Scanning Around With Gene: What’s In Your Refrigerator?

My father use to yell at us kids for wasting energy when we’d stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open, trying to decide what, if anything, we wanted to eat or drink next. Growing up there was always something in the fridge to ponder, and eventually we would find something to snack on.

I still stand in front of my refrigerator with door ajar, bewildered. But now it’s not because there are too many choices. Rather, my astonishment is at how few items there in that vast and empty space. All of the images in today’s column are from 1940 to 1967. Click on any image for a larger version.

Looking at refrigerator ads makes me feel inadequate. I’ve never had whole hams, rows of parfaits, neatly organized frozen goods, or delicious-looking cakes in my fridge. No, my freezer has a couple packages of Chicken Tikka Masala from Trader Joes, a couple trays of years-old ice cubes, and a half-used bag of frozen peas.

The refrigerator section has the typical assortment of mustard, salad dressing, and other condiments in the door, along with very limp vegetables and an out-of-date carton of milk. I also keep my bread and breakfast cereal in the fridge so it lasts longer.

Did you know that you once could by a refrigerator powered by gas instead of electricity?

I think the quality of your refrigerator food stock has a direct relationship to your willingness and desire to shop. I like going to the store and perhaps that’s my problem. I don’t do weekly shopping and stock up on items; I drop by the market pretty much daily and pick up just what I need to get by for that day.

Consequently, there is rarely anything to really eat in my refrigerator and houseguests often gasp in surprise when they open the door. You can easily hear an echo. But in these ads, that’s certainly not the case.

Selling refrigerators has always been about capacity as much as anything else. One model is pretty similar to the next except in size. Most refrigerators are just big metal boxes, though I do love this ad from 1956 for Westinghouse refrigerators that were available in over 50 different color combinations. And then there’s the “wall” refrigerator from General Electric, also from 1956.

Go to page 2 for many more fridge ads, including a shocking image in which unwrapped Jello molds fraternize with whole turkeys and chocolate cakes. Don’t let your children turn the page!

Posted on: January 29, 2010

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

10 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: What’s In Your Refrigerator?

  1. Many travel trailers and RVs have fridges that can be powered by gas or shore power (AC or DC). Our camper has just such a fridge made by Dometic. Always enjoy your articles that show just how much (or little) things change over time.

  2. you can still buy a gas powered fridge….

  3. Gas refrigerators are great where electricity isn’t available. Also, not only are they silent, but there’s no generator needed in powerless locations.

    One downside I found, when I lived in a buggy apartment building, is that the pilot-light’s constant warmth was very attractive to cockroaches.

    Peter Gold

  4. The full refrigs also reflected the prosperity of the times. Did you notice how the women are dressed? All ready to do their housework in heels and dresses.

    Sheila Johnston

  5. For several years I lived without a refrigerator – in an apartment that was little more than a sleeping room. During the winter I had a fridge – the window sills were several inches deep. I learned how much to open or close the window in order to keep my food cold/frozen. I’d hang several blankets over the window to keep the cold air confined to the “fridge.”

    Now, while I’m waiting for the refrigerator repair company to come, I’m relearning this handy method.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Monta Gael May, MFA

  6. I did some quick searching, wondering if ads today show refrigerators full of food. Most had their doors discretely closed. But one on the Kenmore website, a freezer-less refrigerator, had its doors wide open and an array of food in competition with some of these old ads.

    I wonder if our modern sensibilities don’t allow us to look at an open refrigerator door without cringing a little. For me it what’s in other people’s refrigerators isn’t my business, so I avoid looking in other’s refrigerators when I can. It’s either that or my childhood instructions to keep the refrigerator closed that makes me want to shut the doors on all these open refrigerators.

    Also I’m a little surprised at the variety of name brand foods inside the refrigerators, including the Sprite in the Kenmore refrigerator. Did the companies have an agreement, or was having name brand food in the fridge a selling point?

  7. Checked the GE site – Fridges are still full of perfectly placed food – fresh fruit – uncovered of course. Didn’t see a lot of prepared food, i.e. store bought readymades. Guess that’s in the freezer???And of course no family shots included – just the bare, cold facts.
    Gene keep up the fantastic work! I love looking at the old ads and seeing how we view consumerism today.
    PS I do have food including leftovers (carefully wrapped, of course!) – but might could use a clean-up.

  8. If only I could keep my fridge as neat as these ladies could (and I see, as you Gene!) I wouldn’t have so many “unidentifiables” in there.
    Thanks for posting this. I love looking at old ads not only for the pure pleasure of it, but also for admiration of the creativity.
    Please keep up the good work and good posts!

  9. Food in Mom’s Frigidaire on occasion shared space with clean laundry, sprinkled with water and rolled up to make them easier to iron.

  10. You can get a fridge that is powered by propane gas or the old standby my friends who live “off the grid” use — put items in creek water that’s cold. Thanks for the article. It brought back memories!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.