Refrigeration Nation

By on March 5th, 2018 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America. By Jonathan Rees, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, paperback, 248 pages.

On October 15, 2016, a few days before I wrote this review, the United States and 169 other nations signed the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants beginning in 2019. The Montreal Protocol itself was signed in 1987 to end the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were eating a serious hole in the ozone layer. HFCs are in widespread use today mainly because they were substituted for CFCs when CFCs were banned. The problem with HFCs is not that they bother the ozone layer — they don’t — but it turns out that they are up to a thousand times worse, pound for pound, at causing global warming than CO2. So in keeping our food and houses cool, we’ve caused the rest of the world to heat up.

I recount this anecdote to disabuse you of the notion that a history of food refrigeration has nothing to say to us today. On the contrary, Jonathan Rees’s Refrigeration Nation has a great deal to say about the way refrigeration technology brought about profound changes in eating habits, agricultural practices, and even entire national economies over the last two centuries.

Rees begins with the natural ice industry’s Edison: a New Englander named Frederick Tudor who did more than anyone else to figure out how to keep ice from melting during the many weeks it took for the ships of the 1820s to get from the natural-ice ponds of Maine to markets in India. But once they got there, the ice pioneers could charge almost any price for their cargo and people would pay it. Tudor didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was doing was laying the foundation of the world’s first cold chain: a linkage of cold-producing and cold-preserving technologies that allow temperature-sensitive goods (in this case, ice itself) to be transported in bulk over long distances from producers to the ultimate consumers.

Rees uses the concept of cold chains as a recurring theme to tie together the disparate elements of his story: the advances in thermodynamic science that led to the invention of practical mechanical refrigeration in the 1860s, the development of the cold-storage industry and its interactions with the pure-food wing of the Progressive movement of the early 1900s, and the early attempts by domestic refrigerator manufacturers to displace the old-fashioned kitchen icebox that needed replenishing every few days by the iceman, with a machine that you just plugged in the wall and forgot about. Rees’s chapter on the early days of electric household refrigeration is especially good, with lots of details culled from old catalogs, manufacturer’s records, and trade journals about the less-than-stellar reliability of the first machines. The rapidly growing electric-utility industry of the 1920s was eager to have their customers buy refrigerators, because the 24-hour load that refrigerators represent would nicely balance the expensive peak loads of lighting and cooking that the power companies struggled to meet. So power companies were among the loudest early proponents of electric refrigerators. However, it wasn’t until automotive companies such as General Motors, which took over Frigidaire in 1921, applied the same mass-production and quality-control methods they had learned from vehicle production lines that domestic electric refrigerators started on the long road to becoming the reliable and nearly universal appliances we know today.

Rees is just as good when he treats parts of the food-refrigeration industry that are out of the public eye: the extension of cold chains to new agricultural markets which could now sell their goods over much wider stretches of both space — due to refrigerated transportation — and time — due to the ability to store produce in cold-storage warehouses. The farmers liked having bigger markets, and the consumers liked being able to buy strawberries in January, but not until the cold-storage industry overcame a bad reputation earned before operators learned how to keep different foods at appropriate storage temperatures. Harvey W. Wiley, one of the instigators of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, went on the record as saying that “butter, milk, cream, eggs, poultry and fish” should all be eaten fresh instead of being kept in cold storage — but unfortunately, that list encompassed most of the foods that cold-storage operators made a living on. Eventually, industry leaders such as Clarence Birdseye perfected quick-freeze technologies, and food shortages during World War II led consumers to try frozen and cold-storage foods again, with better results than before.

Though the main focus of Rees’s book is the U.S., he makes some interesting comparisons between the food-refrigeration practices of Americans versus those of other countries. It was Frederic Tudor who encouraged his ice salesmen in warm climates to concentrate on bars and restaurants. Iced drinks, it appears, are habit-forming, and our American preference for ice water, iced tea, and iced coffee distinguishes us from Europeans to this day.

It’s not just my impression that refrigeration has never made as much of an inroad in Europe as it has in the U.S. Rees presents a helpful table showing the average interior volume of household refrigerators by country in 1998. North America tops the list at 17 cubic feet, with Australia in the middle (11 cubic feet) followed by Japan, Western Europe, and Russia, at a measly 8 cubic feet. The reasons for these differences are manifold: shopping habits, differences in living space, attitudes toward electricity consumption, and more. But the fact remains that North Americans are the most refrigerator-happy people on earth.

Rees structures his book in a rather unusual way. Instead of pursuing a straight chronology, he focuses on a single aspect of his overall theme in each chapter, and then pursues timelines as needed within the chapter’s subject to outline important events and trends. In the hands of a less skillful writer, this approach could lead to chaotic incoherence, but Rees always keeps his eye on the historical ball, and the reader never feels lost among the details, both good and bad.

Lest you get the impression that Rees is just a shill for the food-refrigeration industry, I should note that he is attentive to various downsides and even disasters that can be attributed in full or in part to refrigeration. One of the more dramatic scenes he presents is the tragic fire in the ice-making and cold-storage facility erected for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. A hastily-constructed wooden framework for the steel boiler stack caught fire one day, as it had several times before. Only this time, once the firemen had placed their ladders on the stack and were climbing up to fight the fire they could see, it spread to the ice machinery below, where hundreds of pounds of compressed ammonia refrigerant gas suddenly got loose. Many proponents of ice-making machinery at the time claimed that ammonia would not explode. Events proved otherwise when the Exposition plant blew up, killing seventeen people and horrifying the thousands of fairgoers who watched the whole thing.

Although smaller in scale, the early years of domestic refrigeration were attended by tragedy as well. One of the early refrigerants used in household machines was methyl chloride, a chemical whose slightly sweet odor is noticeable only at toxic levels. Before nontoxic refrigerants such as CFCs became widely available in the 1930s, leaky household refrigerators led to numerous fatalities.

Generally, though, food refrigeration has been a great boon to food growers who enjoy much larger markets, food consumers who can enjoy a huge variety of nearly-fresh and frozen foods without putting up with older traditional means of food preservation, and industries such as cold storage, refrigerated transport, and refrigeration-equipment manufacturers, whose work maintains the extensive network of cold chains that reach nearly every nook of civilization. Rees shows how the structures of various industries associated with food refrigeration developed in sequence. His topical treatments often complement each other, as when we learn in Chapter 5 about the development of the cold-storage industry and how it was both dependent on, and gave rise to, the growth of the household electric-refrigerator market, described in Chapter 7.

About the only negative thing I can say about the book is a small technical error that Rees shares with the dean of consumer-appliance history, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, author of the acclaimed More Work for Mother. Both historians mistake statements in old catalogs describing, for example, a “25-ton ice machine” to mean that the machine weighed 25 tons. Thus, under an illustration showing an impressive multi-story refrigeration system of 1890, Rees presents the caption, “This ‘220-Ton Refrigeration Machine’ … suggests the huge size and weight of mechanical refrigeration equipment in the early days of the technology.” My house in Texas is cooled by a 2.5-ton refrigeration unit, but if it weighed 2.5 tons it would fall through the ceiling into my kitchen. A “ton of refrigeration” refers to the amount of heat transfer necessary to freeze one ton of ice in 24 hours under standard conditions. It has nothing directly to do with the weight of the machinery, and I hope Rees will be the last historian of refrigeration to make this small but annoying error.

Save for that minor flaw, Rees has written an outstanding, and outstandingly readable, account of an industry whose importance is exceeded only by its obscurity. In these days of increasing food consciousness, one can learn a lot about where those strawberries on your table come from and how they got there from reading Refrigeration Nation. And despite the threat that HFCs pose to the problem of global warming, I suspect that the history of food refrigeration is far from over yet.