The Iceman Leaveth

Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit at the Sesqui-Centennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

“This Modern Ice Man Calls Once with Frigidaire,” Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit at the Sesqui-Centennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

Frigidaire wanted to freeze the iceman out of America’s kitchens. To accomplish this, they literally took him on, appropriating the folksy icon of home delivery as the centerpiece of their lavish Art Deco display at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition. But instead of ice, this giant iceman statue had on his shoulder the final delivery – a new, compact electric refrigerator.

Four years earlier, the Inquirer had predicted the iceman’s demise, happily looking forward to relief from years of mopping up footprints and spill from overflow pans. The new, electric, “iceless refrigerator,” they said, “spelled doom for the iceman.” Soon he would be “an [extinct] species; a veritable Dodo…”

Dethroning Big Ice wouldn’t come fast, or easy.

In Philadelphia, one major ice company, Knickerbocker, had massive plants, one with 125 employees and storage capacity for a million tons throughout the city. With the help of 1,200 horses and mules, Knickerbocker drivers kept more than 500 delivery wagons mobile on the streets. At the start of the 20th century, America seemed to need every last one its 1,320 ice plants. And the nation’s iceboxes multiplied. Between 1889 and 1919, the the value iceboxes manufactured in the United States increased from $4.5 million to $26 million.

Eventually, electric refrigeration would become bigger, but not as long as their cost remained high and their performance poor. In 1920, a household refrigerator cost $600 (more than $7,500 in today’s dollars) and broke down about every tenth week.

Then the price point dropped and reliability increased. In addition, utilities recognized the potential goldmine in household refrigeration. Since units were always running, and consumed far more electricity than any other appliance, home refrigeration could more than double their revenues. Realizing that, electric utilities didn’t leave marketing and sales up to the manufacturers. By the mid- 1920s, they were selling nearly a third of all new electric refrigerators.

Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit, Sesquicentennial Exposition, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

That’s the decade Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors, also engaged in aggressive, creative and even whimsical marketing—and became America’s refrigerator of choice.

“How do you do, Mrs. Prospect?” Frigidaire’s door-to-door sales script began in 1923. Once in the kitchen, the salesmen would take the temperature of the family’s ice box. “Mrs. Prospect,” continued the pitch, “we find that the average ice box maintains a temperature of about 55 degrees, and I think you will agree with me that this will keep food properly for only a short time.” But, the salesman proceeded, now sharing his thermometer with the housewife, “the temperature in your refrigerator is —— degrees. This is slightly warmer than I expected. If you had Frigidaire, the temperature would certainly be —— degrees colder than you now have in your icebox. . . . Won’t you please talk this matter over with your husband tonight as, in all probability; I or one of our men will call upon him tomorrow afternoon and tell him the benefits of owning a Frigidaire.”

Between 1920 and 1925, the number of refrigerators in American kitchens rose from 4,000 to 75,000. In 1926 they boomed to 248,000 units and by 1928, 468,000. The following year, Frigidaire manufactured its millionth refrigerator. By 1930, the sales of electric household refrigerators surpassed those of iceboxes.

In the middle of the Great Depression, Americans still cleaned up after 350,000 ice boxes. They had also grown accustomed to to the hum and chugging of 1.7 million plugged-in refrigerators. By 1940, 63 percent of all households had refrigerators—13.7 million of them. Four years later, 85 percent of America’s kitchens were equipped. As Jonathan Rees, author of Refrigeration Nation put it: “the electric household refrigerator symbolized modernity. When filled with food, it symbolized abundance.” And after World War II, when just about every kitchen had one, the increased size of the American refrigerator conveyed another prized status—prosperity.

By 1953, when the last U.S. icebox manufacturer went out of business, the young, virile delivery man carrying dripping, often dirty, blocks of ice into millions of clean American kitchens, the man whose proximity to wives and daughters fueled countless rumors, would-be scandals and jokes on stage and screen, that man, the iceman, finally found a new home—and new purpose—in nostalgia purgatory.

[Sources: Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); “The Newest Ideas of Invention and Industry: The Passing of the Iceman,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1922; Frank Hamilton Taylor, The City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 1900); W.C. Fields, The Dentist, (Film, 1932).]

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One Comment

  1. Warren Seale
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Ken, Fridgidaire was part of General Motors and not General Electric. They were also responsible for inventing Freon in partnership with Dupont Chemical.

    Warren

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