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Refrigeration Nation

A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America

Jonathan Rees

Publication Year: 2013

Only when the power goes off and food spoils do we truly appreciate how much we rely on refrigerators and freezers. In Refrigeration Nation, Jonathan Rees explores the innovative methods and gadgets that Americans have invented to keep perishable food cold—from cutting river and lake ice and shipping it to consumers for use in their iceboxes to the development of electrically powered equipment that ushered in a new age of convenience and health. As much a history of successful business practices as a history of technology, this book illustrates how refrigeration has changed the everyday lives of Americans and why it remains so important today. Beginning with the natural ice industry in 1806, Rees considers a variety of factors that drove the industry, including the point and product of consumption, issues of transportation, and technological advances. Rees also shows that how we obtain and preserve perishable food is related to our changing relationship with the natural world. He compares how people have used the "cold chain" in America to other countries, offering insight into more than just what we eat. Refrigeration Nation helps explain one small part of who we are as a people.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Industry and Society


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

All historians doing original research should always start their acknowledgments by thanking the archivists and librarians they have met because where would they be without them? William Worthington from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was the person who first told me about...

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pp. 1-10

“The producing of cold is a thing very worthy the inquisition,” wrote the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon in 1624. “For heat and cold are nature’s two hand’s by which we chiefly worketh; and heat we have in readiness; but for cold we must stay ’til it cometh.”1 In Bacon’s time, people could produce heat...

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CHAPTER 1. Inventing the Cold Chain

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pp. 11-30

On a cold winter morning in the late 1840s, one hundred Irish immigrant laborers and their native-born American foremen arrived at Walden Pond in northeastern Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau lived in a small cabin that he had built himself. The men, Thoreau noted, came “with many...

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CHAPTER 2. The Long Wait for Mechanical Refrigeration

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pp. 31-54

On the afternoon of 10 July 1893, Captain James Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Fire Department received yet another call to put out a fire in the ice-making and cold storage facility at the World’s Columbian Exposition. He had gone to fight fires there twice before. A design defect in the plant’s smokestack had caused...

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CHAPTER 3. The Decline of the Natural Ice Industry

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pp. 55-75

In the late nineteenth century, the Schuylkill River, the main source for Philadelphia’s drinking water, became infamous for its pollution.1 As early as 1875, the chemical engineer Julius W. Adams, a consultant for the city, reported that the Fairmount Pool, the reservoir into which the Schuylkill drained inside the...

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CHAPTER 4. Refrigerated Transport Near and Far

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pp. 76-98

In 1898 the commander of the U.S. Army, General Nelson A. Miles, charged that Chicago packinghouses had sold the government condemned meat to feed the troops during the Spanish-American War. Some of the questionable meat came in cans. Some of it came in a refrigerated state. Miles claimed that packers...

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CHAPTER 5. The Pleasures and Perils of Cold Storage

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pp. 99-118

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley ran the Bureau of Chemistry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. In that capacity, he helped convince Congress to pass the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Speaking before a class in sanitary science at Cornell University sometime after the passage...

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CHAPTER 6. “Who Ever Heard of an American without an Icebox?”

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pp. 119-139

In 1875, the Blaisdell & Burley Company of Sanbornton, New Hampshire, introduced its “Patent Elevating Refrigerator”—a cold storage cabinet we would now call an icebox, since it was not electric.1 Unlike other iceboxes of that time, this one had a gimmick. When the owner turned a key, a system of weights and...

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CHAPTER 7. The Early Days of Electric Household Refrigeration

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pp. 140-161

“How do you do, Mrs. Prospect?” So began a 1923 “demonstration” book for Frigidaire salesmen designed to help them sell electric household refrigerators door-to-door. Assuming the salesman gained admittance to the home, his script told him to immediately approach the family’s existing icebox with a thermometer...

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CHAPTER 8. The Completion of the Modern Cold Chain

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pp. 162-181

“When a housewife returns from the supermarket and whisks things into her refrigerator and closes the door,” wrote Kathleen Ann Smallzried in 1956, “she has closed the door on the springhouse, the milk and butter pantry, the root cellar, the cheese room, the smokehouse, the covered well. At the same time...

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CONCLUSION: Refrigeration, Capitalism, and the Environment

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pp. 182-194

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the resulting loss of electricity meant that almost all refrigerators in the city suddenly became useless, regardless of how much damage a given neighborhood suffered. Since few people had emptied their kitchens before evacuating, most came home to find...


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pp. 195-226

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 227-228

During graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I spent a lot of time on the fourth floor of the Engineering Library while working on my dissertation. My topic concerned the American steel industry, so I spent a lot of time reading hundred-year-old copies of the trade journal Iron Age. One day, coming up out of the elevator, I spotted a different...


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pp. 229-236

E-ISBN-13: 9781421411071
E-ISBN-10: 1421411075
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421411064
Print-ISBN-10: 1421411067

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Industry and Society