It’s the 1930s, and the refrigerator market is booming.
It’s the early years of refrigeration. Because inventors are busy with new ideas, there are many types of units for the home.
During this time, a whole slew of refrigerator repair men sprang up overnight, and whole rooms were redesigned. My favorite huge refrigerator room is in the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, a custom kitchen with a walk-in refrigerator like a huge bank safe, connected to the important mechanical parts in the basement. The great hulk of a unit was built later into the 1892 Flemish Renaissance Revival beast of a house, which now stands in a semi-dilapidated area. My mother and I visited, marveling over the amount of beer that could have been stored in that ice-box.
P.W. sends me, by comparison, a small unit, as units for the home were in the 1930s, and quite expensive for the average buyer — costing more than $300 at that time. But you got great service, as the Frigidaire man came and gave you lessons. P.W.’s is from the late 1930s, a model called the R114 Frigidaire by GM.
What were the moving parts that were so furiously being developed for the new technologies that made people spend this kind of money in the 1930s? Well, there were different inventions for the operative parts of the unit, such as the top mounted drop in unit, and all types of compressors, either belt driven or rotary, a single- or twin-cylinder type compressor, and the invention of capillary copper tubing.
P.W.’s fridge was very popular as it boasted the Meter Miser, a rotary compressor that was designed for a whole new type of coolant, called Freon-114, which worked well with a low wattage compressor and was touted to save you money.
The competitors in the market were those strange-looking units that seem to have a head on top, a Monitor Top, which held the compressor, and truth be told, these were the better machines, as they were quiet and could last for 30 years. These used a different type of coolant or refrigerant, called methyl formate.
These monitor top units lost market share to the cleaner lines of the bottom–run units like P.W.’s. But they could cool more area for less, and some had double doors and freezer units, even back then.
As Thomas Edison said a few decades hence: “Hell, there are no rules here, we’re just trying to accomplish something!”
Because the market was so diverse, being a refrigerator man was a good job in those days, but you had to be a mechanic, a vacuum expert and a chemist. And you had to be brave, because the refrigerants were deadly in many cases. A common coolant, sulfur dioxide, when exposed to the air, coated everything with a gumlike film, and killed people, plants, and pets. The coolant had to be drained in some cases, and thus the remedy was as deadly as the coolant. The gas was discharged into a bucket of water and lye.
P.W. asked me if there was any value to such a unit, working up to a few years ago. The problem is the refrigerant needed to run a test on such a unit will cost you $225 for a small canister of R114 Freon, compared to the value of the unit today, which is around the $400 mark.
And then, as you have read, so much more can break down, and there are no more Frigidaire men around to do house calls, or are there?
As I was researching for this article, I noticed hundreds of blogs devoted to old refrigerators, directed to pickers and collectors, as well as garage-based mechanics. One photo shows a proud man surrounded by 50 old refrigerators in a garage with his wife looking on disapprovingly. There are peripheral businesses such as one in Chicago that buys old refrigerants of many toxicities. You will know what you have by the color of the cylinder.
So hazardous is the stuff that there are special courses in how to handle the refrigerants, because they are damaging to the Ozone layer, and YOU.
But the good news, P.W., is that if you post it on line, you will no doubt find an eager mechanical person who will haul it away and torture their partner with the acquisition of yet another huge unit to put into the garage and take apart, at great bodily threat.
And that person will spend time and money on it, powder-coat it, and love it.