Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

The Stories Our Refrigerators Tell


Do any of you remember The Brave Little Toaster? Anyone? It was an animated feature from the '80s in which a group of older appliances leave the cabin where they "lived" to find their master owner in the big city. It's a story about talking appliances—plus one electric blanket—but it also very much highlights the emotional conflict created by the encroachment of technology within our homes.

But we'll get to that shortly. Right now, I want to talk about your refrigerator. I assume you have one—99% of Americans do. Indeed, the refrigerator, or fridge if you will, is a fairly widespread appliance. Folks who may not have a dishwasher probably have a refrigerator. Anthropologist Margaret Blackman notes that even Eskimos have them—which is not to single out this group, but recognizes that in an environment where nature provides appropriate degrees of chilliness, paying for the electricity required to run these machines might seem a little extravagant.

Of course refrigerators are not the only means of storing foods. Salting, spicing, smoking, pickling, and drying have long proved effective and have been used by many people throughout the world in lieu of refrigeration. But the concept of refrigeration itself is not new either. People have used natural means, such as cellars, cold streams, cool nights, and snow and ice to chill foods throughout history. In fact, the Chinese were purportedly cutting and storing ice in 1000 BC, while the Egyptians were making ice by setting out water in earthen pots in 500 BC.

So what's the story with refrigerators? Non-refrigerative methods of storing foods work well when you're dealing locally. For example, fresh, unbruised fruits that have never been refrigerated may keep for up to a month in dry, ventilated dark places; at the slightest hint of dampness, they will rot. And some vegetables from your garden can be kept for weeks if picked just before ripening and stored in similar conditions; if you chose to can or pickle these items, they will have an even longer shelf life. Believe it or not, even dairy, meat, and eggs can be kept without refrigeration for a limited period under the right conditions.

Refrigeration becomes necessary once we begin to move. In the United States, this demand began to grow around 1830: as cities began to grow, so too did the gap between where food is produced and where it's consumed. However, while advances in refrigeration grew quickly, the expense of refrigerators limited them to all but the wealthiest of households until the late 1800s. And even then, the ice box continued to reign in the domestic space. This precursor to the modern refrigerator was simple enough in concept: a wooden cabinet that housed a block of ice. A lining of tin or zinc with sawdust or seaweed for insulation kept the cold in, and a drip tray collected the melted ice water underneath. Ice blocks were brought to homes by ice wagons.

The modern refrigerator emerged in phases following WWI and the development of small compression devices. This allowed Kelvinator to introduce the first refrigerator with automatic controls to the market. The 1922 model from this company included a water cooled compressor, two ice cube trays, and featured a grand total of nine cubic feet of storage space. The cost? Approximately $714.00, which was about twice the price of a 1922 Ford Model T. (Incidentally, that's probably in the range of what our refrigerator cost when we purchased it.)

As refrigerators grew more commonplace, they played an important role in the shift in household economics. When we think and talk about the revolution in household labor, the machine we tend to focus on is the dishwasher, particularly as a time saving device for women. Current estimates suggest that households with a dishwasher spend 4.9 hours washing dishes while those without spend a whopping 6.9 hours on dish duties! If the latter is true, that's almost a full day a week washing dishes. (Although it doesn't make clear if that accounts for convenience meals and take out, which would probably require fewer dishes than fully home cooked meals. And family size is probably also a factor.)

The dishwasher hogs the limelight, but the refrigerator shouldn't be overlooked. For example, households were no longer bound to ice wagons and didn't need to make accommodations for ice deliveries. And women didn't have to make daily trips to the market for food preparation since food items could be bought and refrigerated for short periods until used. This type of convenience brought with it an industrialization of the home that has continued to this day. We continually look for more time saving efficiencies, which translates into greater automation—we're looking for the proverbial House of Tomorrow where Jetsonian technologies prevail. But what about the people who use these spaces? Where do they fit?

In The Brave Little Toaster, when the companions finally reach their owner's apartment, they are greeted by modern appliances, who believe they represent the cutting-edge of technology. They sing this delightful little number:

While there's an undeniable appeal to cutting-edge technology, it leaves little room for the human connection. Somewhere along the line, efficiency lost its personality. When we see an ad for a kitchen, it's pristine. Those stainless steel surfaces don't beg to be covered up. Sleek lines and uncluttered surfaces are what we're selling. The message is clear: To be efficient, a kitchen should contain the tools needed for the tasks tied to that space and nothing more. So we pack more into our tools. And we demand more of those tools. Our refrigerators make ice and dispense water. They can hold frozen items. They can help us better organize our foods by putting fresher items at eye level. Consequently, we market an ideal where the notion of food as an expression of pleasure, love, and attachment is very much at odds with the concept of a smarter, tech-run home.

Marketing overlooks that our experiences with these spaces are not simply transactions. When we make a cup of coffee at work or we grab a beverage from the communal work fridge, that is a transaction. But when we interact with our appliances at home, we're crafting an experience. There is a story that extends beyond that interaction and carries through our home.

We divide the spaces in our homes by their functions. We have a "living" room or a "family" room where we gather to socialize, a "dining" room where we eat, a "bed" room where we sleep, and so on. (Admittedly, "room" in the context of a condensed New York City apartment is a luxurious idea, but these spaces do exist whether they have the boundaries of walls of not.) In this framework, what is a kitchen? A meal preparation space? A workshop where we microwave or chop and dice and create mirepoix bases?

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell draws a distinction between the ways we use our kitchen and the ways in which the kitchen is employed throughout much of Europe. In the latter, it's a space in which families gather to talk and socialize, where children do homework and play games, and where they eat. It is a space that is much more than a workshop. But, as she mentions in passing, it is also a much larger space that accommodates the detritus of life. In large cities, smaller spaces reign, and smaller spaces lend themselves well to ideas of efficiencies, demanding less and less of ourselves be made publicly available.

People have found ways around this requirement by using their refrigerator as an outlet for expression. The refrigerator becomes a gallery. It's a ritual space where we track the culture of our household.

The refrigerator gives us a claimable space that serves as a center in our home. In fact, if you were spend 10 minutes anywhere in someone's home, I'd argue that the refrigerator would probably tell you the most about that person. And people know this: when I asked for refrigerator photos, every single photo came with a story/apology attached. "There's too much stuff on here, I know," "It's not very interesting. I'm sorry," etc. These machines, decorated by representations of ourselves, become deeply intertwined in our lives and offer personal glimpses into our lives.

For example, these refrigerators belong to families with young children. The central location of the refrigerator makes it a communal space, so the items on the upper portion of the refrigerator are curated by adults in the family, but the spaces on the lower portion of the fridge are clearly child-friendly spaces. Children learn early on that having a space on the refrigerator is a big deal.

While the following refrigerators may seem cluttered, they're actually very carefully curated to feature meaningful relationships:

But even in these cases where it seems that everything is important, there is a hierarchy at work. Much like in a supermarket, the items that are eye level most likely represent items of greater immediacy. When and if items are moved from this coveted space is a serious decision and reflects the lifecycle of items on the refrigerator. Items toward the bottom are the pieces that are most likely to be thrown away.

In its most reserved form, the fridge becomes the keeper of information: For example, in these instances, the refrigerator is the is the repository of appointments and reminders:

Even in cases where it seems owners are not keen in having lots of items on their refrigerators, they do seem to use a portion of the refrigerator for themselves as a memo board or an extension of their personality:

Of course, that is not to say that everyone wants stuff on their refrigerator! There are instances where the refrigerators are left as a blank canvas. This may be part due to personal preference or it can reflect the lifecycle of the owner. This is a space that grows and changes with us. It travels through the milestones we experience, so at one point it may be covered in wedding invitations as members of our peer groups find life partners and tie the not, and then it may be covered by images of children and their artwork—whether they are our own or they belong to close friends and relatives. During this period, the refrigerator is likely to also be covered with items that help us navigate life: coupons, school paperwork, reminders, etc. But when the house is empty and the children are grown, the fridge can become a blank canvas again (or perhaps the owner is extremely neat and throws everything away immediately—it's a possibility.)

Go take a look at your refrigerator. What does it look like? It probably has stuff on it! And that stuff if important. It tells a story—your story. It talks about what's important to you, what's current in your life, and what sort of milestones others in your life are experiencing. So what do you have on your refrigerator?

Want more refrigerator pictures? See them here and share yours!


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Bell, G., & Kaye, J. (2002). Designing Technology for Domestic Spaces: A Kitchen Manifesto Gastronomica, 2 (2), 46-62 DOI: 10.1525/gfc.2002.2.2.46

blackman, M. (2005). Focus on the Fridge Gastronomica, 5 (4), 32-37 DOI: 10.1525/gfc.2005.5.4.32

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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