In the mid-20th century refrigerators really took off, finding their way into the kitchens of ordinary Swiss people.

The coolest box in the house

A refrigerator is a useful thing, helping keep food fresher for longer. In the olden days, real ice or cold water was used to keep food chilled. It was a complex process and not very efficient.

Claudia Walder

Claudia Walder

Claudia Walder is an author and editor, including for the Swiss travel magazine Transhelvetica and the Swiss National Museum’s own Magazine.

Many things are so natural to us that we barely give them a second thought. But that hasn’t always been the case, and behind every item that makes our lives easier today, there’s a long history of development. Take the refrigerator, for example: in any household, an indispensable companion in the depths of a hot summer.

In days gone by, keeping food chilled and thus edible for longer was no easy task: originally, people resorted to preservation methods such as salting or smoking, and storing foods in unheated larders and pits in the ground. In the 19th century, ice boxes started to appear in ordinary homes. These ice boxes were well-insulated chests, usually made of wood, cooled using natural ice that was delivered to the door. This ice was harvested in winter from mountain lakes such as Lac de Joux, stored and delivered to the towns and cities in summer. The region in the Jura mountains in Vaud was one of the largest ice extraction areas in Europe, also supplying ice to countries outside Switzerland. Natural ice from Switzerland was especially popular in Paris, and was even used to make the ice cubes that clinked in the cocktails of the upper crust. Ice from Switzerland was in great demand, and because the country was also well positioned in terms of transport, in the centre of Europe, a thriving ice trade developed.

In winter ice was harvested and transported to special storage facilities.

Portable box for cooling with water, around 1900.
Swiss National Museum

Breweries in particular needed ice, to keep their drinks chilled. Later on, they became involved in the ‘cool’ business themselves and began producing and selling artificial ice, which they manufactured using huge refrigerating compressors. But the ice boxes were not without drawbacks: users were reliant on ice deliveries, meltwater could leak out, and the moist environment was a breeding ground for mould and mildew. There were also attempts to provide refrigeration using cold running water. Whether that was really practicable, however, is doubtful. It was certainly not efficient.

In the 1920s, the first electric refrigerators appeared in the USA. But due to the cooling agents used, these contraptions had their own problems. Diethyl ether, for example, can form highly explosive intermediate compounds in air. It was only from the 1930s onwards that refrigerator models became safer and sales increased. The ice boxes became obsolete and were gradually replaced, and with them the trade in natural ice also disappeared.

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