The Huge Chill: Why Are American Refrigerators So Big?

From iceboxes to stainless steel behemoths: An Object Lesson.
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Fridges wait in a Louisiana landfill after Katrina (Flickr/usdagov)

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the loss of electricity throughout the city ruined refrigerators even in neighborhoods barely affected by the storm as maggots infested the rotting food left behind in them by fleeing residents. When evacuees returned, they pushed those refrigerators out to the street in the hope that they would eventually be carried away. Many who returned also wrote long, angry messages about the inadequacy of the government’s response to the disaster on the front of these appliances. American refrigerators are just about the only refrigerators in the world large enough to serve as impromptu billboards. They are also inexpensive enough that citizens of all classes either own or have access to one.

A fridge as billboard, after Katrina in New Orleans (Flickr/Infrogmation)

Americans have the biggest refrigerators in the world — 17.5 cubic feet of volume on average. The size of our refrigerators is followed closely by Canadians while the rest of the world lags far behind. Since our refrigerators run day and night, they use more energy than any other household appliance, which means their size has ramifications for the planet’s rate of global warming. However, the enormous popularity of refrigerators in the United States is an indicator of the value of refrigeration both for preserving the food we buy and for the convenience that comes when such huge machines are stocked. The fact that we put perishable food in the refrigerator (even sometimes when it doesn’t belong there) suggests that we still remember refrigeration’s most basic advantage: to prevent food from spoiling before we consume it.

While the usefulness of refrigerators explains their prevalence, it does not explain their size. Most people would agree that fresh food tastes better than anything that's been kept in a refrigerator for even a short amount of time. So why then would anyone want a weeks' worth of perishable food stored in their kitchen at one time? Are Americans slaves to convenience? While our large refrigerators do limit the number of shopping trips we have to take, they also make it possible for us to consume a much greater variety of foods than we ever did without them in our kitchens.

Americans had an early collective desire for cold things. Starting in the early nineteenth century, entrepreneurs cut ice from lakes and streams in New England and elsewhere; then transported it to warmer climes to sell for a profit. While it took the development of mechanical refrigeration later in the century to coin the term, this was the start of the American “natural ice” industry. In order to make such an industry possible, ice merchants had to develop a market, and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Over the course of the nineteenth century, ice went from a luxury to a necessity for the vast majority of Americans and has remained so ever since. In the early twentieth century, the market for ice developed into a market for large refrigerators to keep all the foodstuffs that ice once preserved. Indeed, a refrigerator is called an icebox because before the development of household refrigeration machines during the 1920s the ice delivery man would drop a block in your “refrigerator” and you would have to try to keep the door closed to prevent it from melting too quickly.

Flickr/1950sUnli

In the course of developing an ice industry, Americans also developed the world’s most efficient cold chains, which now make the stocking of our enormous refrigerators possible. A cold chain is a supply chain that transports and stores temperature sensitive perishable goods. The most visible manifestation of the cold chain is the electric household refrigerator, but that is just its end point. Cold storage warehouses, refrigerated trucks – even the displays in grocery stores – are all part of this poorly understood infrastructure. Perishable goods travel from nearly every point on the globe to nearly every other point, refrigerated at every step of the way.

As cold chains became longer and more complex, having a big refrigerator became increasingly important for taking advantage of the opportunity that this new infrastructure brought. “Proper refrigeration is today an ever increasing necessity,” wrote the Frigidaire refrigerator company in a cookbook it distributed to housewives in 1929:

The rapid growth of population in cities and urban areas has brought dependence upon distant centers of food supply. Meat, for example, travels a great distance before it finally reaches the home. Fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, milk, butter, eggs and other food products in very few cases enter the home directly from the farm. It is therefore vitally important, with this complex distribution of food, that every home provides proper refrigeration.

Refrigeration in the middle of the cold chain, however, lagged behind the household variety at its end. A real refrigerated railway car (as opposed to one that depended on ice in any fashion), for example, was not perfected until the 1950s. The refrigerated shipping container – which makes it possible for Americans to buy perishables from other hemispheres, let alone continents – is even more recent than that.

Because the average American family goes grocery shopping once a week, a gigantic refrigerator is required to keep all the perishables they acquire on that trip. Household refrigerators differ greatly from country to country because the characteristics that citizens in different countries want in their refrigerators are reflections of their cultures so at this point in history once weekly shopping trips is an almost uniquely American habit. While Americans and Canadians want storage capacity, European countries are generally more concerned with energy efficiency or the cost of their operation. Since Americans have always had abundant natural resources (like food), a large refrigerator has become closely identified around the world with the American way of life.

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Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo, and the author of Refrigeration Nation:  A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America.

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