During the 1990s, the fourth floor of the Engineering Library at the University of Wisconsin – Madison had shelves lined with old trade journals. When you got off the elevator, the volumes directly at eye level were called “Ice and Refrigeration.” I was working with unbelievably old copies of the journal “Iron Age” back then as my dissertion was about the steel industry. These were not quite so old, but they, like their subject, were almost untouched by human hands (which I knew because I had to separate many of the pages myself). What I found there seemed quite extraordinary.
Once upon time (c. 1900) there was an enormous ice industry in the United States. Huge plants running five-ton machinery would knock out sheets and blocks of ice the size of several people. This ice then got broken up and sold door-to-door by covered wagons in towns and cities across America. I had heard of the cutting of ice off lakes and rivers around New England before this. From there the ice got transported to and sold in places as far away as India. But this was something else entirely! Here was an enormous, historically-significant completely dead industry, untouched in the historiography. I started my research trying to explain why these plants seemed to burn down so much. After all, they were ice plants after all! Technology and Culture published that all the way back in 2005. Then I kept going.
From there, I started reading about all the different segments of this industry and decided I wanted to write a book about how one technology passed into another: natural ice to mechanical refrigeration to home refrigeration, iced refrigerator cars to mechanically refrigerated railway cars to refrigerated shipping containers, iceboxes to electric household refrigerators and many more. What I found was that “inferior” technologies you’d expect to go extinct quickly persisted longer than you might ever imagine. The ice delivery man, for example, survived into the 1950s. Ice harvesting with horses actually survived past World War I. This tendency, as you might imagine, has had a huge influence on my MOOC blogging.
The other reason you should read my book is because it’s really great food writing. No, it’s not why cod or the hamburger or the ice cube saved the world, but it covers all these things and more. Basically, if you want to research anything that deals with perishable food, you’re going to have to read this book. After all, the last scholarly publication on this subject was published in the early-1950s. I remain amazed that I spent thirteen years (off and on) writing up this project and nobody beat me to the punch.
So, have I peaked your interest? If so, you can visit the nice people at the Johns Hopkins University Press and get your copy of Refrigeration Nation faster than any online bookseller as theirs are in stock now. Even just recommending it to your local library would make me very happy.