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How Markets Brought Refrigeration to the Masses: ‘Ordinary person today lives better than most kings of yesteryear’

By Alexander C. R. Hammond

The weather outside is frightful. The so called Big Freeze now grips the United States for the second week, and the United Kingdom too is experiencing its own blast of Arctic weather. All this chilly weather reminded me of an article written in The Telegraph last month about ice-houses, which were the go-to method of refrigeration just a couple of hundred years ago.

Back then, refrigeration was an arduous task and available only to the richest aristocrats. In the pre-industrial world, in order to refrigerate foodstuff, people needed the land to build an ice house (a building to store the ice), fresh water access, and servants to cut and hull the ice. Moreover, the ice had to be restocked regularly and was available only in some climates and at some times.

At the crack of dawn on a freezing morning the servants of the manor would visit nearby frozen shallow water and hack at the ice until it was in large slabs. The ice would then be painfully carried back to the small ice-houses, “to be stored with layers of straw and sacking,” in-between food. With luck, ice would last until next winter. If it did not, people had to do without ice.

By contrast, today refrigeration is easy. According to the latest government data more than 99.8 percent of American homes own at least one refrigerator. Furthermore, the US Census Bureau estimates the US poverty rate to be 13.5 percent. That means that essentially everyone in poverty, as defined by the government, has access to a technology that was reserved for the mega-rich just 200 years ago. Additionally, almost 25 percent of Americans now have two refrigerators to store their excess food and drink.

The growing prevalence of refrigerators is partly due to their declining cost and partly due to people’s growing incomes. In 1919, the Frigidaire was the first self-contained refrigerator. It cost $775 (over $11,000 in today’s money). As the average hourly wage in 1919 was just $0.43, it took the average American 1,802 hours of work to afford this luxury appliance. The Frigidaire was a marvel back in its day, but had only five cubic feet of storage. As such, it would be classed as a “mini-fridge” today.

Today, the standard Whirlpool French door refrigerator holds 25 cubic feet’s worth of food and drink. It has “fingerprint resistant stainless steel” and costs just $1,529. According to the latest BLS statistics, it would take the average American just 57.5 hours of work to be able to afford this – now common – appliance. (The average wage today is $26.55 per hour.) Even as the price of refrigerators decreased, refrigerator quality increased. According to the government data, 95.5 percent of households have what is classed as a “medium” refrigerator of 15 cubic feet or larger – meaning that the vast majority of people have a refrigerator at least three times the size of the most luxurious version available 100 years ago. The modern refrigerators have more settings, are more reliable and more energy-efficient.

The story of refrigeration is a common one: from a task done by many servants, to a luxury good, and to now a common household appliance used by all. This type of progress exists with nearly all household appliances; from ovens to irons, from washing machines to dishwashers, and from air conditioners to water heaters.

As Marian L Tupy of the Cato Institute has previously pointed out, due to innovation, capitalism and mass production, “an ordinary person today lives better than most kings of yesteryear.” As we wait for the warm weather to return, we should be thankful that virtually all Americans have access to refrigeration and, thus, the ability to store food all year round.

This first appeared in CapX.

Alexander C. R. Hammond is a Policy Analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs & the Director of the Initiative for African Trade and Prosperity


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