Why Americans have the world’s largest refrigerators

Move over McMansions, hello world’s largest refrigerators:

Americans have the biggest refrigerators in the world — 17.5 cubic feet of volume on average. The size of our refrigerators is followed closely by Canadians while the rest of the world lags far behind. Since our refrigerators run day and night, they use more energy than any other household appliance, which means their size has ramifications for the planet’s rate of global warming. However, the enormous popularity of refrigerators in the United States is an indicator of the value of refrigeration both for preserving the food we buy and for the convenience that comes when such huge machines are stocked. The fact that we put perishable food in the refrigerator (even sometimes when it doesn’t belong there) suggests that we still remember refrigeration’s most basic advantage: to prevent food from spoiling before we consume it.

While the usefulness of refrigerators explains their prevalence, it does not explain their size. Most people would agree that fresh food tastes better than anything that’s been kept in a refrigerator for even a short amount of time. So why then would anyone want a weeks’ worth of perishable food stored in their kitchen at one time? Are Americans slaves to convenience? While our large refrigerators do limit the number of shopping trips we have to take, they also make it possible for us to consume a much greater variety of foods than we ever did without them in our kitchens…

Because the average American family goes grocery shopping once a week, a gigantic refrigerator is required to keep all the perishables they acquire on that trip. Household refrigerators differ greatly from country to country because the characteristics that citizens in different countries want in their refrigerators are reflections of their cultures so at this point in history once weekly shopping trips is an almost uniquely American habit. While Americans and Canadians want storage capacity, European countries are generally more concerned with energy efficiency or the cost of their operation. Since Americans have always had abundant natural resources (like food), a large refrigerator has become closely identified around the world with the American way of life.

While large refrigerators are a recent development, ice and refrigeration have actually played an oversized role in American culture for a very long time. Before refrigerators, American iceboxes kept our food cold, at least as long as nobody opened them too often. “Who ever heard of an American without an icebox?,” wrote the British travel writer Winifred James in 1914. “It is his country’s emblem. It asserts his nationality as conclusively as the Stars and Stripes afloat from his roof-tree, besides being much more useful in keeping his butter cool.” “The Hard Times Refrigerator,” sold by the Boston Scientific Refrigerator in 1877 for people who were facing difficult economic circumstances was nothing but a wooden chest big enough to store fifty pounds of ice.

It sounds like decisions in American about other areas in life – priority on convenience and having food already at hand, food centers distant from concentrations of population and innovations in transporting cold foods, the suburbs and driving (?) – led to these large refrigerators. I’m not quite sure what prompted this: “Americans had an early collective desire for cold things.” This could be a new rallying cry: “American Exceptionalism: the biggest refrigerators!”

There seems to be a pattern here, especially when compared to the rest of the world: big refrigerators, big houses, big SUVs, Big Gulps, big land mass, big box stores…

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