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A Fridge With A Big Head: Luke Gets Chilly About Refrigerators

Posted on 24 October 2015

Recently the 5 year old refrigerator in my apartment broke down. Being a proactive renter, I took apart my fridge hoping to figure out what had gone wrong (to my property manager's chagrin I'm sure). I quickly figured out that the the fan that circulates the cold air from the freezer into the refrigerator had burned out. I called my chagrinned property manager to let them know. I asked if I could just fix it myself, but they said no, they would just replace the whole fridge. I insisted that it was a simple fix, but they insisted right back that I would be getting a new fridge, and that it would take five days. Five days and many bags of ice to preserve my meats and cheeses later, a couple of delivery guys brought by my replacement fridge, which was the exact same model. 

My first thoughts and observations ran thusly. This fridge is crappy, and crappy looking. Its retired brother was poorly made, and it is no wonder the damn thing gave up the ghost so quickly. The entirety of the interior is made from thin molded plastic. The ducting is of styrofoam construction, and is clearly vulnerable to blockage. The "pebbled" exterior texture is perfect for gathering grubbiness and requires a scrubby pad to clean. The sharp corners are protected with rubber nubbins that are also great for gathering gunk, I'm sure because the unprotected corners pose an eye gouging risk.

Perhaps its greatest offense is its sheer ugliness. It is utterly devoid of even a hint of an attempt at styling. It's a styleless white box with bland, ergonomish plastic handles, and the aforementioned "pebbled" finish could more realistically could be described as a leather pattern (gross) and which I am willing to bet your shitty apartment fridge also shares. Perhaps you are a member of the upper echelons of society who can dictate what kind of fridge you have. Perhaps yours has stainless doors and internet access. Chances are, your fancy fridge still has a heart of turds. The interior is likely still plastic but with upgraded glass shelves. Congrats on your junky stainless fridge, Horatio Alger. 

Have our fridges always been such shameful household pests? Of course not. In the beginning (of fridges) there was really only one to choose from; the General Electric "Monitor Top." Introduced in 1927, the Monitor Top was the first "affordable" refrigerator and is unmistakable due to the large top mounted compressor for which it is named. Before GE released it your options were pretty pricey. Frigidaire and a few others were making expensive self contained units and contractors were installing custom built refrigerators in houses, with their mechanical bits often located below the kitchen in the basement.

GE's intention was to make the Model T of refrigeration and they succeeded. Although it was only $80 cheaper than a model T in 1927, it was actually considered fairly affordable. Many utility companies were offering payment plans where you could get a new GE fridge, and just tack a bit onto your monthly bill to slowly pay it down. 

The Monitor Top sold like gangbusters and stayed in production for almost ten years with very little modification after initial product development. It was our first fridge and it is basically better than our fridges today. Why? Because first of all, thousands of them are still out there plugging along as they have been for the last 85 years (note that my junk wagon of a fridge lasted 5 years). They used an overbuilt and simple hermetically sealed system built with longevity in mind. Many monitor tops are still running their original refrigerant, having never needed recharging. They were also built with cleanliness in mind. All surfaces are flat and smooth. The door, cabinet, and interior are painted gloss white or are coated with baked on vitreous enamel. No tacky leather patterns or rubber corner bumpers to gather goobers. The door handles are polished chrome steel which not only hold up longer, but are substantially easier to clean. That vitreous enamel interior isn't going to break when you drop something on it and ruin your day either. 

I say they are basically better because they do have a couple of big downsides. In the era that they were built there was not much need for freezer space. Refrigerated trucking wasn't yet much of a thing so there was no need for Cherry Garcia ice-cream storage. The freezer in a monitor top is just large enough for an ice cube tray and a small bottle of vodka. The door latch only locks from the outside so if your kid crawls in to hide and lets the door close behind him, you better hope you hear him squealing before he suffocates. The other down sides are... well actually I can't think of any. It's heavy? Is that a downside? Either way, it was largely an excellent appliance.

Excellent or not, the Monitor Top's sales slowly dropped as GE's competitors started to wrestle their prices down and offer more modern looking fridges. The compressor and cooling coils were moved from the top to the bottom and back, hidden under a panel (where they remain to this day). The fridges that came were actually even better than the Monitor Top, as they were roomier and didn't have the big thing on top to get in the way of cleaning. More rounded art deco forms were en vogue, their rounded corners easier to clean. They way I see it, refrigerators peaked in the late 40's. You would be hard pressed to find any that weren't good looking, fairly reliable, or easy to clean.

By the late '50s Americans' love of plastic was in full swing. Enamel interiors were replaced with wacky colored plastic that degraded with time. Freezers were also becoming necessary for our frozen turkeys and TV dinners. The popular over and under units now common today started to take over. Profiles got boxier and more plasticy, and quality just started to slide from there.

We are now at the lowest point in refrigerated history since ice men delivered blocks of ice to our door steps. Perhaps I'm an overly nostalgic luddite, but there really were some very intelligent design choices in old refrigerators that we chose to abandon for the sake of cheapness. SMEG makes a fridge that is inspired by refrigerators of the 40's, but is really a turd in kings clothing. I was initially excited about them until I saw one in person and realized to my horror they entire thing is made of plastic and feels about as sturdy as a styrofoam cooler. Perhaps the only classic detail they got right is the "vintage" style inconveniently small freezer. Our high end refrigerators today have no focus on quality or longevity, but rather on their heaping helpings of technology with a short life span. It's a good thing your new fridge is basically a big cell phone, because you'll need it to call the garbage collectors to haul it away when it no longer keeps your kale at the optimum temperature. 

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