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At your convenience: the fridge

Categories: History of food

Angela Clutton explores how the development of kitchen appliances after 1918 both stemmed from and influenced the changing role of women. This time, the fridge

As I begin this last instalment of my series on 100 years of change in our kitchens, I feel the need to confess that I owe Morecambe and Wise a ‘thanks’ for their help with it. I can’t tell you the number of times in doing research for this that I have watched back the iconic sketch of Eric and Ernie making breakfast, choreographed to music of The Stripper coming out of the kitchen radio. It featured in their 1976 series for the BBC and is as funny now as it must have been then. (If you don’t know it, head quickly to YouTube and then please come back.)

That kitchen, which I have now carefully catalogued, offers a fascinating insight into how by the mid-seventies so many kitchen conveniences we use now had already been assimilated into British kitchens. You will find in Eric and Ernie’s the pop-up toaster and the counter-top electric whisk / mixer I’ve written about here before—and also a huge fridge that is the sketch’s denouement, as they dance by its light and pull out unfeasibly long links of sausages. Its sheer presence and size are very telling—and maybe even rather new to some of the several million-strong TV audience that watched it first time round.

It was only with the arrival of the 1970s that the majority (but still only 58 per cent) of British homes had a fridge at all. Imagine that. Something we take so completely granted, most homes didn’t even have 50 years or so ago. Go back another 50, on the horizon of the 1920s, and the first fridges were arriving on the scene. They were slow to catch on here—much slower than in the US. In 1959, as we were still emerging from the financial and other cultural constraints of war, only 13 per cent of British homes had a fridge.

A booming time
All of which means that the 1960s and 1970s were a booming time for domestic fridges. Just when attitudes were changing to shopping and cooking, the fridge made those changes a living reality. You didn’t need to shop so often, as produce was kept longer from going off, and meals could be made ahead and kept safe. The household with a fridge was the kind of family that ate yoghurt, for goodness sake. How very modern.

Possibly even more exciting than the fridge was its cooler counterpart, the freezer. Eric and Ernie’s was a small in-built one, but as the late seventies turned into the eighties not only did pretty much every house have a fridge, but freezers grew so much in size they often lived in the garage. Storing ready-meals and other convenience foods made it possible for modern families to live fast-paced, varied lives, beyond the previous model of a stay-at-home wife and mother who would cook meals from scratch every day.

Fridges now, of course, are terribly exciting in their seemingly limitless possibilities. They can dispense ice at the press of a button. They are self-defrosting. Some even have cameras installed inside so that you can remotely check what you do or don’t have in there.

Metaphor for feminism
It took 100 years to go from being a fledging reality, to being taken for granted, with sky-is-the-limit potential. It’s almost like fridges are a metaphor for 20th century feminism—though that is trivialising and not what I mean at all, really. My point is more that in the century since women first achieved the vote, their lives have changed enormously. The home—the kitchen in particular—simply kept up, liberating women still further in the process.