice needed to be inserted every week or so. By the 1890s, iceboxes had become somewhat commonplace in the homes of upper and middle-class families.

Image source: Live Science

The First Home Refrigerator

The first home refrigerator was introduced in the early 1910s. The earliest models were prohibitively expensive and extremely loud. For wealthy Americans who could afford it, the unit had to be installed in two parts: the storage box itself would live on the first floor of the home, but the supplemental unit would reside in the basement due to the tremendous noise from the air compressor. However, noise wasn’t the only problem with early refrigerators. From the late 1800s up through 1929, refrigerators relied on toxic gases like ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide to act as refrigerants. The use of these toxic substances led to a number of fatal accidents in the early 1920s. In response, three American companies worked together to find a less dangerous method of refrigeration.

The Discovery of Freon

Their efforts led to the discovery of freon, which is still used in many refrigerators today. These new compressor refrigerators worked via evaporative cooling and were much safer than previous models that used toxic refrigerants. Along with a safer design, refrigerators released in the 1930s also gained another valuable addition – top freezers. However, the units remained relatively expensive. In fact, in the early 1930s, only eight percent of American households owned a refrigerator. But by the early 1940s, nearly 45 percent of American households had one.

Design Improvements & Environmental Considerations

The postwar period of prosperity in America allowed the trend toward refrigerators to continue, and as the appliances became standard in most American homes, manufacturers began to experiment with design and organization. In the 1950s, Whirlpool began offering refrigerators in bright colors like “harvest gold” and “avocado green.” Design details like wood trim handles and organizational boons such as bottom-drawer freezers were introduced over time. In the 1970s, the first refrigerators with side-by-side doors debuted, and in the 1980s, the first energy efficient refrigerators hit the market. Today, the innovations continue with digital displays, individual cooling zones, and more! Efforts are also being made to replace the ozone-damaging chemicals used in many compressor refrigerators with more environmentally friendly alternatives. There are even a few futuristic refrigerators that run on solar, magnetic, and acoustic energy! One thing is for sure: in less than 100 years, the refrigerator revolutionized food preservation and has become one of the most important household appliances of the modern world.

Share this article

card showing the history of rocking chairs

Your go-to guide for weird history facts

Subscribe to the FREE daily email that makes learning about history fun.