The History of the Modern Refrigerator

Imagine life before the discovery of modern refrigeration; sounds peculiar right? Everyday visits to the local grocer and butcher sounds quite tiring come to think of it. But it was not all black and white as it may seem.

Back then people devised inventive ways of storing food. In this paper, I discuss the time before the discovery of the modern refrigerator, how people kept the food fresh and its impact on the society. The history of the contemporary refrigerator was quite interesting, the modern refrigerator, of course, has its perks, and nearly 99% of households employ the use of the refrigerator.

Before its invention in the 1800’s various methods of food preservation took place from sun-drying in the tropics, which is the oldest method of preserving food, to the building of ice-houses during the winter season.

Technology brought with it many notable changes that the old techniques soon enough will be faced off and a new modern era without an ounce of knowledge that led to the invention of the refrigerator will be groomed. From the ancient civilizations to the modern have all found the need to preserve food.

The history of the modern refrigerator

The following methods were used to preserve food before the modern refrigerator:

Food Preservation by Drying

Drying is the oldest food preservation method that is used to preserve meat, herbs, fruits, vegetables. The sun has been employed since the olden ages as a technique for food preservation by removing the moisture hence inhibiting the growth of pathogenic organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and mold.

Water was traditionally removed through evaporation. The early American settlers dried foods using natural forces of sun and wind. Drying of foods provided good sources of quick energy and wholesome nutrition since the only thing expelled was water. Other than removing moisture it also slowed down the enzyme action without deactivating them. These factors prevented food from spoiling.

Two methods of food drying employed are as follows:

Sun drying Food Preservation

It’s a slow and time-consuming process. Sun drying was customarily used when there was low humidity; this is because the moisture could be easily expelled into the surrounding air rather than in high humidity where the drying process was slow because the surrounding air was filled with moisture hence expulsion of moisture to the environment was slow. Breeze also supported the drying process by fastening the process.

Sun drying was unpredictable due to the uncontrollable weather, hence sudden rains ruined entire supplies. The cold night air was not suitable for drying hence the need to bring them in every night or erecting a shelter that protected them from the night dew. Racks and screens were placed on concrete surfaces or blocks or over a sheet of aluminum, this was to ensure there is an adequate flow of air around the food while at the same time preventing the transfer of moisture from the earth to the food. The aluminum sheet was used to speed up the drying process.

Vine drying Food Preservation

This was used for beans and lentils. The bean pods were left on the vine until the beans inside began to rattle. Once they were scorched, they were picked then shelled.

Salting Food Preservation

Salting also referred to as curing is among the oldest methods of food preservation. Meat such as bacon, salted vegetables, and cabbage often used this method of food preservation.
This method was discovered in the 19th century. Salt was sprinkled on meat and left for days without it being infected by bacteria. There were two methods employed for salting:

  • Dry curing- salt and the ingredients were rubbed over the meat.
  • Wet curing/ brining- soaking the meat in a salty solution.

The meat was salted using a mixture of salts, inclusive of saltpeter and sugar. The sugar was usually used to prevent the salty taste that was provided by the saltpeter while at the same time proving bacteria with energy to transform nitrates in saltpeter to nitrites which produced a pink color. If this process was not carried out the meat would appear a rather unappealing shade of grey. Salting was often followed by another treatment, like smoking or drying.

This method provided a toxic environment for the survival of any pathogenic organism such as bacteria and fungi by reducing the amount of water available in the meat. In Ancient Rome salting tub was an essential item in every household, Egyptians employed the use of earthenware jars for salting, and the Gauls employed the use of wooden kegs. In the middle ages, wooden salting chests were found in almost every kitchen household. In pre-industrial times two-thirds of the available salt was used for preservation.

Smoking Food Preservation

Smoking involved a prolonged exposure of the meat to wood smoke. The wood would be of hickory, maple, cherry, oak, and other fragrant hardwoods. Smoking is similar to grilling though it had a slight difference; smoking involves the use of low level of indirect heating while grilling employs high temperature when heating.

The smoke creates an acidic coating on the meat that prevents bacteria from growing and while at the same time giving it a rich mouth-watering flavor. It dehydrates the meat proving an inhospitable environment for the bacteria to thrive in hence preventing spoilage. There are two types of smoking:

  • Hot smoking- this happens in temperatures of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal usually is to cook food at high temperature while at the same time enriching the flavor.
  • Cold smoking- This happens in temperatures less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This method is used to both flavor and preserves the meat.

Canning Food Preservation

This method was discovered after an award of 12,000 francs was offered to whoever would devise a way for preserving food for the Napoleon Army. A French Chemist; Nicolas Appert discovered the method, hence winning the 12,000 francs. The heat was required to can food. Canning is placing foods in jars and heating them at a high temperature destroying micro-organisms that may spoil food. The vacuum that has been created prevented the air from getting back into the food which would likely have been accompanied by micro-organisms.

Cans or glass jars could be used for canning. One is required first to sterilize the can/glass jars with their lids in water for a few minutes, fill it with fruits or vegetables or meat, place the top on firmly though not too tight, then lower the jar into a pot containing water, cover then bring to boil. Finally, after the water has boiled the jar/can is pulled out of the hot water and left to cool. This method served the Napoleon Army during the early 1800’s.

Pickling Food Preservation

Two things are often required for pickling; that is: acid and salt. The produce was soaked in a brine with salt. After one’s ideal duration the produce was then transferred to a jar full of vinegar. Foods that were preserved using this method were: meats, fruits, vegetables, and eggs. The low pH brought about by the acidic nature of vinegar was sufficient enough to kill most bacteria. The salting process was used first to draw out the excess water. Natural fermentation through a method of preservation on its own at room temperature provided the required acidity due to the lactic acid bacteria.

The canning method is then used to complement this method to produce a vacuum seal to prevent air accompanied with pathogenic organisms from entering the container. It was used to preserve foods that were out of season or even during the long journeys especially by sea. It added a flavor to the food while at the same time changing the texture.

Natural Fermentation

As discussed in pickling, natural fermentation was used as a method of food preservation, where one would leave their produce such as grapes exposed at room temperature, the yeasts then convert the sugar to alcohol. This was used to make beer as early as 10,000BC. This was done through microorganisms. These micro-organisms released vitamins that added an extra nutrition value to the foods.

Jamming Food Preservation

This method was employed by the Greeks and Romans where fruits were stored in honey, it was considered as jamming. The fruits were stored in tightly packed jars.

Food Preservation by Natural sources

This method employed the use of streams, caves, and snow. They provided good cooling options that were exploited and in one way led to the emergence of the modern refrigerator.
The deeper the cave, the colder the air would be; hence people would store their foods (beers, cheese, and wines) in a cave to preserve them, though there was the risk of wild animals coming across them and ravaging through them.

The streams gush cold water; hence one would place a container in a position where it would not be swept away, and water would move around the container, preserving it by keeping it cool. The fast flowing water acted as a good and quick cooling agent which is still a classic picnic technique practice. These methods would prevent the microorganisms from multiplying. As the ages progressed, new ways emerged such as mixing food with melting snow or the resulting water after the snow has melted to get a cool refreshing drink. Ice harvesting methods were employed as follows:

  • Containers were buried in the snow, to preserve the food.
    • Snow was put into storage pits and covered with insulating material.
    • Insulated ice-houses were built
    • Ice was harvested from frozen rivers and stored to preserve food.
    • Ice boxes made of wooden insulated crates filled with ice.
    • Ice chests were also used where three insulated boxes were employed; the top box contained ice, the middlebox contained the food while the third box contained an empty tray where water from the melted ice would be collected.


These methods made frozen drinks famous in the 17th century, and even though it was used to slow the process of spoilage, it did not halt the development of bacteria and mold. This method, however, could not be employed in the tropical countries since they did not experience the snow season.

The Ancient Egyptian for instance filled either jags with boiled water then left them at night on the roof exposing it to the night’s cool air. It was not until the 1800’s that the idea of the modern refrigerator began to take root. The modern refrigerator was commercially used for the first time in 1842, then the large-scale food preservation by freezing started in the 19th century.

Impact of the methods of preserving food before the refrigerator.

For several thousands of years different methods of food preservation methods have been employed, but none can genuinely surpass a new freezer. This methods of food preservation provide a peek into the history of the modern refrigerator. The ancient civilizations used to employ the process of hunting and gathering where food would be hunted and killed, and plants harvested that same day would all be cooked and eaten. That was during the primitive days. But as the world developed came discoveries of different methods food preservations that enabled people to settle down and make communities that later became united where their source of food was agricultural produce. Foods started being stored in bulks for a community; for those that lived in a place that snowed, ice houses were built to store food or those that lived in the tropics and lived off fish settled down near a lake and erected racks where they would dry the fish.

The methods of food preservation enabled the transportation of produce that was not perishable, hence people from as far as different continents could be able to obtain food that was out of season or not even grown at their land. There was less food wastage this was because the spoilage process was under control. For centuries people preserved food using these methods, the only way to identify spoiled food was the odor it emitted. Even though these steps helped the storing of food become possible, it was not always effective because the foods would still undergo rapid spoilage since the existence of pasteurization was not yet known and pathogenic organisms were rampant during the days. Consumers demand fresh meat, milk, fish and vegetables in the 1800’s brought forth the need for the next significant invention; the modern refrigerator.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, these methods provided a foundation to the emergence of the modern refrigerator, hence providing the detailed history of the modern refrigerator. Some of these methods are even employed today such as canning, pickling and even drying among others.


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