Food storage and preservation has always been a necessary part of human existence, and the refrigerator in your kitchen now represents thousands of years of refrigerator innovation. The history of the refrigerator includes natural preservation methods, technological advances and new features that help us keep our food cold more efficiently.

A cold cellar built into a hill beside a house

A cold cellar built into a hill beside a house

How did people keep food cold before refrigerators?

Ancient refrigeration

Depending on the climate, ancient civilizations preserved food using natural cooling methods available to them. People took advantage of rivers and lakes by storing food directly in the cold water or cutting ice for ice houses. Storage pits in the ground were filled with snow or ice and often covered with insulating materials like straw or sawdust.

Refrigeration without electricity

Ice houses on lakes and rivers were still effective ways to keep food cool before the invention of electricity. If ice or snow wasn’t an option, underwater or underground storage, like cold cellars, provided refrigeration. People also began building their own iceboxes for cold storage, using chunks of ice or snow in boxes insulated with natural materials like sawdust or seaweed. 

Manufactured iceboxes that looked closer to modern refrigerators became popular in the 1800s. These designs consisted of insulated metal or wooden cabinet-type structures with a tray or compartment that held a large block of ice. These ice blocks were regularly delivered to households with iceboxes.

History of the Refrigerator
Timeline

Learn more about the history of the refrigerator with this refrigerator history timeline. Discover refrigerator innovation through the years.

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Who invented the first refrigerator?

The first instance of artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by Scottish physician and professor William Cullen. In 1748, he observed and demonstrated the cooling effect of rapidly evaporating a liquid into gas, but did not put this method into practical use.   

The modern mechanical refrigeration process we know today grew from the work of numerous inventors in the 1800s. American Jacob Perkins invented the first vapor compression system in 1834, while German professor Carl von Linde patented a new process for liquefying gases in the late 1800s. Refrigerator innovations led to widespread commercial refrigeration at the turn of the 20th century for industries like breweries and meatpacking plants.

In 1913, American Fred W. Wolf invented the first home electric refrigerator, which featured a refrigeration unit on top of an icebox. 

Mass production of domestic refrigerators began in 1918 when William C. Durant introduced the first home refrigerator with a self-contained compressor.

A non-mechanical icebox and an early electric refrigerator

A non-mechanical icebox (left) and an early electric refrigerator (right)

Why were home refrigerators invented?

Household refrigerators became a necessity as more people moved into growing cities and further away from food sources. The demand for fresh food also increased throughout the 19th century. With more distance between fresh food sources and people’s homes, it became especially important to keep perishable food cold both during transit and in homes to prolong shelf life.

How much did the first refrigerators cost?

The first home refrigeration units cost anywhere between $500 and $1,000—roughly the equivalent of $6,575 to $13,150 in today’s dollars. Consequently, domestic refrigerators were considered a luxury item during the first years of their use.

When did refrigerators become commonplace in American homes?

In the late 1920s, refrigerators started to see increased popularity in private homes. Home refrigeration became even more widespread in the 1930s following the introduction of Freon, a safer alternative to toxic gases previously used in the vapor compression process.

What are some examples of refrigerator innovation over the years?

Refrigerator with freezer icon

Separate freezer compartments
The growing popularity of frozen foods in the 1940s spurred the addition of freezer compartments that could fit more than ice cube trays.

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Water dispensers
Water dispensers began appearing in the 1980s, although a water dispenser was included on a custom model in 1969.

Refrigerator configuration icon

New configurations and colors
Amana brand introduced the first bottom-freezer model in 1947 and the first side-by-side refrigerator in 1949. These configurations, along with new color options in the 1950s and ’60s, offered consumers a variety of styles as refrigerators began to be seen as design pieces as well as necessary appliances. In the 1990s, French door refrigerators and stainless steel finishes became popular among homeowners looking for a more modern kitchen look.

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Energy efficiency
Advances in insulation and compressor technology helped refrigerators become more efficient, and the ENERGY STAR® rating system started labeling qualified refrigerators in 1996.

A French door refrigerator in a sleek, modern kitchen

Refrigerator innovation from Whirlpool Corporation

Brands under the Whirlpool Corporation umbrella have been at the forefront of advancements in American refrigeration. Amana brand led the industry with the first side-by-side and bottom-freezer models and also patented the first self defrost refrigerator in 1954. 

Today, Whirlpool brand continues to offer refrigerator innovations like pantry-style shelving and adjustable storage for flexible organization, plus both large capacity fridges and small space solutions.

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