Baby, It's Cold Inside That Box

One very rare refrigerator by Philco, called a "V-handle," looks like a Cadillac.
One very rare refrigerator by Philco, called a "V-handle," looks like a Cadillac.

This story originally aired May 23, 2010

The refrigerator has helped make modern domestic life possible. Martha Teichner now with the cold facts:

Tucson, Ariz., refrigerator restorer Rich Allen showed us a vintage model you may remember if you saw the recent "Indiana Jones" movie.

"The script called for Harrison Ford to get into the refrigerator - he knew an atomic blast was gonna happen," Allen said.

He just fit! Allen sold the movie company two of them: "And one refrigerator is flying through the air and then when it lands, they cut back to the other refrigerator we'd sold them, and he's opening the door crawling out of it."

What better moment ... for a brief appreciation of refrigerator design.

One very rare refrigerator by Philco, called a "V-handle," looks like a Cadillac. And the amazing part of this is it opens both ways. They only made a few of these in the early fifties.

It looked like a Cadillac because a lot of refrigerators were made by car companies. Frigidaire, for example, was General Motors.

Freezers from the era of car fins.

Seeing them huddled together, forlorn and round-shouldered, you might not appreciate that when Rich Allen's workmen finish spiffing them up, and installing up-to-date innerds, these babies will sell for $5,000-10,000 each.

OK, so you're buying an era, when housewives danced in TV ads for their refrigerators. But in the 1950s, people actually had something to dance about.

Nifty features like a heated butter compartment. Foot pedals. Lazy-Susan compartments. What an advance over the "Monitor Top," introduced by GE in 1927.

"It actually ran on sulfur dioxide, which was a gas that they used in the First World War to kill people," said Allen.

How reassuring! The Monitor Top was actually named for the Civil War ironclad, the USS Monitor, because of the shape of its gun turret.

Today, with a little imagination and a little more cash, your refrigerator can be a thing of wonder.

Paul Klein is general manager of brand and advertising for GE Appliances, showed off one model: "You could chill a bottle of wine in 15 minutes or a six-pack of sodas in 30 minutes. Or the express thaw function which allows you to take frozen meat, chicken, any item, and then it safely thaws during the day."

Karen Williams heads St. Charles Kitchens in New York City, revealed her concealed refrigerator. "And it's, when closed, completely concealed, can be designed any way you like, and just looks like beautiful cabinetry."

And then there's the refrigerator that shouts You are a serious cook . . . a pro, even.

(Left: A contemporary design of built-in refrigerator by Sub-Zero.)

Paul Sikir is vice president of design engineering for Sub-Zero, walked us through one with glass doors. "It's all stainless steel interiors. Underneath the hood, you also have water filtration."

But the most important innovations, you can't even see . . . the use of coolants less harmful to the environment. Dramatic increases in energy efficiency.

"An average refrigerator is down to the equivalent of, maybe, a 60-watt light bulb," said Sikir.

And here's what's next: a home energy management meter, which Klein said shows exactly how much energy your refrigerator is using. "If you're not already, you will be paying more for electricity at peak use times. Smart refrigerators are being designed to minimize the cost.

"The refrigerator listens for a signal from the meter that says that the rates may go up, and then the refrigerator will delay its defrost," he said.

In 1929, 840,000 electric refrigerators were sold in the United States, compared to 8.4 million in 2009. Oh the difference 80 years have made, in what's basically just a box that's cold inside.

For more info: