You’re god damn lucky. You really are. Out of all of the hominids born in the last few million years, you were born at a time of abundant energy and refrigeration. Yes, refrigeration – and on top of that, you were born into a society geographically situated and historically fortunate to be disproportionately wealthy, and actually have access to refrigeration. Most people take a technology like refrigeration for granted, not considering the profound ways in which it has altered what you eat, when you can eat, where it comes from, and ultimately who controls the system that produced it. ‘Artificial cold’ is a blessing to be sure, but it is also a curse. To what degree does refrigeration serve you, and to what degree do you serve refrigeration? How secure is our food system, and to what is the cost of artificial cold?
Aside from the wealthy aristocrat chilling a beverage, or having his servants concoct a frozen treat, few early 19th century North American inhabitants had any use for refrigeration – why would they be concerned over a problem they aren’t even cognizant of? People would have been getting along fine, more or less, utilizing traditional methods to grow, harvest, prepare, cook, and preserve foods. Certainly, a few individuals made use of ice harvested in winter lakes to help transport perishables to market, but generally speaking, the ice industry would require decades to mature, and to the early observers, success was not guaranteed.
A man by the name of Frederic Tudor got the hair-brained idea to ship ice, harvested in the northeast, to ports in southern latitudes. The frozen water was to serve as ballast on a ships southern route, the ice would be sold to individuals or businesses unaccustomed to such things, and the ship would return laden with cargo destined for northeastern ports. The enterprise was initially an abject failure, as he had no place to store the ice once arrived in port, which wasn’t the dilemma it sounds like because little to no ice would survive the trip. However, with perseverance, better insulation techniques, improved harvesting methods, and the establishment of a viable ice market, Tudor found success, even if he was constantly plagued with financial woes.
Long distance and international transport of ice would ultimately pale in size against the domestic market within the United States. Almost every food would be affected by ice and refrigeration: dairy, beef, hog, chicken, fish, produce, and even beer. In the 20th century, refrigeration technology would change the homes we live in, where they are located, the commercial structures we do business in, and make possible all sorts of industrial processes.
Over the span of a century or so, refrigeration became an inextricable linchpin in our food system. No longer would people be limited to the produce available in their geographic region. Shipped from far and wide, stored in warehouse cold rooms, these foods were shifted temporally by making them available out of growing season, their ripening and decay artificially prolonged by the colds tempering of the bacteria on and within the skins. Grown on larger and more consolidated plots of land, where fruits and vegetables could be cultivated in more ideal conditions, then transported from afar to the market with the greatest demand, and at the greatest profit. Railroads crisscrossed the nation, and new communication systems helped to ensure a timely and efficient delivery. This bounty was now obtainable by a citizenry of new urbanites, wealthier perhaps than their forebears, packed into dense, sprawling cities, they were participants in the burgeoning market economy, and participate they did. All the while they became distanced from the source of their food, more commodity than sustenance.
The beef industry changed too. At one time, it was far less consolidated than we find today, as cattlemen had to drive their herds into the cities where they would be slaughtered for hasty consumption. Live cattle could be transported via rail, but at considerable expense, so dismemberment and curing was another practice as well. Growing cities could no longer burden themselves with the foul smells, and unsanitary detritus of slaughterhouses feeding millions of urban dwellers. Iced railcars and cold rooms would change all of this. Now ranches with thousands of cattle could be fattened on mid-west grain, butchered, chilled on ice, then shipped off to markets countrywide. Monopolistic tendencies were quick to rear themselves with beef barons joining the ranks of the fabulously wealthy and powerful.
Domestic refrigeration slowly developed, as the refrigerated products purchased and brought home would need to be kept cool, or else consumed quickly. With most populated areas being served by the ice industry (even in the south, where ice was brought down from the north by rail, clipper, or steamer), blocks of ice were available for purchase, and placed in crude zinc or tin lined wooden boxes. These ice refrigerators took some decades to improve towards the state-of-the-art units more common in the 20th century, but with thicker insulation, better door seals, and improved air circulation, their effectiveness at preserving food made them an increasingly common feature in the American household.
With greater variety of foodstuffs accessible, and a way in which to keep them fresher longer, Americans’ diets became more diversified, and in turn probably ameliorated several common medical conditions related to nutritional deficiencies. Variety also impacted the diversity and complexity of dishes prepared at home, in addition to advancements made to the household cookstove. The nations’ small farmers were moving to the cities and selling their labor to the new industrialists, changing the balance of the household economy. Although a broad range of personal experiences are not accounted for here, men by and large were the first to leave the home and provide for the family by ensuring they could purchase the provisions that previous generations grew, mended, or fashioned by hand. New responsibilities, as technologies changed cultural norms, would fall heavily upon the shoulders of women.
A weary public, constantly bombarded with rapid lifestyle changes, were sometimes suspicious of new technology, and the extensive use of ice was no different. Much debate surrounded the dangers of iced beverages, and refrigerated foods. A similar skirmish would one day embroil the ice industry against the mechanical refrigerator companies concerning safety, and healthfulness. Through public education programs and time, people would come to accept the benefits of low temperatures and food safety, but dangers did lurk in the ice. Large, industrializing cities put intense pressures on surrounding bodies of water, which were increasingly putrefied with sewage, street runoff (think horses), and the unregulated dumping of factory waste-streams. Ice made in these bodies of water can and did lead to outbreaks of disease, and so the cleanest and clearest ice was reserved for the wealthy, willing to pay; the poor were lucky to get any ice at all, let alone something sanitary. Filtration, and the use of steam distillate from coal fired water boilers would alleviate some of the contamination concerns with the developing artificially produced mechanical refrigeration machines.
Two warm winters in the early 1890s would slam the ice industry in the northeast, leading to ice famine. The subsequent high prices would encourage large capital investment in mechanical refrigeration and ice manufacture. Although the natural ice industry would hold out for many more decades, and peak consumption was still a ways off, mechanical refrigeration would eventually displace its natural cousin, and the production of artificial cold would be tied to technological improvements and high energy input, primarily coal fired steam. No longer would the industry depend on uncertain harvests of ice from colder latitudes, shipped at great expense; now it could be made where refrigeration was needed. The technology also allowed for much lower temperatures needed to freeze foods for successful oceanic travel.
Although the basic principles of refrigeration technology have not changed since its birth, the efficiency and reliability improved throughout the 20th century, allowing for application specific variations to be developed for the smaller scale needs of institutional kitchens, butcher shops, bakeries, and with years of effort, the domestic kitchen. Electricity and natural gas would power these petite siblings of the large industrial behemoths, making them more affordable and easier to maintain. Available to only the opulent at first, these small refrigerators would reach the general public through mass production techniques which were becoming commonplace in the early 20th. Payment programs through the utilities to encourage electricity consumption (and therefore further infrastructure development), and government backed small loans, stimulated growth in refrigerator sales, even at the height of the depression.
The early 20th century was also greeted with another application of refrigeration technology: air conditioning. First applied to paper printing, where variations in humidity made consistent results extremely difficult, “conditioned air” or “refrigerated air” would be introduced to mass produced industrial processes, itself en masse. Air conditioning would find use in institutional buildings, department stores, movie theaters, and again, in the homes of the wealthy.
Throughout the rest of the century, and on until today, refrigeration and air conditioning would become cheaper and more common, reaching billions of people worldwide. Almost every single household in the US contains at least one refrigerator, and millions are also equipped with either central AC or window units. One would be hard pressed to find a new automobile without air conditioning. Because air conditioning is so common, homes are rarely designed to take advantage of natural wind currents in the local region, window placement, sufficient attic venting, or sensible orientation to the sun’s movements and/or summer shading. Ticky tacky houses are hastily constructed along meandering streets in places like Phoenix or Las Vegas, their construction almost identical to those seen in Baltimore, Atlanta, or Seattle; the artificial built environments brute forced into compliance with our desires to be comfortable in whichever climate we should choose to reside. Previous generations may have found these locations nearly uninhabitable, especially in the large populations existing there today, but our technology and careless application of cheap energy, reinforces the steadfast conviction and uncompromising certitude that “progress” can not be denied, even at the expense of ignoring rational thought. If hell existed, surely some schmuck would bid to air condition it.
Refrigeration technology is a constituent of our energy intensive civilization and lifestyles. It has significantly contributed to a fabulously convoluted system of food production, where nature is denied biological diversity, ecological succession, and even the simple act of decay. With refrigerated storage and transport, billions of animals are no longer raised, they are grown under revolting conditions, callously hacked to bits, “frigorifically suspended” on trucks and ships, all to be traded on the commodities market along with “Aluminum Futures” and Facebook stock. Their concentrated waste, as well as the runoff from the intensive use of fertilizer to grow the feed, destroys river estuaries by disrupting the nutrient balance, leading to algal blooms, and massive fish-kills.
The waterways and seas of this planet have been over-exploited for thousands of years, but it’s been in the last few centuries where men have traveled to every corner of the globe to chase dwindling fish stocks and marine mammals. Today, massive diesel powered vessels are like floating cities, capable of accurately locating the remaining fish stocks which haven’t yet collapsed, and trawl the ocean floor clean, throwing back the by-catch. They are equipped with facilities to gut, process, then freeze the “product” on-board, staying at sea for perhaps weeks at a time. Without refrigeration, industrial humans could still fish the oceans empty, it would just take longer.
The effect of refrigeration on agriculture has been towards larger farms, further from population centers, and with less diversity in genetic variety. Monocropping is a practice known to be susceptible to potential crop failure because of blight, pest, or diseases which normally might only affect a portion of the crop, can now cause serious disruption to the whole species.
These social and economic changes are of course not only attributable to the impacts of refrigeration, but without understanding its role, we can’t hope to find a way to live within the limits of this planet. True, there have been large advancements in the efficiency of refrigeration technology, but there are very real, and hard constraints based on well known thermodynamic principles. Even with new advancements, comes new applications, larger populations, and more complex hierarchies, where we probably find ourselves long past the point of diminishing returns. It needs to be understood that refrigeration on a scale such as exists now, has only been possible because of the substantial supply of fossilized sunlight ripped from the Earth’s crust and put to work for our purposes, reshaping the planet to suit our species and the species that we have subjugated to serve us. Much of this energy has been frivolously misallocated for short term gains, without giving a thought to future generations and the habitability of the planet for all life. Few people give any thought to the resources to build and maintain this equipment, let alone power it. Should something so unfortunate as a powerful coronal mass ejection from the sun were to strike the Earth, as a massive one in 1859 did, a lack of refrigeration would be but one issue among many in a global cataclysm. It would certainly remind everyone after it is far too late to capitulate to the insecurity of such a complex technology.
Even ignoring such a calamity, if we were serious about kicking the fossil fuel habit, and running our refrigeration systems from “renewable” energy sources, it would require substantial investment, and only be resources well spent if we also deliberately altered the food system towards a local production / local consumption model. Such an endeavor is impossible to imagine as there are powerful interests and complex hierarchies in place, where entrenched social technologies grow in scale and intricacy, reinforced by the collective actions among billions of participants, each playing a small role.
Refrigeration technology, like most technology, has the greatest apparent impact early in its adoption, but with the integration into the fabric of society, its apparent virtue becomes incontrovertible, much like the myth of progress itself. Personally, I am a refrigeration enthusiast, if such a title were ever articulated, and I advocate understanding and appreciating both the technological operation, but also the history and repercussions of a squishy species hitting the energy resource jackpot, living the high life for a few years, betting the future will always be brighter.
There was a time before refrigeration, and there will be a time after. Lucky you, I guess.
Yes, I have a refrigerator. I will probably always have one, but I intend to make every effort to depend on it less and less. Some portion of the rest of my life will be spent trying to find simple, reliable ways to provide small scale refrigeration in a way which utilizes local energy and resources, but doesn’t make me subordinate to hierarchies outside of my control. Efficiency is not the end goal, autonomy is.
The article above is largely opinion, obviously. The history of refrigeration is extremely summarized, and based on recollection. If you’re interested in knowing more, drop me a line, and I can recommend some great books.
Questions or Comments?