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The first practical refrigerators were invented a century ago and instantly transformed American domestic life. The Saturday Evening Post was flooded with advertisements for the strange new devices. Illustrators were hired to help the public imagine how refrigerators would fit into a home and envision the role they could play. Some were more successful than others.
Inventor Fred Wolf of Ft. Wayne, Indiana started the rush in 1913, with the announcement of the first refrigerator for home and domestic use. A year later, an engineer in Detroit jumped in with his suggestion for an electric refrigerator, the predecessor of the famous Kelvinator. By 1918, the demand for the new invention had become clear, and the Frigidaire company was founded to mass produce refrigerators.
Rival companies popped up, each trying to outdo the others with features they thought the public might like. For example, Kelvinator touted the first refrigerator with an automatic control. Electrolux offered what it called the first “absorption refrigerator.” Inventors and engineers battled over the science. Here is a two-page ad from the Post bragging about the factory where the “hermetically sealed refrigerating unit” is contained within the “steel monitor top.”
But it took art, not science, to humanize the strange new invention. Refrigerator companies faced a big challenge selling the new invention to everyday Americans; in 1922 a refrigerator could cost over $700 while a new car (the Model T Ford) cost only $450. The public wouldn’t buy refrigerators without a vision for how they would fit into the American lifestyle.
Here we see a 1929 painting by Walter Biggs of a high-class social event:
The men are wearing tuxedos and the women dressed in fashionable gowns. They smile as they exchange witty banter about cultural events. But the real star of the party—and the whole reason for the painting—is that brand new refrigerator in the far right hand corner.
Right smack dab in the center of the painting is the modern miracle… glasses filled with ice! Ice was readily available for guests for the first time with the invention of the refrigerator. Today we wouldn’t think of keeping our refrigerator in the middle of our dining room with the guests, but this picture tells us that it was a mark of prestige.
Next, this enterprising artist tries to portray the refrigerator as a springboard to romance. (Hah! Good luck with that!)
Another artist felt he could make the new invention popular with a “science fiction” approach:
This artist does his best to make a white metal cube look stylish by making it a tiny element in a large, black and gold art deco picture. Note that Al Dorne’s harried, overworked housewife has become an elegant young woman of leisure in an evening gown.
There were even illustrations for consumers who felt that a refrigerator was “like magic.”
Today many of these approaches seem silly to us, but in the beginning before the identity of the refrigerator had been firmly established, artists could let their imaginations run wild.
It always takes a while for people to figure out the proper role for the new invention; when trains first arrived on the scene, they were noisy and frightening. They spooked horses and polluted the environment with smoke and cinders. But artists and musicians and storytellers began to humanize the new machine, singing folk songs and telling tales, and pretty soon we welcomed trains into our cultural heritage.
We rely upon the artistic imagination to help us view our strange new inventions and assimilate them into our natural world. Nothing like the refrigerator had ever existed before, so there were no precedents for artists to rely on. Some of the earlier efforts make us laugh today, but eventually illustrators found their footing.
Featured image: Courtesy of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration
By 1934, many families had been forced by the Depression to reduce spending on treats and occasional indulgences. It was the perfect time for Nabisco to introduce the affordable, buttery cracker with a name associated with luxury.
It came from César Ritz, who’d opened glamorous hotels that bore his name around the world. Ritz’s hotels earned such renown as symbols of opulence that ritz became a slang term for something extravagant. Research had shown that up to 90 percent of snack food purchases were made by women, and the men in charge of marketing jumped to the conclusion that female shoppers would be influenced by snob appeal. Hence the name Ritz, which promised a “bite of the good life.”
As a bonus, Ritz crackers boasted a richer taste than most competitors and went for only 19 cents a box. By 1935, a whopping five billion of the crackers had been sold, which worked out to 40 crackers for every man, woman, and child in America. Within three years of its launch, Ritz was the best-selling cracker in the world.
Morton Salt has long been known for its famous logo featuring the iconic “umbrella girl” — dressed all in yellow and walking in the rain as salt pours freely from a container of Morton’s — over the phrase “When It Rains, It Pours.”
She first appeared in 1914, in the days when table salt tended to clump up when exposed to humidity. The problem was solved by the Morton Salt Company when it added magnesium carbonate, an absorbing agent, to its product. The new salt would flow freely in even the most humid weather.
But Morton introduced a more important innovation in 1924. Scientists had discovered that common thyroid disorders could be remedied with iodine. People in the Great Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest, which had too little iodine in the ecosystem, were prone to developing enlarged thyroids, or goiters. Iodine shortage also affected the brain, leading to difficulty in learning or remembering.
Readers might have thought the 1927 ad was overstating the benefits of iodized salt. But the incidence of goiters dropped significantly after iodization, and the average IQ rose 15 points in areas where iodized salt had been introduced, and 3.5 points nationally.
This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Shutterstock
In 1900, a fortnight meant two weeks and a talking machine didn’t involve Alexa. Gifts – and the advertisements for them – have changed a lot since then. Here’s a look back at advertisements for some of the most popular gifts of the 1900s.
This ad appeared shortly after the Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated. The more familiar “Victrola” brand was introduced five years later, in 1906, and was the most popular home phonograph brand for decades.
In 1898, Kodak started selling the Folding Pocket Camera, the ancestor of all modern roll-film cameras. This camera also introduced the 2¼” x 3¼” picture size, which proved very popular.
Kodak cameras, which had been created by George Eastman in 1888, had just released its lower-priced Brownie model the year before this ad appeared. The Brownie created a new mass market for photography, and 1901 was one of the first Christmas seasons that put a camera within almost everyone’s reach.
R.F. Simmons Company was founded in 1873 in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Simmons claimed to be the first jeweler to issue a chain catalogue, the first to stamp jewelry with the manufacturer’s initials, the first to offer a satisfaction guarantee, and the first to use a safety fastener.
In the early 20th century, Stevens was one of the largest firearms manufacturers in the United States. The company was purchased by New England Westinghouse, specifically to provide rifles to the Russian Czar and his army during World War I. After the Czar fell and the bill went unpaid, the company fell into financial distress. Despite a few rough patches, the company continues to make firearms under the Stevens name today.
This child-size version of the Studebaker farm wagon was a popular (and pricey) toy in the early 20th century. Studebaker debuted its first automobile a year later.
The Philadelphia-based A. Schoenhut Company sold this popular circus set from 1903 to 1935. Early versions such as this one featured animals with glass eyes and real hair. The figures had articulated limbs held together with elastic bands that allowed them to be posed in different positions. By 1912, Schoenhut was the largest toy company in the United States.
Parker Pens was founded in 1888 and continues to produce writing instruments today, although fountain pens have fallen out of favor with all except the most tradition-bound. The pens in this advertisement are worth considerably more today, and can sell for upwards of several thousand dollars.
Perfume has always been a traditional gift, but this one has a unique twist. Edouard Penaud ostensibly created Lilac Vegetal as an aftershave for the Hungarian cavalry.
Elgin National Watch Company produced watches for 100 years, manufacturing more than 60 million of them between 1864 and 1968. Pocket watches were the standard timepiece in 1909. Elgin was one of the first companies to make a wristwatch, which they started selling a year later.
Some things haven’t changed in 100 years – in 1916, people still eagerly shopped for presents. What they shopped for, however, has changed a lot! Go back in time with these ads from the December 1916 issue of the Post.