And Now You Know: Natural Gas Refrigerators, the gas burner made things cold

Published 11:48 am Saturday, July 7, 2018

By Mike Louviere

My great grandmother lived in the woods at Niblett’s Bluff.

By the time I entered the world in 1945, the house was old and did not have many of the “modern things” we had in Orange. For one thing there was an outhouse. For another the refrigerator was powered by kerosene.

When I was old enough one of my jobs was to pull out the small, flat kerosene tank and check the level. If it needed filling, I would get the small can of “coal oil” as kerosene was called, from the porch and fill up the tank. I never thought much about it.

In time, they got an electric refrigerator and the old kerosene one became history and part of the family lore.

Over the years, I only occasionally thought about that old appliance. Never worried about how it worked or anything like that. It just was part of past.

Recently in perusing old papers looking for a subject for this column, I found an advertisement in a 1938 Orange Leader for a natural gas refrigerator. I decided to research and see what caused the fire to make things cold.

It seems that refrigerators, even the most modern today operate on the same principle as a moonshiner’s whiskey still.

The heat source heats the fluid, which begins to circulate. As the vapor evaporates from the heated liquid, it goes to a condenser which brings it to a liquid, which then goes to an evaporator, which then makes it cold. (Very simplified)

In the 1920s, Electrolux bought a patent for gas refrigerators and began to manufacture them.

There was a merger with Servel and from 1927 to 1956 Electrolux-Servel was the major manufacturer of the appliances. Compared to the ones on the market today, these were massive weighing between 400 and 500 pounds. (New ones today weigh between 150-275 pounds)

A large ad, in the June 3, 1938 edition of the Leader, was for the Electrolux gas refrigerator.

“The Electrolux Gas Refrigerator is permanently silent—this means continued low cost—lasting efficiency—savings that will pay for it—no costly repairs—more years of satisfaction. Servel—Electrolux permanent silence means permanent economy for 1938. Many exclusive conveniences—trigger ice cube release—cold indicator—illuminated control—adjustable cold storage tray—and the new freezing unit. Other features are the easy way the door opens, beautiful Newtone finish, strong shelf construction, vegetable freshener, handy fruit basket, and the useful flat top.”

The innovative flexible stainless ice cube release was said to make it easy to get one cube or an entire tray. This was stated to give 20% more ice because “waste is ended.”

The ad ended by advising one to see a dealer or the United Gas Corporation. United Gas was the natural gas utility in Orange in those days.

One page over in the same edition was an ad for electric refrigerators. It was a smaller, simpler ad. It stated for cleanliness one should purchase an electric refrigerator.

The refrigerators could be purchased at Gulf States Electric Company.

The gas refrigerators had to have a vent installed so that the carbon monoxide gas given off by the burner would not fill the home and be a danger to the family. The flame could also cause a small amount of soot to build up. The electric refrigerators have a heating element that eliminates the need for a vent to be installed, also having no flame meant no soot build up to be cleaned.

There are still gas refrigerators manufactured today.

For the most part, they operate with LP gas and are used in recreational vehicles. There is a small market among the Amish and others who do not use electricity in their homes. The ones for home use may be either LP or natural gas powered.

“And now you know”