It’s HOT outside. Inside, too, without functional climate control we rely on in the 21st century for comfort. We think nothing of abundant ice for beverages, ice for coolers when camping or filling a kiddie pool with chipped ice and cans or bottles of beverages when hosting a backyard BBQ. We want milk COLD, ice cream FROZEN, and Diet Pepsi ON ICE at the convenience store.
What did our Victorian-era ancestors do to keep perishable food from spoiling rapidly in this abominable heat?
HISTORY OF THE ICEBOX (also ice-box)
Iceboxes date back to the days of ice harvesting, which had hit an industrial high that ran from the mid-19th century to the 1930s, when the refrigerator was introduced into the home.
Iceboxes had hollow walls that were lined with tin or zinc and packed with various insulating materials such as cork, sawdust, straw or seaweed. A large block of ice was held in a tray or compartment near the top of the box. Cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the lower section. Some finer models had spigots for draining ice water from a catch pan or holding tank. In cheaper models a drip pan was placed under the box and had to be emptied at least daily. The user had to replenish the melted ice, normally by obtaining new ice from an iceman.
Commonly iceboxes were made of wood, most probably for ease of construction, insulation, and aesthetics; many were handsome pieces of furniture. [source]
Note: See my next upcoming blog post containing more information about ice companies, ice delivery, construction of ice houses, and more.
ADVERTISEMENTS AND INSTRUCTIONS
This informative advertisement, titled THE LOUISIANA FAR PREMIUM ZERO REFRIGERATOR was published in The Galveston Daily News of Galveston, Texas, on February 3, 1867. A full transcription of this scanned image immediately follows. (The historic image either didn’t scan well or had retained poor clarity in the 150 years since its printing.) Note: At publication (1867), this ad references “the old style” (more rectangular, apparently), drinkable ice water, and calling the icebox a Refrigerator.
Transcription of the advertisement, immediately above:
THE LOUISIANA FAIR PREMIUM ZERO Refrigerator, (with Water Cooler combined,) is warranted the best Refrigerator in the market.
It has many obvious improvements over any heretofore made–
1- It completely excludes the moisture of the ice and all atmospheric air–two leading elements of decay.
2- The ice box is of square form, and will hold at least one-third more ice than the old style.
3- The ice water can be used for drinking purposes, and is drawn off the silver-plated faucet–so placed that there is no danger of a person’s dress getting caught on it.
4- The ice box can be easily cleaned, as it is nearly one foot wide at the bottom.
5- The whole bottom of the Refrigerator (where it is the coldest) can be used.
These Refrigerators are made in the best manner, of well-seasoned pine, are filled with charcoal, lined with zinc, and have good locks with assorted keys, white knobs, galvanized wire shelves, silver-plated faucet, castors, and are grained in oak.
“It is certainly an improvement on all others.” ~ Hall’s Journal of Health.
A liberal discount to the trade.
JOHN D. STRONG, Agent, 26 Carondelet st., New Orleans.
Twenty years later, the Scientific American Refrigerator icebox advertisement mentions not only the inventor and pantentee but the manufacturer and a price range ($15 to $50, according to size).
FILLING THE VICTORIAN ICEBOX
The bottom shelf was consistently the coldest in Victorian-era iceboxes, simply because cold air sinks. This natural movement of air as hot(er) air rises and cold air falls kept the lowest shelf the coldest and hence the best place for dairy products and raw meat. Raw meat on the bottom also kept meat juices from dripping onto vegetables, fruits, or cooked meats. Manufacturers warned owners to refrain from lining the metal mesh shelves with paper as doing so would impede the flow of air and promote spoilage.
AN ANTIQUE VICTORIAN ICEBOX
As this icebox is currently for sale on ebay, I’m able to share the seller’s dimensions of the item: LENGTH: 35″ | WIDTH: 20″ | HEIGHT: 47″.
Note: traps are located at the bottom of icebox, at the base of the cabinet. The section opens (though no pictures were provided by this seller) to allow the ice-melt to be drained.
PROPER CONSTRUCTION OF THE ICEBOX
ICEBOX CAKES, PUDDINGS, DESSERTS
Victorian American newspapers are filled with recipes (in paragraph form) for homemakers, by homemakers. Recipes making specific use of the icebox are prevalent from the mid-nineteenth century to turn of the century (1900) and beyond. Here is an example:
Advertisements in newspapers throughout the United States from 1866 to 1900 make it evident grocers kept fresh meat, butter, milk, cream, fruits (often transported in ice cars from a great distance) in iceboxes of commercial size. Saloons kept and used large iceboxes such as the one pictured below, in order to sell cold drinks to their customers.
Iceboxes were also called “ice chests” (reminiscent of today’s cooler’s / ice chests), some designed and used to hold multiple kegs of beer.
Some iceboxes in commercial use were like walk-in refrigerators in restaurants and the walk-in beer fridge in the mini-mart on the corner:
All those iceboxes wouldn’t keep food cold without a steady supply of ice. And in the city, at the peak of summertime heat, that ice had to come from somewhere. My blog post contains more information about ice companies, ice delivery, construction of ice houses, and more. Read on for the amazing ingenuity of our Victorian ancestors.
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Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC