"Crisp lettuce." That's a 75-year-old memory of what it was like to get the household's first electric refrigerator in the 1930s. Before that the lettuce was wilted, but who knew how good it could be until this was experienced? This is just one nostalgic recollection for those of earlier generations or what can be discovered by younger people as they tour the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum and see the old-time icebox. In the column's "virtual tour" series of this local treasure, our look back in time has included the kitchen of the lighthouse as it was over a century ago. The wood burning stove and the wooden washtub were great for the day, but certainly hard work by today's standards. The icebox in the kitchen is another example of what every woman enjoyed at the time because it offered the convenience of preserving food, despite the fact that it included regular deliveries of ice from the ice man and dealing with the constant flow of water out.
Many iceboxes were made of wood with some having ornate cabinets that looked like beautiful furniture. The ice was either in a side or top compartment with the food in a lower section giving best results for chilling as cold air circulated down. The bottom tray near the floor was where the water from the melted ice collected and had to be emptied. This was an easy enough daily chore that could be given to children and one to surely cause trouble if not done because of the mess it created all over the kitchen floor. Those living in times of iceboxes remember this, but also the fun of when the ice man came. With a truck full of large blocks of ice, he made regular deliveries. Rosamond Burns, former columnist of "Yesterdays," recalled how the ice man came to know the size of your icebox and chipped off just the right amount. This is when as a child she and all the neighborhood children would gather around the truck to enjoy a treat of chipped ice. With huge tongs, the ice man slung the heavy block of ice ranging from 25 to 100 pounds over his shoulder and carried it into the house. With such frequent visits, he must have been well-known by everyone in the neighborhood on his route.
One advantage of living in northern climates had to be the ability to harvest ice in the winter for later use, although some companies used insulated packaging to transport ice to the south. Most ice in the 19th century was cut from natural bodies of water such as ponds and lakes. Many men would clear off snow until the ice was thick enough to cut out blocks using hand saws. Blocks were moved to nearby ice houses for personal, town or commercial use. The latter were packed and moved by ship and railroad. Ice houses were buildings that stored the ice throughout the year. Partially underground or above ground, the ice was kept frozen by insulating it with straw or sawdust between the inner and outer walls. After a time in the later 1800s in urban areas, the sources of natural ice became polluted from industry and sewers, but some companies invented and used methods to produce a factory made ice that was more sanitary than that cut from ponds and lakes.
In by-gone days before refrigerators, the icebox was used to preserve food as seen at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.
During the latter part of the 19th century and early 1900s as technology became more sophisticated, many inventors experimented with electricity and refrigeration. First models used dangerous chemicals for cooling and they were also very expensive. It wasn't until the 1930s that models became safer and at a price that more of the population could afford to purchase. The kitchen at the lighthouse also features one of these early models. It is somewhat odd to look at with a cylinder-shaped object on the top. It is actually the compressor or part of the cooling system, which also emitted heat into the room. Curiously, a General Electric model called this the "Monitor Top." Considering that the lighthouse is also a museum for veterans and military history, a great question to ask on future tours would be how that name relates to the Civil War. Research shows that it had this nickname because the shape of it looked like the gun turret on the famous ironclad warship USS Monitor. This was the ship that fought the CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy in the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. Who knew there was so much connected history between a refrigerator and the Civil War?
In the middle 1800s before the widespread use of the icebox and then in later years the refrigerator, people ate fresh foods of the season or food that was preserved by such means as salting or smoking. With the coming of the iceman and refrigeration, food could be preserved longer and even frozen, allowing for better nutrition by eating healthy foods that would normally only be available at limited times of the year. People living in cities without access to personal gardens can have all the benefits. The downside to this however is that in our age we now have many frozen foods of "convenience" that we pop into the microwave. Many of these processed foods are of poor nutritional value and in part contribute to obesity and sickness. In this regard, it would be good to go back in time and some old-time practices of yesterday. Eat fresh foods. Cool some things outside in the cold weather. One fond memory from my childhood is chilling a pack of soda in the middle of summer by placing it at the edge of a mountain stream during one of our family trips out west in the late 1960s.
Come to the lighthouse to conjure up your own memories of what life was like so many years ago. Make it a good week and go to www.dunkirklightouse.com for more information.
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