Antique ice boxes are the most accurate description of refrigerator’s ancestors. They did a great job at preserving food and keeping it fresh for days without the actual use of electricity and all the bells and whistles that modern fridges come with. However, given that preserving food was way more challenging in the past, there were different ice boxes in use. With that in mind, it can be a bit tasking and challenging to date an antique ice box, but also not impossible.
Even though they are antique, and replaced by refrigerators today, antique ice boxes had unique looks that stood out from the crowd, and they did a great job at preserving food, including meat.
Owning an ice box has always been considered a luxury, which is why many ice box manufacturers designed and manufactured them with intricate designs that would make them stand out. That being said, it’d be hard to spot an identical ice box at two nearby households.
These intricate designs, drawers, insulations, and materials are what may make dating a bit difficult if you don’t know at what time were certain designs as well as materials used. However, it’s extremely important to know how to tell from what time certain antique ice box was designed.
That way, people can learn more about storing patterns and habits that people had in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and which designs were more effective at storing food.
Ice boxes were some of the most common kitchen appliances, and they continued to be in circulation even after World War II when refrigerators started being in use. However, those ice boxes that were introduced after the 1950s are considered vintage and are not a subject of this article.
Antique ice boxes didn’t rely on any sophisticated mechanical engines or electricity. Instead, they were equipped with drawers where ice would be placed, and so the food was properly stored and insulated.
These appliances help us understand how humanity managed to store time-sensitive groceries such as meat, eggs, milk, and other groceries, which is why it’s important to determine the age of these appliances to have a better insight into storing habits of people and how long those groceries lasted.
If you recently discovered an antique ice box or are interested in collecting them, you’ve come to the right place. Continue reading this article to learn more about identifying ice boxes and what materials they were made of.
How to Identify Antique Ice Box Based on Exterior?
We’ve already mentioned that the ice boxes were made of different materials, and they boasted intricated designs that made them look more unique. Below we’re going to detail more about the exterior of antique ice boxes, as these designs can tell us a lot about what time was the antique ice box made.
Needless to say, the material of the antique ice box is the easiest to spot, as it makes the majority of the ice box’s external look. Two key materials were used to make the antique ice box – wood and steel.
The first models were compact and featured a wooden design, but as time passed, the designs were also upgraded, making it an essential appliance that is full of artistic décor too. The intricate designs included various carvings and etchings into the wood, and the more such carvings it had, the more expensive and valuable it was.
Large households that often hosted house parties, dinners, and banquets were resorting to larger ice boxes. However, as you know, storing ice that eventually melts into a wooden structure won’t make it last longer, so newer metallic designs were introduced.
- Wood – was the main material in 19th-century ice boxes. They’re easily recognized because they resembled a wardrobe. Each wooden ice box had 3 to 5 compartments, but mostly four. The outer protective shell is made out of wood, but other materials were also involved. Inside the walls, there were other materials like tin and zinc alloy.
- Steel – If the ice box you’re trying to date is made out of steel or some other metal, chances are it originates from the late 19th century and 20th Steel was a more durable option that was revolutionized because of industrialization. Melted ice water did not affect the steel shelf. Moreover, people could leave cold water inside the compartments for a longer time without worrying that it’ll damage the wood. Those that are completely made of steel had longer lifespans and amazing insulation.
As mentioned earlier, households that were poor or lived modestly couldn’t afford expensive ice boxes with carved materials, or large compartments.
That being said, they also used cheaper hardware. As the earliest ice boxes were made mostly out of wood, the hinges were also made of low-quality materials, but most featured rubber and leather gaskets. Some locks were wooden or didn’t feature any advanced locking mechanisms.
Lastly, fasteners could give a good indication of what age your ice box may be. The fastener is a joint that connects two pieces, and the best way to examine them is by removing them. The oldest models are made out of old screws and nails, so checking them can give you a good indication of what time is the ice box from.
Later in the 20th century, the traditional nails were replaced by twisted nails which were most in use during the 1920s.
Editor’s notes: Some ice box manufacturers from the late 19th and early 20th century stamped the serial numbers or patent numbers and logos on hinges and under the locks or door knobs and handles. Make sure to check them thoroughly as you may find the year your ice box was patented.
Identifying Marks & Labels
If your ice box was made by a certain manufacturer, chances are that there might be some kind of a mark or label or even a serial number on the rear of the ice box or some location. While some ice boxes may have the name of the manufacturer or serial number carved in, they can be found in different locations.
Some brands will feature a steel nameplate on both the front and rear of the ice box and in our opinion, that’s the most convenient way to date an ice box.
Labels are also a good indicator of the ice box’s age because they can tell you when was the patent initially featured, as well as when it was officially released. It can be also used to explore the company name.
Knowing the company name can also tell you when exactly it was made because certain ice box companies started making ice boxes much later than when they were first featured. One such company is McCray company which started patenting ice boxes in the late 19th century.
Identifying the Ice Box Based on Its Interior
So, the ice box you pulled out from the attic or basement is too old or handmade, so there are no labels or other signs that could help you determine the manufacturing year, and other information just wasn’t helpful enough. Now, it’s time to explore other parts of the ice box to help you identify it properly.
Type of Insulation
The newer types of ice boxes made out of metal such as steel had metallic insulation that was usually made out of steel too, which helped emit the freshness and cold air inside the ice box. However, the wooden ice boxes needed to use different materials that would protect the wood outside from melted ice water. Some of the materials for insulation are listed below.
- Flax straw fiber
- Mineral wood
Editor’s notes: More recent wooden ice boxes used charcoal, mineral wood, and flax straw fiber for better-insulating properties before they were replaced with a combination of steel and other metals for more effectiveness.
Ice Tray & Ice Compartments
Based on the insulation, ice tray, drawers and compartments can tell us a lot about the durability of the ice box, and perhaps its age as well. One good way to check the age of the ice box is to check the slides and what material they’re made of.
Some sliders are made out of metal and may feature a patent or a serial number, or any kind of decal on it. Make sure to check it carefully. If your ice box was made in the 19th century, chances are that it may support some source of electricity, so inside the compartments, you should look for a switch to turn it on.
Those ice boxes that were featured early in the 19th century are smaller than those that were featured later, so it’s a good indicator. Those featured later may feature an external block made of glass so that you can look at the ice compartments and see if the ice inside them has melted. Some of them may also have a window on the front door for a better view too.
Editor’s notes: If there was no manufacturer or model nameplate on the front or rear of the ice box exterior, there’s a small chance that it can be found inside the drawers, doors, or other compartments. Check inside the ice box for any serial or patent number that could shed more light on the manufacturer.
Identifying the Ice Box Based on Manufacturer
Whether you’ve been successful in finding the patent number of your ice box or not, identifying the manufacturer may still be your best bet in dating the ice box you found in the attic or wanted to buy off some auction site.
But, without the patent number, researching the manufacturer can be quite difficult. You can research the list of popular manufacturers and list them down and compare them to your ice box. Maybe there was some kind of logo that is similar to some of the other manufacturers’ logos. Based on what you discovered so far, here’s what can help you date the ice box properly.
Editor’s notes: In some cases, more recent vintage and antique ice boxes shipped with a manual, warranty, or any type of documentation that could disclose more details about the model and manufacturers. If you could find those with your ice box, you’d have a much easier time identifying them.
Learn About the History of the Manufacturer
So, you’ve found some patent number or serial number and managed to pin down the manufacturer of your ice box. The next thing you should do is learn more about the manufacturer. What products next to ice boxes did they make, and when exactly did they start making the ice boxes?
Look at the photos of old patents or featured ice boxes and see whether a certain model looks similar to yours, both in terms of appearance and the bells and whistles it offered. That way you’ll be guaranteed to date your ice box correctly.
Compare Your Ice Box to Other Ice Boxes from the Same Manufacturer
Another important thing that you can do to identify your ice box if you know the manufacturer’s name is to compare your model to all other models and see whether they look similar. Seeing the release period and manufacturing period of those ice boxes may also prove to help determine exactly how old is your antique ice box.
Editor’s notes: Most popular Ice Box manufacturers include D. Eddy & Son of Boston, McCray Refrigeration Company, White Frost Refrigerators, The Baldwin Refrigeration Company, and others.
Getting Help from an Expert to Identify the Antique Ice Box
There’s no shame in seeking help from an expert in determining the origin of your ice box. Some experts are specialized in identifying antique kitchen appliances and your ice box is no exception. Still, it’s important to know where to look at.
Contact a Professional Antique Appraiser
Antique appraisers are professionals who either own an antique store or work in museums, galleries, and auction companies and specialize in identifying and evaluating antique goods. It’s worth mentioning that you’ll have to pay for their services, but beforehand, it’d be good to only contact appraisers that specialize in identifying antique ice boxes.
Some of them can be found in antique stores, so you should research antique stores selling cabinets, stoves, and ice boxes nearby. Some of them have their own websites where you can learn more about their location and the services that they offer.
Lastly, some of them can be found at flea markets, but you may not always be able to rely on them, as professional appraisers have good knowledge about the history of different antique products and their manufacturers.
Consult With an Antique Collector or Enthusiast
Do you know someone else who also collects antique collectibles? You should visit nearby antique stores. Antique store owners are usually friends with other collectors and will happily share their contact. Other collectors, especially those who’ve been gathering collectibles for years, are very knowledgeable and could easily recognize the model of your antique ice box.
Alternatively, you can visit different forums such as Reddit or Lumber Jocks to get more information from other collectors.
Research Other Antique Ice Box Sales & Auctions
If you can’t get an expert opinion from an appraiser, or can’t afford it, it’s time to take the research process to the next level. You can search different auction events and see if someone at an auction can help you identify your ice box.
Alternatively, there are online auction sites where you can compare different icebox models and see if some of them correspond or look similar to the one you’re trying to sell. The best resource for such information is eBay, where antique object auctions are set every day. Make sure to check different ice boxes for sale here and see if any of them is similar to the model you own.
Identifying an old antique ice box from the 19th and 20th centuries can be incredibly difficult. Luckily, the tooth of time and manufacturer leave us enough signs to work with if you have a keen eye for detail. There are plenty of ways to properly identify an antique ice box if you take a good look at the exterior and interior of the ice box.
Fortunately, a lot of people have a good understanding of ice box manufacturers and models and are eager to help. Keep in mind, collectors will always appreciate correctly-identified ice boxes and offer more money if you know the patent year and manufacturer, especially if the ice box is rich in features and well-preserved.
If you manage to properly identify and evaluate your antique ice box, that means that other people who were lucky enough to own one will have an easier time identifying and evaluating it too. Lastly, some ice boxes were essential for the first refrigerator designs, so collectors will value them in high regard and give them a higher value on the market.
The way ice box was designed also dictates the social status of those who owned them. Poor households couldn’t afford ice boxes, but those who could have very small and modest designs. Socialite households and royals had large refrigerating compartments and beautiful carvings that gave the ice boxes more value.