Early Days of Refrigeration

In order to help fresh food last longer, an efficient method of keeping the produce cool enough had to be created. Inventors toiled for years with iceboxes of many sorts, but creating an efficient icebox is was not quite as easy as it sounds. In the late 1700's, due to a rudimentary knowledge of temperature dynamics, the contraptions were not quite up to par with what was demanded by the produce. For some time, inventors thought that with iceboxes, the principle was to try to keep the ice from melting, thus providing for a long, constant cold temperature. On the contrary, iceboxes, has history will soon see, works best when there is proper balance of insulation and air circulation.

In 1803, Maryland native Thomas Moore coined and patented the first refrigerator, which single-handedly put a huge twist on the agricultural business. Thomas Moore lived about twenty miles outside the city of Washington, for which the village of Georgetown was the market center. On his farm were dairy cows whose milk was churned into butter and taken to market to be sold. Moore devised an icebox out of a cedar tub which was insulated with rabbit fur, filled with ice, and wrapped in a piece of sheet metal so he could transport his butter at a cooler temperature. He was on the right track, for in the warmer months of the year, Moore noticed that people would pass up his competitors butter, which had softened up and often times melted, for his butter which was wrapped up and came in individual bricks.

What also made this stand out is that customers were willing to pay a premium for his product. Moore saw his invention as an improvement for farmers because now they didn't have to rely on traveling at nighttime to keep their goods cool.



With the invention of the icebox came the manifestation of the ice industry. In the eighteenth century, the wealthy people in America used ice for cooling beverages and making ice cream. Each winter, men would go out onto lakes and cut larges slabs of ice and store them in underground icehouses for future use. Around the time of Moore's invention, Ice prices were still quite high due the laborious and time-consuming work that went into harvesting slabs. In 1827, a man by the name of Nathaniel Wyeth who was employed by Massachusetts ice merchant Fredrick Tudor stepped on the scene with an invention that would further advance the ice industry and bring in close touch with refrigeration technologies. Wyeth had created an ice cutter that was dragged across the ice in a checkerboard pattern by horses. The cutter had sharp, saw-like edges that ripped a deep groove in the ice, which was drawn back and forth until it almost broke through. Wedges were then inserted into the grooves to break the slabs off so they could be floated to shore. To put into perspective the impact of this device, consider this: five years after the invention of the cutter, the cost of filling up an icehouse in Massachusetts had dropped more than 60%(Cummings, p.38)

Shortly before Wyeth's invention for the ice cutter, Tudor had introduced the above ground icehouse based off of refrigeration experiments used in shipping goods from the colonies to the West Indies. It had been estimated that the waste being generated by the below ground icehouses was close to 60%, where the above ground once generated a mere 8%. With this advancement combined with the higher ice production, more ice companies formed in the north, which resulted in a lowering of ice prices. Shipments of ice to the south increased, but due to still high transportation costs, it remained more of a luxury than in the north.

The dynamic interconnectedness of the inventions of the icebox, ice cutter, and above ground icehouse proved to be a very powerful market tool. With cheaper access to ice, more farmers and households were catching on to the refrigeration craze. Everyone seemed to be benefiting. Farmers were able to offer a wider range of goods to sell as well as travel further with them, increasing their scope of sales. Items that were not previously marketable without refrigeration, such as fresh meat and dairy products, (with cheese and butter being a small exception) were now profitable. The customer reaped these benefits on the other end of the deal. With refrigeration, a wider range of foods could be bought to please the palate, further evolving the diversity in the average American's diet. Refrigeration was also a big time saver for whoever did the shopping since food could be stored and kept for days, eliminating the need for daily trips to the market. Health issues came into focus as well; bringing to light the fact that food stored in a cool environment was less prone to sickening bacteria growth. Thus, Americans in the north began to eat healthier. By 1838, fridges were considered and article of necessity in the north, with many households having one for meat and one for dairy and produce.