- Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America by Jonathan Rees
While the title of this volume suggests a history of the refrigerator, Jonathan Rees has written something far more interesting: a history of the “cold chains” that undergird our industrial food system, allowing perishable products to travel long distances, and resulting in the seasonless variety of today’s American supermarket. The 1960s refrigerator advertisement that graces the book’s cover represents only the most familiar manifestation of a much larger technological system. By looking within and beyond the fridge, Rees sheds light on the chains of cold, commodities, and capital underpinning modern life.
Refrigeration Nation traces the emergence, between 1806 and the present day, of the modern cold chain, “the linked refrigeration technologies needed to preserve and transport perishable food from its point of production to its point of consumption” (p. 3). The phrase is both a term of art in refrigeration engineering and a gesture toward recent historical work on “food chains.” It provides not only a fitting structure for Rees’s narrative, which follows the “clusters” of technologies that formed different links in the cold chain (p. 7), but also an analytical framework that recognizes how different kinds of technologies and business practices—high-tech and lowtech, custom manufacturing and mass production—overlapped and coexisted to form a successful cold chain. This prevents Rees’s account from becoming a cut-and-dried business-and-technology history that focuses on a single firm or product, or that treats innovation as an autonomous and inevitable process. Rees has made good use of the ice and refrigeration trade literature to tell this story, supplementing the industry perspective with information from newspapers and a smattering of archival collections.
Rees identifies four overlapping stages in the creation of the cold chain: generating the cold (through ice or mechanical refrigeration), managing the cold (making cold spaces), controlling the cold (regulating temperature with precision), and enlarging and extending the cold chain’s volume and reach. He moves from early-nineteenth-century efforts to create cold chains by transporting ice over long distances to the advent of mechanical refrigeration in the mid-1800s and its long coexistence with the natural ice industry, through the early twentieth century, to the refinement of refrigerated transport and storage facilities along the cold chain. The later chapters focus on the cold chain’s main household termini, the icebox and the electric refrigerator. By the late 1920s, these many technologies had become sufficiently reliable and coordinated to constitute the modern cold chain, which transformed what Americans ate on a daily basis, eclipsing [End Page 1006] traditional means of storing and preserving foods and making new kinds of fresh and frozen goods available to a broad range of consumers.
Although entrepreneurs had to overcome hurdles natural, technological, and economic in order to create a working cold chain, Rees argues that the benefits and overall convenience of refrigeration meant that American consumers never resisted it for long. Between the 1870s and the 1920s the cold chain rapidly became “second nature” in the United States—a fact Rees underscores through comparisons to other nations, where cold chains were less extensive and refrigeration less common. But was refrigeration so ineluctable? And why, apart from their taste for ice water, did Americans take it up with such enthusiasm? Rees offers a partial answer in his conclusion: capitalism fostered the growth of businesses that catered to consumers’ desire for the “better life” refrigeration offered through a varied diet (p. 185). However, the notion that the global trade in agricultural products gives all people access to a greater variety of produce that makes them healthier seems a major oversimplification, particularly since Rees recognizes that “refrigerated transport became a necessary prerequisite for the development of modern mass-production agriculture” (p. 94).
These and other questions might have deeper answers in the histories of food, agriculture, and environment; these are clearly on Rees’s mind but peripheral to his inquiry. Rees touches only briefly on the...