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What is an Ice Box?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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As those with great-grandparents old enough to remember may know, the ice box was the precursor to the refrigerator. A large wood box, often made of oak or walnut, this appliance stored food that had to be kept cold, though it did not run on coolant. It was so-named because it required blocks of ice, just like today’s camping coolers. The Chinese were reportedly the first to create blocks of ice about 1000 BCE. Before the ice box, people kept food cool in caves packed with snow or ice, in streams, or later, in underground cellars lined with straw.

The typical ice box was roughly the size of modern refrigerators, though somewhat shorter. The face had three to five hinged doors, one smaller and designated for the ice block. Interiors were lined with material such as tin, and for insulation there was cork, seaweed, or straw, among other popular choices. Internal wired shelves held the food.

Many neighborhoods in 1920s Southern California still saw the milkman arrive each morning by a horse drawn carriage, while the ice man delivered blocks of ice from a truck. It wasn’t unusual to see children chasing the ice truck to be rewarded with the large chips of ice created when cutting a block for delivery. The ice man used tongs to grab the block and typically carried it over his shoulder, covered by a leather sheath. He would enter the house and place it directly in the ice box.

The advent of the modern refrigerator was a somewhat slow process of evolution, spanning more than a century. It started with experiments in refrigeration in the 19th century, with several inventors making contributions along the way. General Electric is credited with the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911, of which two were sold in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Motors were separate, noisy, and stored at a distance, such as in the basement.

This model was followed by another watershed model – the self-contained unit offered by Frigidaire in 1923. Improvements continued, and mass production began in earnest after World War II. The electric refrigerator was a major luxury when a family could finally afford to upgrade from their existing ice box.

Today, many people in their golden years still refer to a refrigerator as an ice box. While the terms may be synonymous to some, antique dealers appreciate the difference. An ice box in good shape can sell for up to 2,500 US Dollars (USD) or more, ironically rivaling the price of some top selling refrigerators.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon338094 — On Jun 10, 2013

Back in the day when iceboxes were common, how often was the ice replaced and how much did the ice cost?

By anon334323 — On May 12, 2013

What makes the refrigerator better than the ice box?

By anon300003 — On Oct 27, 2012

I am 32 and I called a refrigerator an ice box until I moved to Florida. I'm from Louisiana and everyone there I know still calls them ice boxes.

By anon153875 — On Feb 18, 2011

my mother in law still refers to the refrigerator as an "ice box". It drives me crazy. She's in her early 60s and she sounds like she's 100 and crawled out of the back woods when she continues to call it an ice box.

I was just curious to see if an ice box even remotely resembles a refrigerator. thanks for the info.

By anon119635 — On Oct 18, 2010

Wouldn't it make sense for the people who live in areas that have cold winters to use ice packs and iceboxes to keep their stored food cold during those months.

By anon113597 — On Sep 25, 2010

Is it a refrigerator or ice box? Which is the proper name? i don't know. It does use a block of ice in the top to cool.

By anon90454 — On Jun 16, 2010

this is very helpful and easy to understand.

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