Antique Wooden Ice Box: Complete Collector’s Guide

Updated March 10, 2022
wooden ice box circa 1935

Channel your inner Downton Abbey heiress, and hunt down an antique wooden ice box to store your desserts, wine, and liquor. With the ice box being such a part of American culture and so many of the elderly still referring to chilled containers as ice boxes, it's a wonder that people ever upgraded to anything different. Once you get your hands on one of these units, you'll understand the fondness for them too.

The Chilly History of Wooden Ice Boxes

Wooden ice boxes were the predecessors of the modern-day refrigerator, and the earliest versions date back to around 1830. Made from hardwood such as oak or walnut, ice boxes have a similar appearance to a large dresser. The hollow walls were lined with zinc or tin and packed with insulating materials such as flax straw fiber, sawdust, seaweed, cork, mineral wool or charcoal. There were several storage compartments inside, including the ice compartment, which had a drainage hole. Melted ice water would be collected inside a catch pan or holding tank that would need to be emptied on a daily basis.

The ice which was used to refrigerate ice boxes was harvested in winter from snow-packed areas or frozen lakes. The commercial ice was stored in ice houses and then delivered to residential homes by way of the iceman, who sold ice from a horse-drawn cart and eventually, a motorized truck. This ice was then placed onto a pan that would circulate cool air down into the ice box itself, effectively keeping the items inside chilled.

By the 1930s, most residential homes were replacing ice boxes with refrigerators. However, not all households could afford the luxury of electric refrigerators, as indicated by the lower income family portrayed on the 1950s television show, The Honeymooners. Bus driver Ralph Kramden and his stay-at-home wife, Alice, shared a one-bedroom apartment which had an old-fashioned ice box in the kitchen.

How to Date an Antique Ice Box

Given that antique ice box function and form didn't change that much over the course of the 50+ years, it can be really difficult to date one of these antiques. However, there is one characteristic on your box that you can look for to give yourself an approximate manufacturing period. One of the major telltale clues for dating your antique ice box is finding the name of the manufacturer. Often stamped into metal and adhered onto the fronts or backs of the boxes, these nameplates can give you a launching point to start off with, and some of these nameplates might even include the patent year for that ice box's particular design. For example, finding a McCray nameplate indicates that your ice box had to have come from the latter half of the 19th century, as McCray didn't start working on ice box manufacturing until the early 1880s.

Unfortunately, there's no compendium of ice box designs or manufacturers that easily available to the public, meaning that if you want to find out more about your ice box and don't want to have it looked over by an appraiser, then you're going to have to do a little digging.

Current Antique Ice Box Values

Depending on its condition, size, and age, an antique wooden ice box can be worth quite a bit of money. Similarly, ice boxes that've been updated to include modern cooling equipment can sell for thousands of dollars. Generally, the ones with the original equipment still operational can sell for about $500-$3,000, with size being a major contributing factor in determining these prices. Smaller ice boxes that resemble the size of a mini-fridge will sell in the upper hundreds while multi-leveled ice boxes that include several compartments will sell in the low thousands.

Take these wooden ice boxes that've recently come to auction, for example:

Ways to Spruce Up Your Antique Wood Ice Box

wooden ice box circa 1900

If you decide to buy an unrestored antique ice box, you can still find good uses for it as a collectible antique. You may need to clean the ice box up if it is dirty or in poor condition. To do so, you'll first want to wipe it down, inside and out. If the hardware, such as hinges, screws and latches on the outside of the box is rusted and in poor condition, you may want to consider replacing it. You should be aware that replacing the hardware can devalue the piece; always try to obtain hardware from the same era if you must replace it. You may be able to clean and polish the metal with a cleaner, such as Brasso. Always try cleaning an inconspicuous area of the hardware first.

If the wood is in poor condition, you can sand it down and re-stain it. With a little work, you can vastly improve the appearance of an old ice box. Again, you should talk to an appraiser or experienced antiques dealer before trying to do any significant repairs or alterations at home. Improving the look of the ice box may result in a lower value. Always ask before you make significant changes. Once your vintage ice box is cleaned up, you can find the perfect spot for it in your home. You can display other vintage collectibles on the top and use the interior compartments as storage for practically anything.

Where to Find Them

Finding antiques is always a bit like going on a treasure hunt. You never know when you might stumble upon something awesome. Although you might stumble across an old wooden ice box in a rural antiques store, you're much more likely to find what you're looking for somewhere online. In fact, you should be able to find a variety of ice boxes to choose from at any of these retailers:

Of course, there's no guarantee that the authentic ice boxes that're currently available are going to match your wants. So, if you can't seem to find the perfect ice box that you have in mind, then another option you have is to buy a reproduction ice box. These units have remote compressors to keep food or wine chilled without the noise and heat of most modern electric refrigerators. Basically, this is the next best thing to actually owning a fully functional or restored antique ice box.

Winter is Coming...to Suburbia

Before refrigerators became one of the most common household appliances, people outfitted their businesses and homes with ice boxes. These wooden insulators, which once served a purely functional purpose, are now being collected because of their retro style. But beware, their popularity means that winter may be coming to a suburban area near you.

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Antique Wooden Ice Box: Complete Collector’s Guide