Antique Ice Boxes: Complete Guide

Updated May 23, 2022
Antique large Pine Ice Box

Antique ice boxes bring a sense of nostalgia to nearly everybody, even people whose only experience with them has been through the movies. The freeze that an antique ice box might put on your credit card is well-worth the call to the bank for how they can become a perfect historic storing a late night treat or for holding your favorite plant babies,

The Chilling History of Ice Boxes

Civilizations have been harvesting and using ice for keeping food fresh since before the Roman Empire. One of the earliest known ice houses is reputed to have been built in Iraq in 1700 B.C.E. Thick chunks of ice would be cut from the ice that formed on lakes and ponds and taken to these structures. Icehouses were generally squat, domed buildings. The foundations were dug deeply, and the walls were mostly underground, which helped the building stay insulated.

During the winter, snow would be brought into the icehouse and used with sawdust or straw to keep the huge blocks of harvested ice frozen. This method was so effective that the ice was often still frozen the next winter. Perishable foods and beverages would be kept in the building, and chunks of ice would be chipped off to create ice cream.

As technology increased, so did pollution and population density, but the general, centuries-old idea for cooling perishable items remained. Larger households combined with recreational dining led to the need for commercial refrigeration, which resulted in the creation of ice boxes in the 19th century.

Technology Responds to 19th Century Needs

Since it wasn't feasible for everyone to have their own ice house, the ice box was developed sometime between 1830 and 1840. It was little more than a wooden box with an area to hold a block of ice. Over the next few decades, improvements were made to the original design to make them more effective.

Fascinatingly, it was due to these ice boxes that a new 'milk man' emerged: the ice man. Ice men visited homes daily where they'd deliver ice, securely insulated in sawdust, to each ice box. This activity was met with delight from the local children who would take ice chips from the wagon in the summertime.

Wooden Ice Boxes

wood-ice-box-doors-open.jpg

Initially, the average 19th century ice box was made out of wood. As time went on, these utilitarian appliances became beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. Over time, carvings and other embellishments were added to these basic boxes, turning them into works of art within the home.

The walls were hollow, lined with tin or zinc, and filled with insulation out of things like seaweed, straw, cork, and sawdust. They were made out of a myriad of woods, such as oak and pine. Near the top of the box, in the interior, was an area to hold a big block of ice. In some models, it was a tray and in others it was a wooden compartment. This drained the water from the melting ice into a holding tank or a pan under the ice box, which had to be emptied regularly lest it pour over onto the floor.

Metal Ice Boxes

Antique Galvanized Metal ice box

Metal ice boxes became popular in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, reflecting the clean white enameling that the period was so fond of. They were right at home with antique kitchen sinks, clawfoot tubs, and other sleek white home goods.

These ice boxes could come in a single compartment style or a multi-drawer style, with either two drawers stacked on top of one another or two doors for maximum storage. They ranged in material, from the lightest weight tin to the extremely heavy cast iron.

Unfortunately, you're far less likely to find these ice boxes around today than you are to find a variety of wooden ones on the auction market.

Current Antique Ice Box Values

c1890 Oak Ice Box

Since most people aren't buying antique ice boxes for their refrigeration methods, ice box values are contingent on their design and beauty. Larger ice boxes, such as ones with multiple drawers or doors, can be more expensive than those that're single compartments. Additionally, ice boxes with carvings, engravings, multiple wood stains, and other decorative elements are more desirable and buyers justify spending more money on them.

Size is another considerable factor for what these antique units normally sell for as the larger the ice box, the more expensive it's going to be. Similarly, if you're buying online, this price can quickly skyrocket thanks to shipping costs.

On the whole, antique ice boxes are worth anywhere between $100-$3,000. For example, here are some ice boxes that recently came to auction:

What to Look for When Collecting Vintage Ice Boxes

c1890 Oak Ice Box

Today these antique and vintage ice boxes are in demand by collectors everywhere. They're used as side tables, cabinets, and storage in many vintage style kitchens throughout the country. They bring a touch of the old country kitchen into the modern world. Yet, if you're thinking about buying one or selling one you already own, there are a few characteristics that can increase their value:

  • Multiple compartments - Antique ice boxes that have multiple drawers and compartments are pretty valuable because of the practical component; the more storage that you have, the more you can do with it.
  • Smaller vs. larger - Huge, double-door ice boxes won't sell as quickly as compact versions simply because they're impossible (and expensive) to ship and they take up a lot of space that people don't have in their homes.
  • Artistic decoration vs. plain design - Interestingly, more decorative ice boxes are taking a little longer to sell than streamlined, simply designed ones in today's current market. This could be indicative of the shift towards mid-century modern style with a lack of over decoration in wooden furniture that's been broiling over in popular culture for the past few years.

Where to Find an Old Ice Box

You may come across an old ice box as a local thrift shop, garage sale, or flea market, but it's rather unlikely. Generally, these are snapped up by those who know their true value. More often you'll find them at antique stores and auctions, or on the internet.

Since these appliances aren't high in demand, you don't have to constantly scour the retailers to check in and see if they've updated their inventory or to see if the one that you've been saving up for has already been sold. Rather, the biggest trouble you'll find when purchasing an antique ice box (particularly if you're doing so online) is shipping. In some cases, they can be quite large and heavy, so if you can drive to pick one up yourself, you're going to save loads in shipping costs.

If you're looking for a vintage ice box, you might try the following sites:

What to Do With an Antique Ice Box?

There's a number of options for what you can to do with an antique ice box, as you're really only limited by your imagination and the amount of space that you have in your home to house one:

  • Use it as a mini fridge - If you remember your college mini fridge fondly, you can use an antique ice box in its stead, particularly if you've got one that's been converted to use modern refrigeration technology.
  • Turn it into a plant sanctuary - If you're proud of your house plant collection, then you can display a few of your babies inside the ice box itself. Take the doors off of the hinges or keep them open for decoration.
  • Make it a music station - Instead of buying an overpriced record player stand, you can take the family heirloom ice box and use it to store your record player and records.
  • Convert it into a drink cart - If you want to add a little turn of the century style to your favorite night cap, antique ice boxes make for the perfect height to be converted into an unexpected drink cart.

Keep Your Frozen Treats Chilled in 19th Century Style

Antique ice boxes are a wonderful addition to any vintage kitchen. By keeping it out of direct sunlight and keeping the wood moisturized, they'll last a lifetime (as they were built to do). Like the pie safe and the dry sink, the ice box is a reminder of a simpler, less mechanized period.

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Antique Ice Boxes: Complete Guide