How American Refrigerators Got So Big

By Wesley Fenlon

It's pretty nice being able to fit an entire pizza box in the fridge, but when did our refrigerators get to big?

The modern American refrigerator looks very little like the classic refrigerator of the 1950s. The rounded edges that evoked 1950s automobiles are gone. The colors are different--white refrigerators are more textured, stainless steel and even black refrigerators are common, but there's little sign of the 1950s' pastel color spectrum. And then there's size: Today's refrigerators could swallow their grandparent appliances whole.

Why are they so big? Why are American refrigerators so much larger than refrigerators in other countries (except for Canada), where energy efficiency is prioritized over storage? According to The Atlantic, one factor is the history of "cold chains," supply chains that developed over the course of the 20th century to deliver cold goods over long distances. It all started with selling ice; when ice became a commodity, it had to be transported, and people became accustomed to having it in their homes. That led to iceboxes and, eventually, refrigerators.

Photo credit: Flickr user estarsid via Creative Commons

But why did they get so much bigger? And when? In 1980, refrigerators held an average of 19.6 cubic feet. In 2012, that number was 22.5. European refrigerators average something like 9.7 cubic feet. The Atlantic argues that the growth of efficient cold chains in the United States pushed us towards larger refrigerators: "

"As cold chains became longer and more complex, having a big refrigerator became increasingly important for taking advantage of the opportunity that this new infrastructure brought. 'Proper refrigeration is today an ever increasing necessity,' wrote the Frigidaire refrigerator company in a cookbook it distributed to housewives in 1929."

Until the 1950s, long-distance transportation was a weak link in cold chains. But we developed trucks with refrigeration. Later came refrigerated shipping containers, which enabled us to preserve goods and move them across the globe. Enabling access to a wider variety of foods encouraged keeping those foods longer.

American households typically go shopping about once a week, necessitating a large refrigerator to hold enough food. Apparently we've been cold-obsessed ever since the invention of the icebox--the Atlantic quotes British travel writer Winifred James, from 1914: "Who ever heard of an American without an icebox? ... It is his country’s emblem. It asserts his nationality as conclusively as the Stars and Stripes afloat from his roof-tree, besides being much more useful in keeping his butter cool."

Refrigerators are getting bigger in China. And even the largest household refrigerators in America are small compared to commercial refrigerators and freezers. The downside to our huge refrigerators is that they use huge amounts of energy; the upside, the Atlantic points out, is how much food is saved rather than wasted. Continuing improvements in energy efficiency will, hopefully, outpace the growth of our our fridges.