How the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company Made a Name for Itself, Then Lost It

Aug 21, 2019

There is a lot of choice when it comes to refrigerators today... Back in the day, though, the popular brand to buy was Rhinelander. And it was less of a refrigerator and more of an icebox.

Gary Entz tells us the story for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

When shopping for a new refrigerator there are many popular brands that people may choose from today.  But one hundred years ago, one of the leading names in food refrigeration was Rhinelander, and the Rhinelander Refrigerator had a national reputation for quality.

This antique Rhinelander Refrigerator Company metal icebox from 1920 is currently on sale on Etsy for $1,011.99.
Credit www.etsy.com/shop/200WashingtonStreet

The Rhinelander Refrigerator Company began operations in December 1900 as the Rhinelander Manufacturing Company.  Its original purpose was to take advantage of the abundant lumber in the region by manufacturing furniture.  However, by 1902 the company directors discovered that there was a vibrant market for home refrigerators, so the company was reorganized as the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company and repurposed to manufacture only refrigerators.  While the word “refrigerator” was used, in realty most of what the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company manufactured during its existence would more properly be called an Icebox; that is, a cooler unit that utilized a large block of ice to keep food cold.

Ice had been used to cool and preserve food for thousands of years.  It was harvested from frozen lakes in the winter and stored in a common Icehouse.  It wasn’t until the commercial ice cutter was invented in 1827 that it became possible to commercially distribute ice to individual homes.  Use of an Icebox rather than a pit dug in the ground was a luxury that became available to the wealthy early in the nineteenth century, and the home insulated Icebox became widely available to ordinary consumers by the late nineteenth century.

The Rhinelander Refrigerator Company had a manufacturing facility located near the paper mill.  It employed over 160 skilled workers and built 50,000 Iceboxes every year.  The refrigerator units came in fine woodgrain or enameled finish and boasted an “Air-Tite” design that kept cold air in and warm air out.  The company did a tremendous business and was featured in a 1929 two-reel documentary entitled “The Story of Refrigeration.”  Much of the documentary was filmed in Oneida County, and it played at the State Theater in February 1929.

The above video is a General Electric Refrigerator Commercial from 1952.

While the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company was hoping publicity from the film would help it expand internationally, technological changes soon left it behind.  Early versions of the electric refrigerator appeared for sale from other companies in 1914, but in 1927 General Electric released the monitor top electric refrigerator.  By that time enough households were electrified that it was a big hit.

In 1930 Rhinelander tried to compete by dropping its woodgrain finish in favor of multiple colors of porcelain enamel, but it wasn’t enough.  With electric refrigerators growing in popularity, the market for Iceboxes collapsed.  The company reorganized a couple of times in the early 1930s, and an electric motor was added to the Dictator model to help slow the melting of the ice block, but it wasn’t enough.  Plus, Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration encouraged people to purchase electric appliances.  The company was forced to shut down operations, and by 1937 the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company’s buildings became part of the paper mill.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. One of the above photos are used with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here. The other photo is of an antique Rhinelander Refrigerator Company metal icebox from 1920 being sold on Etsy. It can currently be viewed here from Etsy user 200WashingtonStreet.