Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mary Randolph's 1825 Refrigerator

Mary Randolph included a sketch of a refrigerator in the 1825 edition of The Virginia Housewife.  It was a wooden box within another wooden box with crushed charcoal in-between.  It was not the first refrigerator...

Thomas Moore’s 1803 patented refrigerator, described in a previous blog post, HERE, consisted of a tin box surrounded with ice in a wooden oval box.   There were various descriptions of refrigerators using charcoal as insulation, such as Randolph’s, as early as 1806.

Mary Randolph (1762–1828)  was related to Jefferson, HERE who bought a Moore refrigerator in 1804, and the Custis family of Arlington House, now Arlington Cemetery, where she is buried. Although once wealthy, Mary and her husband David's strong federalist views were a possible reason her husband lost his government job. David worked a variety of jobs and took out a couple of patents in 1809. Mary operated a boarding house in Richmond, Va., from 1808 to 1820, when they moved to DC and she wrote her cookbook.   A biography of Randolph, and an online copy of the Virginia Housewife is HERE

She was described in 1807 by Harman Blennerhassett, who wrote in his diary about meeting “… Mrs. David Randolph, who is a middle-aged lady, and very accomplished; of charming manners, and possessing a masculine mind. ...she certainly uttered more treason than my wife ever dreamed of…” [The Blennerhassett Papers. Cincinnati: 1864] 

After several editions, the very popular Virginia House-wife cookbook continued to be reprinted for many years, but the plans for the refrigerator and a bath tub only appeared in the 1825 edition. Thirty years later, Mordecai wrote in his history of Richmond that Randolph invented “the 'Refrigerator' as she called it” but “a shrewd Yankee, who was an inmate [lodger] of her [Richmond boarding] house for a few days, to whom she showed it, carried the invention with him, perhaps obtained a patent, and it soon got into general use.” [Virginia, especially Richmond, in by-gone days. Samuel Mordecai. Richmond: 1860]

Randolph opened her boarding house by 1808, which was after the 1803 Moore patent, and 1806 description.  Mordecai's claim that Mary invented the refrigerator is suspect, yet it is repeated on some websites. Two Georgetown, D.C. men patented an ice box very similar to Randolph’s 1825 image [above] in 1813. We don’t know if either Randolph or the men knew about the earlier plans, or each other plans, or whose was first. The two plans are similar, except the men’s ice box has a tube to take the melted ice water out of the box. The outer box was 6’ x 2' x 2' [Randolph - 4 x 3 x 3 ½ feet deep] with a 2 inch [Randolph - 4 inch] space for compacted dry pulverized charcoal. The basket of ice sat in a 2 inch deep pan with a tube to take the melted water out of the box. [Randolph - ice frame sits in a tub which collects the water].

The ice "basket is to be constructed to hold from one, to one and a half pecks of ice. It is found that this quantity will keep all articles put into the Refrigerator perfectly cool for twenty-four hours, and in that space of time, not more than one half the ice will be found to melt. It is proper however, to fill up the basket every morning.” [John W. Bronaugh and Jesse Talbot, of George Town, D.C. 1813 patent]  Randolph wrote "with judicious management it will require but little ice to keep up the quantity in the frame."

Butter pads are shown in Randolph’s sketch on the shelf to the right of the ice frame in the tub.  There is a "tripod to stand over the plate in the [tin] bucket, and to hold another plate of butter without pressing the prints together." [Randolph, 1825].

The Randolph refrigerator sketch is remarkable in showing the inside and contents of an early household refrigerator.
For more on some of her recipes: Burnt Custard, Stuffed ham, Salmagundy dressing and other recipes. .

©2012 Patricia Bixler Reber

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