The Iceman Cometh and Goeth
Atlanta, the city I live in now, is famous for being very hot and humid during the summer months. For instance, today, August 10, the temperature is in the 90s, and the humidity is probably the same.
Modern Atlantans or Philadelphians, my birth city, have no idea of a sweltering and humid summer. We have every convenience now, air conditioning being the main one. Even if we’re sitting on our deck “sunning,” it’s a short walk to the refrigerator where ice is always available and offers us cold water, ice cubes, or even crushed ice. It’s like magic—no work, no fuss, and immediate satisfaction.
I grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia during the mid-1940s and the 1950s, and my parents did own a refrigerator. I can see it now, with a bread box on the top and the ice-caked freezer. As I remember, we had two ice cube trays. It was hard to fit anything else in that freezer compartment. If you are 50 or younger, you can look up ice cube trays on Google.
What we didn’t have was air conditioning or an abundance of fans. In the inner city, when it reaches 95 degrees during the day, it will only drop to 85 degrees at night. Those bricks and asphalt do a great job of holding in the heat. It was common to have the whole family sleeping in the living room with our single fan blowing warm air on us. You could always buy a block of ice from the icehouse and put it behind the fan to help cool the air. A modern refrigerator would have been a Godsend.
Whirlpool released the first practical and somewhat affordable refrigerator during the 1930s. Before that time, even wealthy people thought twice before buying one of the electrical thingies that were very expensive and made a lot of noise. By 1935, GE had a refrigerator that sold for $77. Remember, this was in the middle of the Great Depression when unemployment rates hit 25 percent, and $77 in 1935 is equivalent to about $1,540 now. Most people just didn’t have that kind of money.
In the deep winter months, it was common to put items needing to be cold in the yard or porch if you had one. They even had a window hanging shelf that families in apartments would use to keep things cold. In the summer, most households relied on an icebox or cabinet to cool their food and avoid spoilage. A few times each week, an iceman would drop off a cake of ice that was then placed in the icebox. As it melted, it provided coolness and dripped water into a pan that had to be emptied often. It worked similar to the beer cooler you take to picnics. I still catch myself calling our modern refrigerators an “icebox.”
In 1940, only 50% of American households had an electric refrigerator; the rest had iceboxes or nothing. My grandparents had an icebox until 1955, when they moved in with my family. So, you can understand how important the ice delivery service was and why it was a booming industry at that time. Many companies sold coal in the winter and ice in the summer.
The kids in the neighborhood used to follow the ice truck as the iceman made his rounds. Getting a chip of ice was the goal, but it was also just something else to do. By 1944, it is estimated that 85 percent of American households had electric refrigerators. The iceman had cometh and was now going. Today, more than 24% of households have two or more refrigerators. This change gave rise to many new products, such as TV dinners, frozen foods, supermarkets, and week-old leftovers.
In 1964, I was stationed with the Air Force in Saigon, South Vietnam, and lived in an apartment. It was like going back in time to 1930s America. Most people didn’t have air conditioning, refrigerators, telephones, or TVs. It was even hotter and more humid than Philadelphia, and block ice was once again an essential service. I got used to it, but it was not as pleasant as having the amenities we have now.
Now, if you will excuse me, Amazon has just delivered my personal portable battery-operated air conditioner, which I’ll use when I eat lunch on my deck. The restaurant delivery service will soon be here with my vegan pizza, two frozen daiquiris, and my ice cream dessert. Not to mention I don’t want to miss the Lacrosse games on ESPN, which I’ll watch on my 55-inch outdoor flat screen.
Sometimes, I yearn for the old days, but then I realize how good I have it now. Then, I wish I could bring my old family members here to the future. How amazed they would be.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.