As those with great-grandparents old enough to remember may know, the ice box was the precursor to the refrigerator. A large wood box, often made of oak or walnut, this appliance stored food that had to be kept cold, though it did not run on coolant. It was so-named because it required blocks of ice, just like today’s camping coolers. The Chinese were reportedly the first to create blocks of ice about 1000 BCE. Before the ice box, people kept food cool in caves packed with snow or ice, in streams, or later, in underground cellars lined with straw.
The typical ice box was roughly the size of modern refrigerators, though somewhat shorter. The face had three to five hinged doors, one smaller and designated for the ice block. Interiors were lined with material such as tin, and for insulation there was cork, seaweed, or straw, among other popular choices. Internal wired shelves held the food.
Many neighborhoods in 1920s Southern California still saw the milkman arrive each morning by a horse drawn carriage, while the ice man delivered blocks of ice from a truck. It wasn’t unusual to see children chasing the ice truck to be rewarded with the large chips of ice created when cutting a block for delivery. The ice man used tongs to grab the block and typically carried it over his shoulder, covered by a leather sheath. He would enter the house and place it directly in the ice box.
The advent of the modern refrigerator was a somewhat slow process of evolution, spanning more than a century. It started with experiments in refrigeration in the 19th century, with several inventors making contributions along the way. General Electric is credited with the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911, of which two were sold in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Motors were separate, noisy, and stored at a distance, such as in the basement.
This model was followed by another watershed model – the self-contained unit offered by Frigidaire in 1923. Improvements continued, and mass production began in earnest after World War II. The electric refrigerator was a major luxury when a family could finally afford to upgrade from their existing ice box.
Today, many people in their golden years still refer to a refrigerator as an ice box. While the terms may be synonymous to some, antique dealers appreciate the difference. An ice box in good shape can sell for up to 2,500 US Dollars (USD) or more, ironically rivaling the price of some top selling refrigerators.