My little piece of women’s history.

18 07 2010

In honor of a very nice link from Historiann*, I thought I’d share what I’m doing tonight. I’m reading domestic science manuals on Google Books, looking for references to iceboxes to help me finish my chapter on that lovely obsolete appliance.

The first thing you should know about iceboxes is that before there were electric household refrigerators, iceboxes were called refrigerators and despite their seeming simplicity they were, to quote the title of a favorite book of mine along these lines, more work for mother. A lot more work. As an illustration, here is the complete list of rules from D. Eddy & Sons’ 1894 model:

New refrigerators should stand from twelve to twenty-four hours after the ice box is filled before replacing articles of food in the provisioning chamber.

The ice should be washed and put in carefully. It should not be thrown in, and it should never be wrapped in anything, as that prevents the circulation of cold air. In getting Ice from the refrigerator for table use, be careful not to pick off more than is needed, as the ice will melt more rapidly in small pieces.

The ice apartment of a new Refrigerator, or of an old one at the beginning of a new season, should be entirely filled with ice, in order that it may become thoroughly cooled. Never let the ice get wholly out before replenishing.

The strainer should be constantly kept over the water outlet inside the Refrigerator, so as to prevent the escape of cold air through the waste pipe.

The covers and doors must be kept shut. They should never be left open, and never slightly ajar, as is very often the case.

The zinc lining should occasionally be washed with soap, and warm water, and then wiped perfectly dry. This will keep the Refrigerator clean and free from odor.

The food should never be placed in the Refrigerator in a warm state; for anything warm will cause dampness and moisture.

Just in case you feel like reading other domestic manuals from the 1800-1920 era, there are more than a score of them available on Google Books. Run a full-view search on the phrase “domestic economy” and you’ll find a ton, with Catharine Beecher’s 1856 version of her 1841 classic, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, coming first. Interestingly enough, she recommended keeping your icebox in the cellar, which indicates just how often people reached for it in those days.

* Should you be able check your blog from your wilderness retreat, Historiann, thank you so much for that vote of confidence.




3 responses

19 07 2010

This is fascinating, Jonathan. But, while the icebox required some maintenance and cleaning, it probably also saved women a few trips to the market and/or enabled the preparation of fresh food more often, esp. for urban women.

Some of our grad students up in Fort Collins have used domestic science manuals (particularly extension service papers and pamphlets from our archives) to write some really interesting papers about women, technology, environment, and material culture ca. 1890-1930, which sounds like it’s right up your alley for this chapter. Come on up and check it out–and let me know before you leave so that we can have lunch or coffee while you’re in FC.

My grandfather (1910-2008) called the mechanical refrigerator the “icebox,” at least through the 1970s. It’s one of the quirks I recall about him quite strongly, although it probably was pretty common for people of his generation.

19 07 2010
Sister Susan

When I was growing up in the 50s we called the appliance in our kitchen an “ice box”. I still do at times….
And of course mechanical refrigerators deprived all the ice men of their work…

19 07 2010
Jonathan Rees


Ice delivery men survived a lot longer than you’d think; at leats into the 1950s around NYC.

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