Vintage Refrigerators for a Retro Look

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Updated March 12, 2022
Loft kitchen design with red vintage refrigerator

Historic design aesthetics have taken over America's kitchens as people turn their rooms into slices of vintage domesticity. Take on the age of consumerism and postwar appliance frenzy by picking up an authentic antique refrigerator and having it retrofitted, or order a vintage-inspired number from one of the DIY network's favorite brands.

The Antique and Vintage Refrigerator Styles You Know and Love

While refrigerators from the 1950s are undoubtedly the most iconic of the old refrigerator designs, there's over a hundred years' worth of cool refrigeration devices that your collector's heart gets to pick and choose from. Here are just a few of the different kinds of refrigerators that might bring your dream kitchen to life.

Ice Boxes

Hercules ice box

Though not a conventional refrigerator in a strict sense of the definition, these wooden and metal insulation boxes were used to cool down the items inside using cool air and ice. Hence the name, ice box. These 19th century precursors to the conventional refrigeration system come in small, modern mini-fridge sized boxes and extend all the way up to dresser-level sizes. When it comes to using them in a modern kitchen, they're not the most practical, but they make up for their shortcomings by being so small and cute.

Electric Refrigerators

WOMAN SPEAKING ON TELEPHONE LOOKING INTO THE KITCHEN ICEBOX REFRIGERATOR - Getty Editorial Use

Electric refrigerators first broke onto the scene in the 1920s. These fridges still hadn't shaken off the vestiges of the highly decorative Victorian and Edwardian eras, and it shows. They were typically smaller, rectangular fridges that sat atop visible legs. In a way, these early models reflect the other furniture designs of the period, such as the enamel farmer sinks and claw-foot bathtubs. Additionally, you can find these fridges in a variety of colors, though the colors tended to fall on the pastel side of the aisle - think mint greens and creams.

Electric Refrigerators Featuring Ice Boxes

SALESMAN DEMONSTRATING ELECTRIC REFRIGERATOR TO WOMAN SHOPPER

What many rural people refer to as ice boxes are the seemingly minute sections in their vintage fridges that held ice cube trays and ice cream cartons. These areas located in the upper corners of the vintage fridges weren't introduced until the 1930s. Thus, if you find an older fridge with this feature, you know it can't be from any earlier.

Electric Refrigerators With Gadgets

Mother and daughter at the refrigerator - Getty Editorial Use

By the postwar period, American homes were buying refrigerators in record-breaking numbers. The earliest of these fridges still featured these smaller freezer sections inside the fridge itself and were usually opened by a pull handle that stretched either horizontally or vertically across the entire fridge. They then morphed into the gadget-oriented machines of the '60s and '70s, where the fridges began being sold with separate freezer sections and ice cube makers. Additionally, manufacturers began making them out of cheaper, lighter-weight materials, in effect saying goodbye to the sleek enamel fridges of the decade before.

Iconic Antique and Vintage Refrigerator Brands

Many of the brands that revolutionized the refrigerator market are still going strong today, and chances are high that you've got one of their fridges in your kitchen or garage right now. When it comes to old fridges, brand doesn't matter so much as functionality and appearance do; however, some people are more likely to pick one out from a brand they know and trust. Thus, these are some of the most popular brands to manufacture fridges during the 19th and 20th century:

  • Fridgidaire
  • Westinghouse
  • Coldspot
  • Norge
  • General Electric
  • Kelvinator
  • Philco

Antique and Vintage Refrigerator Restoration

Many people are interested in restoring antique refrigerators to use in their kitchens today, as there's a huge appeal to having an authentic historic kitchen. Both antique and vintage refrigerator restoration is an involved and complex process and it's important that an expert does it correctly. A monumental reason to not take these restorations lightly is because refrigerators from the late 1800s through 1929 used toxic gases such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulfur dioxide as refrigerants. There were actually fatal accidents during the 1920s resulting from methyl chloride leaking out of refrigerators, and so you absolutely don't want to start removing bits and pieces on your own.

During the restoration process, these old refrigerators are carefully dismantled, and each part is cataloged. The old insulation is discarded and replaced with new insulation, and all of the electrical wiring is inspected. The exterior shell can be sandblasted to remove years of dirt, grime, rust and old layers of paint. Repair work will remove any dents or damage, and then the exterior shell can be painted the color of your choice.

When it comes to the actual refrigeration unit, it'll be determined whether the original system can be refurbished or if it needs to be replaced using modern and environmentally friendly refrigerants. Keep in mind that restoration and retrofitting work isn't cheap, so it's important to know what your budget is going into the purchase, and whether or not you'll need to have it worked on before you can use it right away.

Antique and Vintage Refrigerator Values

As with all appliances in the 21st century, antique and vintage fridges are typically worth a couple thousand dollars unrestored and a few thousand more when restored. Even restored refrigerators shouldn't be reaching the $10,000 mark, so if you see a listing with that steep of a price, you should head for the hills.

Condition and design are the two biggest determining factors for antique and vintage refrigerator values. Typically, classic 1950s refrigerators with their sleek butter-dish frames and delicate colored enamel are the most desirable right now and therefore worth the most at market. Similarly, high quality, smaller fridges from the 1920s and early 1930s are particularly valuable for people working to restore historic properties and outfit them with period-accurate amenities.

So, if you're thinking about buying or selling an antique or vintage refrigerator, then you should take a look at some of these that were recently sold at auction:

Popular Brands That Sell Retro-Inspired Modern Refrigerators

Kitchen interior in white textured colors with blue modern retro fridge

Sometimes, its not worth the hassle (or the money) of getting an authentic vintage refrigerator retrofitted to include modern electrical wiring and cooling systems. Thus, many people choose to forgo the historical accuracy in favor of keeping the aesthetic by buying antique and vintage-inspired refrigerators from companies like these:

Give Your House a Chill Pill

Help your house take a chill pill by outfitting it with the coolest antique and vintage appliances. Whether you're going for the retro 1950s style kitchen, a rustic style kitchen, or a retrofuturist playground, you'll be able to find the perfect antique style refrigerator to match your vibe.

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Vintage Refrigerators for a Retro Look