THE OLD ICEBOX

By Bill Grosboll
May 31, 2008


Back when I was a kid growing up on the farm (mid 40’s), we always called the refrigerator, the icebox. Before I start in on the old refrigerators, I will relate what I know and remember about the icebox. It was constructed of wood and had somewhat decorative doors on the front. A small door on the front towards the top and a larger door below it. The area behind the small door was for keeping blocks of ice, which were approximately one foot square, therefore the ice box would hold at least two blocks of ice, maybe more, I’m not sure. Anyway, the icebox had a thin sheet metal liner inside to protect the wood from the moisture. The cold air from the ice blocks fell into the lower area and this is what kept the food cool. There wasn’t any thermostat to set, you just got what cool air there was off the blocks of ice. I guess, looking at the bright side, it didn’t require any electricity and didn’t require defrosting. You didn’t have to listen to the icebox running, which made for a very quiet kitchen. By the time I was old enough to toddle around and get in trouble, the icebox had been replaced with a new fan-dangled refrigerator. The old icebox went to the shop so that Dad could use it for storing grass seeds in it. He thought it would be mouse proof but the mice proved him wrong. I only opened it a couple of times in my life at the farm and it was not a pleasant sight. I think that the mice found it so offensive that they wouldn’t go into any longer, either! Dad was smart enough to figure out that his idea didn’t work and therefore just wrote off the seed as a loss and left it in there (for years) for the mice. If anyone wanted some antique grass seed, I know where there was an icebox full of it.

Mom’s new refrigerator was still called the icebox for many years and I’m not so sure that she still doesn’t periodically refer to it as the icebox. Her first refrigerator was a single door Kelvinator which had a single lever to unlatch the door and pull it open. There weren’t any of those fancy magnetic gaskets at that time so a thick rubber gasket was used around the door edges. This meant that pressure had to be keep on the seal to keep the cold air in which explains why the latching lever. Now as a kid running around the house, what is the first thing mothers teach (yell at) us? Don’t slam the doors! Well, trying to be the well behaved youngster, I didn’t slam any doors, which also included the refrigerator door. Mom would come into the kitchen and see the refrigerator door standing wide open and all of a sudden, I’m back in trouble again for not slamming the refrigerator door. This door had to be slammed, not hard, but firmly to compress the seal and latch the handle. Life became very confusing when the refrigerator became involved. It became quite apparent that some doors were meant to be slammed and some doors were not. Now I had to try and figure which were which! One more thing I would like to relate about Mom’s old round top Kelvinator. I don’t remember this but was told about it later in life. It seems that Dad thought it was a good place to put me when I wasn’t behaving properly. He would place me in a cardboard box and then set me on the rounded crown of the fridge. Mom protested this as she was afraid that I would move around in the box and tip it off the top. My Dad’s response; “He’ll learn!”. I guess it worked since I didn’t fall off!

Inside the refrigerator was a separate small compartment, known as the freezer. This was the coldest part and kept things frozen. This compartment was every woman’s nightmare and I’ll explain why. The old fridge’s ice compartment had to be defrosted because a thick layer of frost would build up, both inside and outside of this compartment, so thick that at times it was impossible to close the freezer door. At other times, it was impossible to open it without something breaking, such as the hinges on the compartment door or the plastic to which the hinges were attached. This is where the term “defrosting” came into being. Later on, the biggest selling feature of the refrigerator was “frost free” which all new units are. Only us old-timers remember the frost. Every woman procrastinated defrosting because it was one messy chore! But frost doesn’t go away by itself and procrastinating just made things worse. There was a small tray located below the compartment that was designed by some engineer who had never defrosted a refrigerator. This tray was the same size as the compartment and it did work but only if the lady of the house defrosted as soon as the frost began building. This didn’t happen in real life so the frost growing on the compartment far exceeded the sides of the tray and when the defrosting was eventually done, water from the melting frost ran all over the inside of the refrigerator. Let me explain something else about this tray, the importance, you will understand later in the story. It was as deep as the refrigerator and a little over a foot wide and about an inch deep, mounted on a track so that it could be slid out of the refrigerator and mounted very close to the floor of the compartment to catch the water during defrosting.

Now, some women would try to cheat and use an ice pick. I guess I had better explain what an ice pick is also since most of you young readers have never used one of these devices either. An ice pick is a hard, round steel rod that is ground to a very sharp point and has a wooden handle. It was used primarily to chip ice from the big aforementioned blocks of ice and these chips were used for cooling things such as drinks. Getting back to using the ice pick to chip frost, this is a no-no but was tried by many women. What would happen, the ice pick would accidentally puncture a hole in the side of the ice compartment and these sides had refrigeration tubes within them and when they were punctured, all the refrigerant would escape to the air, making the refrigerator worthless. Not good! It was not a good way to make points with the spouse. Another clever idea that the ladies came up with later on was using a hair dryer. This really worked great until…water accidentally dripped into the “electric” hair dryer, which is another “No-No”. The safest and recommended way, was to heat water in a small pan on the stove and then place the pan into the freezer compartment and the heat from the water would melt the frost from the walls. As the frost begins to melt, the refrigerator become like the “Niagara Falls”. There is water running everywhere, therefore the refrigerator had to be emptied of it’s food contents so that mopping up of the water was easier. Of course, some of the water is going to run out of the unit onto the floor.

Let’s recap just what all must be done in this defrosting process. First you had to turn the refrigerator off, get a pan and go to the sink where you filled the pan, then you slopped water on the way to the stove where you heated the water. Next, you took the pan of scalding hot water from the stove to the refrigerator, slopping some on the floor and possibly scalding yourself in the process. Since the frost was so thick on the compartment, you had to force the door open, hoping not to break the hinges and then remove all items from the compartment, which some were frozen to the floor and sides of the compartment, and place the hot pan of water into it. As the frost began to melt, some ran into the shallow tray, thus requiring you to keep an eye on it so that it wouldn’t overflow. And how, do you ask, do you tell when the tray needs emptying when you can’t see into it. Simple! As soon as the water begins to overflow! Now, try to slide a tray full of water out of the refrigerator and carry it perfectly flat to the sink without spilling a drop. This was impossible to do without slopping water on the floor. Now you remove everything from the fridge and set it on the countertops and kitchen table where it ‘sweats’ and leaves a wet mark everywhere. By this time, large slabs of frost are coming loose and dropping down inside the fridge, making another mess. What is worse, the large slabs of frost between the compartment and wall of the refrigerator are stuck in a place that you can’t get to them to break up and remove. Now after getting the defrosting done, you can begin putting everything back into the refrigerator, wiping the countertops, and mopping and cleaning the rest of the kitchen! I think you now have a better idea why the woman of the house hated this job and why she procrastinated doing it. It also gives you a better idea of how important a selling tool the “frost free” refrigerator was!

There is a down side to having a refrigerator, especially if your mother came up during the great depression, which my mother did. This means that she NEVER throws anything away! My two sisters and I both look forward to browsing through Mom’s refrigerator with some apprehension because we never know just how long something has been in there. If you ask Mom, she doesn’t know or care. If you ask her if something is still “all right” she will respond that she is pretty sure that it’s still okay but smell it to be sure! In her book, if it still smells and looks okay, it’s still edible! I guess maybe she’s right since she is now ninety-one but it still scares me.

 

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