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Food Preservation and the “Icebox”

The modern refrigerator is a staple in today’s kitchens and a great improvement over the icebox grandma or great grandma used. But the iconic icebox, popular for over a hundred years, was a huge step forward compared to ancient methods of preserving food.

Vintage ice house in the side of a hill.

The ice cellar and harvesting of snow dates back to China in 1000 BC. Early Persians also stored ice in pits. Greeks and Romans dug out of the side of a hill and filled it with ice harvested from frozen lakes. Early settlers in America buried their food underground and placed ice on top with straw for insulation.

In 1805, American inventor Oliver Evans described a closed vapor-compression refrigeration cycle for the production of ice using ether under vacuum.
In 1820 the English scientist Michael Faraday liquefied ammonia and other gases by using high pressures and low temperatures. In 1834, Jacob Perkins built the first working vapor-compression refrigeration system in the world, a closed-cycle that could operate continuously.


Restored antique icebox.

Early refrigerators were small insulated boxes called an icebox that housed a block of ice for keeping food cold. Popular beginning in the 1840’s, they were typically made of wood with a metal lining – usually tin or zinc – and packed with straw, cork, or sawdust for insulation. Families purchased blocks of ice from an iceman.

Electric refrigerators were first introduced in the 1913, but weren’t affordable for most families. In 1923 Frigidaire introduced the first self-contained unit and General Electric sold a model in 1927 for $520 (that’s around $7,000 in today’s money).

The use of Freon, instead of ether or ammonia, revolutionized the refrigerator industry. After the Great Depression, refrigerators were mass produced and offered at a more affordable price for average families.


Pie Safe with punched tin panels.

Today, Grandma’s old wooden icebox is a sought-after antique and popular with collectors and restorers along with the iconic Hoosier cabinet and pie safe. A restored piece in good condition sells for $1,000 to $2,000, with some in mint condition selling for $3,000.

Van Dyke’s Restorers has reproduction hardware for each of these historical pieces including hinges, offset hinges, latches, tambours, tambour cloth, jars, flour sifters, bread drawers, brackets, casters, name plates, and punched tin plates.

Have you restored an old icebox, Hoosier cabinet, or pie safe? We would love to see your finished piece. Share it on our Facebook page.



About Larry Padgett

Larry is an award-winning journalist and photo journalist with over 35 years of experience. He has written for a number of industries including healthcare, die casting, construction, home restoration, sports, education, and religion. He is a copywriter and blogger for Van Dyke's Restorers.

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