The Big Chill at the Clements
The iceman cometh . . . and goeth
by Laura Bien
From the July, 2004 issue
Peppy exhibit curator Jan Longone opened the upper door of the elegant old-timey wooden icebox, the size of a large stereo speaker, standing on the Clements Library carpet. Inside: a gleaming block of ice. Closer inspection revealed this was a box wrapped in icy-looking plastic, one of the many surprises in the exhibit at the Clements on the history of home refrigeration.
A 1915 photo that shows workers in nearby Manchester pushing giant blocks of ice from a runway onto skids leading into an ice storage house introduces the once enormous, now vanished, industry of ice harvesting. Other images show horses on frozen ponds scoring the ice into grids with multitoothed plows (above) and icemen sawing gridded ice into rafts to maneuver to the ice house, where it was chopped into blocks and moved inside by hand or on tidy ice escalators.
"I am afraid that we will not get any ice this winter," reads one 1862 letter sent from young Robert Herbert Gorden to his father imprisoned in Boston for allegedly being a Confederate sympathizer. "We will have to eat Boston ice. The idea is perfectly chooking [sic] to put Boston ice in my mouth."
In contrast, many artifacts rave about home refrigeration's ability to make late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century life dainty and novel, as summed up in one cookbook title, Ices Dainty and Novel. Another cookbook depicting a baroque pink-and-yellow dessert proclaims, "The puddings represent the highest attainment in Ice Cream art." One flapper greeting guests on the cover of Hints for Hostesses becomes a superhero: "Everyday problems solved by Isobel Frost and her Ice-O-Lator."
The advent of the first breakdown-prone electric refrigerators in the early 1920s made the ice industry nervous, as seen in several defensive mottoes: "A block of Ice never gets out of order," "Those who really know prefer Ice," "Of course it's safe - it's an Ice refrigerator."
One engraving depicts an unwieldy contraption for converting an icebox to an electric
refrigerator, and Longone notes there were also schemes in this transitional period for deconverting high-maintenance electrics back into no-fuss iceboxes.
For the next few decades, to judge by exhibit artifacts, electrics became almost cult objects of domesticity, as seen in ads showing happy high-heeled housewives and a woman touching a pearly fridge with religious awe. Don't miss the sheet music extolling Frigidaires.
The show answered my long-standing question of why, if cold air falls, freezers are traditionally on the top of refrigerators. Seems like a holdover from icebox days. The realization gave me a twinge of nostalgia.
"Everything in these cases doesn't exist anymore," remarked Longone a bit sadly. "That's what history is about" - freezing moments from a world almost melted away.
[Originally published in July, 2004.]
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