Why One Refrigeration History Book Was Not Enough with Jonathan Rees

Why One Refrigeration History Book Was Not Enough

I first became interested in the history of refrigeration while I was in graduate school, when I started leafing through back issues of a late-nineteenth century trade journal housed in the engineering library at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  After deciding to make that the subject of my first post-dissertation research project, I started leafing through a lot more old journals when I got a Smithsonian fellowship in 2000.

After quickly accumulating countless boxes of source material, I had to limit the project somehow to make a book out of it.  In 2006, at a conference at the Hagley, I decided to make the development of the modern cold chain (the supply system for perishable food) the organizing concept of that refrigeration history book.  After a conference at the University of California-Davis in 2009, I realized I had to at least make a passing effort at giving this project an international perspective.  After additional research along those lines, the Johns Hopkins University Press published Refrigeration Nation in 2013.

Knowing I had a lot of research that I had left on the proverbial cutting-room floor, my editor, Robert Brugger, invited me to consider writing another history of refrigeration.  With the help of some outside reviewers, we chose to emphasize the heyday of the American ice industry – roughly 1880 to 1930 – because at that time it was extraordinarily productive and (as a result of that productivity) was when it had the greatest impact on the American diet.

Refrigeration Nation was the first scholarly history of American refrigeration since the early 1950s.  In order to cover the development of that entire industry, I began the story in 1806 and took it all the way to the present.  While ice harvesting formed an important part of the beginning of that book, describing exactly how ice was harvested, stored and transported did not fit easily in a book organized around cold chains.

The shame about this was that even in the 1880s, people did not understand how such seeming miracles occured.  There were many long breathless accounts of all the tools and machines that ice companies used to bring countless heavy blocks of ice from far away directly to people’s doors and then cut them down for their personal use.  Unlike Refrigeration Nation, my new book for the Johns Hopkins University Press, Before the Refrigerator, describes those tools in detail for posterity and explains how they worked as a system to keep all that ice from melting.

The other subject that I hadn’t really done justice to in my earlier history of refrigeration infrastructure is how that infrastructure changed the American diet.  While I mentioned meat and produce in the first book, this time I used my research on the development of the American ice cream industry and delved into entirely new subjects like late-nineteenth century cocktails in

Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo. He is the author of Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America and Refrigerator. He is also author of Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice