Antique iceboxes revolutionized food preservation & storage
Antique iceboxes, aptly named for the large blocks of ice they held, were usually made of wood, lined with tin or zinc, and insulated with sawdust, cork, or even seaweed. They were basically the cool “coolers” of their time!
The ice for these boxes was harvested during winter from lakes and rivers, stored in ice houses, and then delivered to homes by the iceman.
Yes, being an iceman was a real job! Kids would chase the iceman’s (or ice woman’s, especially during WW1) horse-drawn ice wagon down the street, hoping for a chip (or even a chunk) of ice on a hot summer day.
However, as all good things must come to an end, so did the reign of the icebox. With the introduction of the electric refrigerator in the 1930s, iceboxes gradually became a thing of the past, marking the end of the iceman’s route but leaving behind a cool legacy.
So, next time you’re grabbing ice and a cold drink from your modern fridge, spare a thought for the humble icebox and the icy revolution it sparked in the kitchens of yesteryear.
Icebox history: The ice man no longer cometh
By Burns Bennett – The Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama) June 4, 1967
The iceman no longer cometh, but a man who didn’t spend some time on a horse-drawn ice wagon in his callow days isn’t a well-rounded man. Uneducated.
Mention ice box, and today’s child thinks you’re speaking of one of the metal or Styrofoam containers distributed by soft drink companies for fishing and picnicking.
None would believe that the ice box was once a vital part of borne furnishings. But, all experts be hanged, I still insist that the ice you bought from a street salesman made much better ice water than these dinky little cubes today’s sleek porcelain machines belch out. Of course, no housewife would agree with me. There are still housewives around who can remember having to, “empty the pan.”
Let me explain to kids. As the cake of ice melted the water ran down a hole in the bottom of the ice box, and you had to have a container under it to catch the drip. Eventually, the pan would overflow, if not emptied regularly, and flood the kitchen or back porch.
How many housewives have returned from an unexpected two or three day visit to find the kitchen practically submerged? Often this was solved by boring a hole in the floor under the ice box, and placing a funnel just below the drip.
This, of course, brings back other memories of grimy youngsters playing under the house, crawling in the mud thus created, and in fact, often turning the face upward with open mouth to drink the flowing water. And of course, many a day’s excursion was ruined for the unlucky one who had to, “stay home and let the ice man in.”
Housewives had a basic system of communication with the ice man. The ice man let everyone know he was in the neighborhood via a whistle, handbell, or gong on the side of the wagon.
The various ice firms distributed signs about a foot square. The center advertised the company, but around each of the four edges was a number — 25, 50, 75, 100. This was how much ice you wanted. The woman of the house put the sign in the front window, on the front porch, or some other designated place. The number up indicated how much ice you wanted, a 25-pound block, 50 pounds, etc.
If the back side faced the streets, no ice was wanted. This worked well, except that children were always turning the cards around. You’d labor up three flights of narrow, unlighted stairs, carrying the ice on your shoulder on a clammy, wet gunny sack, only to be told, “This ain’t ice day. The kids musta’ turned the sign over.”
Standard greeting of housewives was, “Be sure and wipe your feet before you come in.” Small orders you carried with ice tongs. The big ones you toted over a shoulder, on a folded tow sack, or big piece of leather or canvas especially treated and cut for the job.
You always took your lunch with you. When hungry, you’d pull over in a vacant lot under the trees and eat your sandwiches, washed down with milk from a fruit jar, which you’d kept on ice. Often on hotter days, you’d push all the ice over to one side of the wagon, lay some of the tow sacks on the floor (you tried to have several, so one’d be dry) and take a nap under the heavy brown tarpaulin that shielded the back of the wagon. It was perfect air-conditioning.
There was a back step on the ice wagon where you stood to pull the 300-pound cakes to where you could reach them, to break them into smaller portions. It also enabled neighborhood kids to steal slivers of ice cracked in the “notching.”
One thing today’s electric refrigerator can never match is the delightful flavor that the wooden floor of the wagon gave the ice chips. These antiseptic ice cubes just don’t have “body,” compared to the ice wagon ice.
You also had a wide-tooth saw, and you used it to slice each side of the big blocks before finally breaking them with an ice pick. Snow produced from such sawing was the forerunner of today’s snow cones. I often speculate why someone doesn’t put an artificial woodchip flavor into one of today’s ice-making machines, just for old time’s sake.
Antique icebox / upright refrigerator (1895)
Tips for using an icebox safely from the 1920s
Vintage USDA notice about temperatures for antique iceboxes
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