It’s not often that we stop to marvel at a refrigerator to gain historical insights on the political and economic tension of a country.
But perhaps we should. While refrigerators may seem to hold only the practical use of storing your leftovers, they actually bear a great deal of symbolic significance in America.
In the wake of the economic disaster wrought by The Great Depression, the now-ubiquitous kitchen appliance was instrumental in lifting the nation out of a time of utter sorrow by reviving a sense of modernity, cleanliness, and wellbeing.
The “Town of Tomorrow” at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair first introduced the new technology within a fully furnished vision of a futuristic middle-class community. The neighborhood blueprint featured the type of homes desperately desired by many Americans just beginning to emerge from years of sudden poverty.
The New York World’s Fair garnered more than 44 million people, exposing them to the most scientifically advanced products to arise from America’s manufacturers.
Visitors gawked at the pristine, “electrified” homes that boasted state-of-the-art refrigerators alongside other revolutionary items, such as the electric clock, dishwasher, and coffee maker. Largely sponsored by General Electric, the utopian kitchens would heighten morale by reigniting consumerism in fraught American homes.
The futuristic town demonstrated 15 homes assembled in a quaint suburbia, ranging in prices of $3,000 to $35,000. Each home exhibited everything from the insulation and construction material of the house to the furniture and design of a room.
By 1939, middle-class families were beginning to migrate away from cities and into the security of a suburban lifestyle. These suburbs meant more physical space both for families and for their newly purchased goods.
Tech and science manufacturers took note of that changing mindset in Americans and offered a plethora of items that signified a return to the land of plenty. These modern kitchens provided hope that organization and prosperity were at arm’s length once again.
Traditional homes placed kitchens at the rear of the house, for servant use. The model homes at the World’s Fair inverted this standard by arranging the kitchen in the front of the home, transforming it from a servant’s quarters to the most prominent room in the house. Now, modern appliances were called the “electric servants” of the home, and the 20th-century kitchen had become the crux of family congregation and unity.
Due to the kitchen’s newfound prominence, and therefore visibility to guests and others, manufacturers presented the ideal of having a hygienic, clean appeal provided by pristine appliances.
One of the most elegant homes on the lot was No. 4, the Pittsburgh House of Glass. Constructed to exemplify the exceptional use of glass—a showcase on the implementation of innovative building materials—the home was customized by the Pittsburg Plate Glass company.
The fridge within the transparent home was a gleaming white figure at the center of the kitchen. Amidst shag carpets, lucite benches, and glossy countertops, the sterling fridge was defined in the context of cleanliness and efficiency.
While the crystal-white kitchen fridge embodied that ideal, the housewife became the facilitator of this internal, electric heart at the center of the home. However, it was not only the fridge’s immaculate physical appeal but also its infused food saving capabilities that appealed to the home ideal.
Electricity was among the most important contemporary commodities for visitors as it was quickly establishing itself as a common and superior energy source. By 1940, almost 90 percent of homes nationwide had electricity, a huge leap from the meager 24 percent of homes in 1917.
Despite its increasing popularity, electricity still held the novelty esteem that Americans craved. The idea that a waffle could be heated in seconds by an automatic toaster baffled visitors at the crossroads into the electric world.
The growth of water and gas companies, as well as the establishment of industrial food industries, also contributed to the increasingly appealing concept of a “proper” kitchen facility.
The proposed kitchen designs emulated this industrial growth mentality, which represented for Americans a stronghold promise of wealth after the Depression. As far back as 1913, Christine Frederick, a domestic reformer, expanded the ideas of creating a “continuous kitchen” where unified counter tops and cabinets modeled factory counter spaces to promote speed and practicality.
American magazines then began producing articles exposing these new reform ideas on the modern kitchen, alongside advertisements intended to convince readers to buy appliances such as the white, egg-shaped fridge.
So next time you stand in front of the fridge, choosing between last week’s left-overs, consider that the appliance cooling your food embodies a century’s evolution in modernity, efficiency, and productivity.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons