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Food Storage

Icebox, Ice Chest

Ice was the principle means of refrigeration until the late 19th century. In the United States and Australia non mechanised refrigerators - iceboxes -  were used to keep perishable food fresh. Iceboxes continued to be used as the primary source of refrigeration for many families into the mid 20th century. Figures from the United States show that in 1923 iceboxes outsold mechanical refrigerators but that by 1944 refrigerators were outselling iceboxes by more than two to one. (Iereley 1999, p.246) Figures for Australia are less comprehensive: a survey of appliance purchases in 1923 does not include refrigerators. By 1955 refrigerators are recorded in 77% of all homes in Brisbane, 83% in Sydney, and 67% in Melbourne. By 1964, it was estimated that 94% of all Australian households owned a refrigerator. (Dingle 1998, p.124) These figures are supported by recorded oral histories, which demonstrate that in Australia many families were still using iceboxes in the late 1940s and 1950s. (Coleman, The-real-kenneth-williams-story; Narrative 708)

An article in the New York Mirror from 1838 provides a clear definition of the standard icebox: it 'is a double box, the outside of mahogany or other wood, and the inside of sheet-zinc [or tin], the space between being three or four inches. By filling this space with finely powdered charcoal, well packed together, the box is rendered almost heat-proof, so that a lump of ice weighing five or six pounds may be kept twenty-four to thirty-six hours, even more, if the box is not opened too often, so as to admit the hot air from without. Of course while it is closed the air contained within it, being in contact with the ice, is reduced to nearly the same temperature; and meat is preserved perfectly sweet and good, the same as in winter. The interior of the refrigerator is provided with shelves for the reception of dishes, bottles, pitchers, etc.; and thus, by very simple contrivance, joints of meat are kept good for several days, wine is cooled, butter hardened, milk saved from "turning", and a supply of ice kept on hand for the more direct use of the table.' (Ierley 1999, p.168)

The means of insulation described above was not standardised; fur pelt, hair, cork, wool, felt, ash and later asbestos were all used as insulating materials. The placement of the ice was also not standardised, though by the end of the nineteenth century it was generally placed in a tray at the top of the unit. A pipe for melted water ran from the ice tray to a drip tray underneath the icebox. This configuration allowed for air to circulate, enhancing the cooling effect - 'the denser cool air descending to the bottom and displacing the lighter warmer air, which rose to the top.' (Ierley 1999, p.169)

Coolgardie Safe, Cooling Chest

Invention of the Coolgardie Safe is credited to Arthur Patrick McCormick, a contractor in Coolgardie, and later Mayor of Narrogin. Coolgardie is in the Eastern Goldfields region of Western Australia. Gold was first discovered there in 1892, the townsite became a municipality in 1894, and by 1898 its population of 15,000 made it the third largest town in WA after Perth and Fremantle. In the last decade of the 19th century Coolgardie was the capital of the West Australian goldfields. Being 180 kilometres from the nearest civilisation, food supplies were initially scarce and expensive. As fresh food was a valuable commodity, there was incentive to preserve it and keep it out of reach of scavengers. It was in an effort to do this that McCormick came up with his design for the Coolgardie Safe.

McCormick noticed that a wet bag placed over a bottle cooled its contents. He further noted that if this bottle was placed in a draught, the bag would dry out more quickly, but the bottle would get colder. What McCormick had discovered was the principle of evaporation: 'to change any liquid into a gaseous state requires energy. This energy is taken in the form of heat from its surroundings.' (Ingpen 1982, p. 18) Employing this principle, McCormick made a box for his provisions which he covered with a wet Hessian bag. He then placed a tray on top, into which he poured water twice daily. He hung strips of flannel from the tray so that water would drip down onto the Hessian bag, keeping it damp.

The success of McCormick's invention would not have worked without a steady supply of water. Fresh water was scarce in the eastern goldfields at this time but the demand for water from a steadily growing population encouraged innovation. The solution was to condense salt water. Heating salt water in tanks produced steam that was condensed in tall cylinders, cooled and then collected in catchment trays. By 1898 there were six companies supplying condensed water to the goldfields, the largest company producing 100,000 gallons of water a day. (1992, p.11)

McCormick's safe was handmade using materials to hand. Many other prospectors in the Coolgardie region copied the design. In the early 20th century, Coolgardie Safes were manufactured commercially across Australia. These safes incorporated shelving and a door, had metal or wooden frames and Hessian bodies. The feet of the safe were usually placed in a tray of water to keep ants away.

Meat Safe, Food Safe

Meat Safes/Food Safes are containers used principally to keep food safe (from flies and other pests), clean and cool. They have been used to store perishable foodstuffs for centuries, and are still made and used today. Whether homemade or manufactured, their construction is simple; it consists of a frame made of metal or wood, with wire mesh panels. Meat/ Food Safes vary in size from portable cages that can be hung, to fixed items of kitchen or pantry furniture. They are usually placed in a well ventilated area to allow for air flow, thus ensuring the produce is kept cool.

(1992). Worth its weight: a celebration of Coolgardie's centenary, 1892-1992. LISWA, Perth
Bonney, W.H. (1895). The History of Coolgardie. Hann, Enright & Co., Perth
Coleman, Ruth. Memories of Childhood. Available online at (3rd January 2005)
Ingpen, Robert (1982). Australian Inventions and Innovations. Rigby, Australia
Ierley, Merritt (1999). The Comforts of Home. The American house and the evolution of modern convenience. Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York 
The-Real-Kenneth-Williams-Story. A Coin Operated Gas Meter, More Music and a Witch. Available online at

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