The Refrigirator and Today's Technology

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The Refrigirator and Today's Technology

Technology is omnipresent in our world. People often equate this saturation of technology to an increase in the standard of living, rarely, however, do they dissect the effects of specific technologies on fundamental behavior, like eating, sleeping and interacting with others. To explore the direct and indirect effects of a specific "advancement" is to uncover how and why people, Americans more specifically, have been converted from their puritanical ways to consumers, and what careers have been sacrificed for the goal of a supposed increase in luxury and free time. The refrigerator, for example, is an item in use in over 80 million homes in America alone. (Krantzburg 187-189) once considered a luxury afforded only by the wealthy, today nearly all American homes are equipped with what is perceived a "necessity".


The concept of refrigeration is not a new one. Refrigeration by means of natural ice has been employed for thousands of years. Ice cellars were used in China as early as 1000 b. c. (Grolier 331-334). More recently, natural ice refrigeration became a large scale industry in the United States in the 19th century. Many New Englanders, for example, quarried natural ice from frozen lakes and ponds and stored it in insulated icehouses. In warm seasons the ice was shipped to markets in the south. Not only did people quarry the ice, but they also had to deliver it homes, thus resulting in the neighborhood iceman. Families developed relationships with the men who delivered the ice which they so depended upon. For the children especially, it was considered a treat for the iceman to shave them off a piece of ice, because it was an expensive specialty.

Just as the iceman provided an important service to many families before the advent of the refrigerator, so did the milk man. The milkman was not completely displaced by the refrigerator, more so by the cardboard wax carton and an increase in delivery mobility. However, with the invention of the home refrigerator in 1913, by a Chicago company, the milkman visits were decreased from daily to weekly visits (Cardwell 217).

Refrigeration Caused Changes in Work and Relationships

The displacement of the iceman, and partial displacement of the milkman, were both immediate and direct causes of the advent of home refrigerators. Within a very short time after the first refrigerator was introduced the ice industry became almost obsolete. Harvesting of the ice became unnecessary, along it's delivery and shipping. Another not so blatant repercussion of this invention and eventual widespread use, was an increase in the isolation of women in the home. In past times when families used the icebox for refrigeration, the woman of the house was at the market daily to purchase food, as the iceboxes really did not allow for prolonged freshness. At the market, women would talk with one another, share problems, advice and commonalities. For many, this was the only time for socialization. With the introduction of refrigerators, it was no longer necessary for a woman to go to the market daily, because she could make one trip per week and the food would keep until the following week. This resulted in a loss of communication between women in a community and weakened bonds formed at the common grounds of the market place. Because women weren't shopping as much as they were used to, they had an initial increase of free time in the home. In some cases this gave way to an increase of women in the work force. For example, the depression decade witnessed an increase in the number and proportion of married women in the work force. With middle-income families, those earning at least $1000 per year, this increase is attributable not to absolute economic need, but to a change in values. (Wandersee 60) This change in values was made feasible mainly by the fact that they had an increase of time which converted many women from puritanical homemakers to working, consuming homemakers. Wives from middle-income families entered the labor force not to procure necessities like food and clothing for their families, but to purchase items such as refrigeration. They worked to enable their families to pursue a higher standard of living, a value acquired during the late 1920's. (Wandersee 63)

This value seems to have endured throughout the ages, as people are presently realizing the amount of meaning they put into their refrigerators and kitchens. Most people in the United States use their kitchens for purposes other than cooking, as they use their refrigerator for more than storage. Kitchens have become places to eat, talk, entertain, work and relax. American consumers are fond of kitchen oriented products and services that have more to do with self-image than with food. In 1991, Americans spent $88 billion to redesign their kitchens; almost all of this money went toward creating a larger more complex space. (Krafft 46)

The Environmentally Friendly Fridge

Refrigerators, among other appliances, represent peoples' changing values. Today, as environmentalism is becoming an important and esteemed way of life, the refrigerator also advances. When refrigerators were first introduced they utilized ammonia and freon, among other toxins. Today, almost all leading companies provide a model free from chlorofloro carbons and freon. (Meier 32) Also, every refrigerator sold comes with a tag that displays its energy efficiency rating. Another way of life which has become highly valued is mobility. And again, the refrigerator has changed to suit the consumers. For example, the makers of a product called "Kooltron", a portable refrigerator, boast, "500 miles from nowhere, it'll give you a cold drink or a warm burger..." (Anton 114)

Leaps toward Commercialism

This trend towards buying the unnecessary began, in part, with the introduction of the refrigerator, and many other household "time savers"; as less time was spent on family necessities, like meal purchase and preparation, and more time and money could be spent on items once thought frivolous. In the past, there was a type of puritanical morality where the women made their own candles, sewed the families clothing and cooked the meals from scratch. Items such as the refrigerator actually helped convert many Americans from this independent way of life to more of a consumer mentality. Women simply had more time to buy more nonessentials. Also, where once only individual ingredients were available, with refrigeration, meals or the meal components could be made by companies and sold to "save" time for the consumer. With an increase in the sale of packaged and processed food, the proportion of meals prepared from scratch began to decrease. (Cardwell 145) When food is bought and prepared one ingredient at a time, it is far more clear to the consumer where their food is coming from and who had a part in the final product that ends up on their table. Often, the market owner dealt directly with the farmers and producers of flour, grain, and such. The amount of people that food went though before it reached the consumer was minimal. The people buying the food were closer to the people who were producing it for them. This previous lack of "middle men", like large corporations for example, resulted in a more clear view of relationships within a community. Having a greater awareness of where food comes from and what it takes to grow and produce each of the components that make up a meal leads to a greater appreciation for what one eats. Obviously, the refrigerator is not solely responsible for the move toward the devaluation of farmers and lack of appreciation of food, however, it was a crucial step in the process. Today, processed foods are a part of many peoples' diets, Americans in particular. When dealing with this type of food, many people do not even know the full contents of their meal, let alone do they feel connected to the people who helped create it.

This deviation from preparing each meal by scratch not only changed the way people view their food and it's origins, but also the way people view meal-time. Years ago, before the refrigerator, the family ate their meals together, specifically breakfast and dinner. They ate together out of necessity. Food, once prepared could not be saved for very long. With the advent of the refrigeration, and it's eventual widespread use, family's mealtime has become sparatic. People often make a meal and immediately refrigerate it for later use. This means that it is no longer necessary for family members to eat together, as the individual has the option of grabbing something from the refrigerator when ever he or she is hungry.

The Frige as the Household Center

When the family did eat together, the kitchen or dining room table served as the center of household communication, to a large extent. The table was the place where at a designated time, the family would expectedly come together. Often this was where they prayed together, and communicated the days stories with one another. As the family members began to eat separately because of their new options to do so, the center of the home switched a great deal from the table to the refrigerator. Whereas before, the individual members of a family were certain that they would be together for dinner to communicate, now, family members are often unsure when they will be together to talk. individual members of a household often have no idea of the schedules of their own family. In many homes because of this uncertainty, the refrigerator acts as a central message board because everyone uses it. The refrigerator in many American homes is covered with things like, house chore wheels, which show who is responsible for specific chores, children' photographs, messages, bills, and artwork, among others. People are more and more finding ways to communicate with one another without personal contact. As these technologies arise, like the refrigerator, and promise to save time, work continues to follow it's course of expanding to fit the time allotted for it. This actual expansion of work with the use of supposed time savers is further perpetuated by corporations who tend to gain from peoples' conception of the once frivolous as necessary. The introduction and eventual widespread use of the home refrigerator pushed many people one step further from a once close relationship between the family, and the producer and consumer. As technology continues to increase in far more complex ways than the refrigerator, the gap between the individual consumer and the corporate producer grows.

Works Cited

Anton, Charles. "Kooltron; Portable Refrigerator." Sports Afield. Mag.Coll.: 75
D4747 (Aug 1994) Online. Infotrac. 18 Oct 1997

Cardwell, D. Turning Points in Western Technology. New York: Science History
Publications, 1972

Jones, Joseph "American Ice Boxes." Encyclopedia Americana Vol 23. Grolier Inc.

Krafft, Susan "The Heart of the Home." American Demographics. v14 (Jun 1992)
Online. Proquest. 16 October 1997

Kranzberg, Melvin. Technology in Western Civilization. New York. Oxford
University Press, 1967

Meier, Alan. "News About Refrigerator Energy Savings." Consumers' Research
Magazine. v76n3 (Mar 1993) Online. Infotrac. 14 October 1997

Wandersee, Winifred. "The Economics of Middle-Income Family Life: Working
Women During the Depression." 16A-04039 (1978) Online. America:
History and Life. 18 October 1997

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