The Servel Company in World War II & the History of Refrigeration

The wooden icebox is located against a wall. One of the paneled doors is open, revealing shelving. In the background is a kitchen work table.
This large icebox was located in the kitchen of Woodrow Wilson’s home in Washington, DC. The sign on top with the numbers “25, 50, 75, 100” would tell the iceman how big a block to deliver. Photo by Louise Taft, 1985, Historic American Buildings Survey.[12]

Collection of the Library of Congress (HABS DC, WASH, 220—21).

Like many American industries, the Servel Company in Evansville, Indiana (an American World War II Heritage City) switched from manufacturing civilian goods to full-scale wartime production. And like other companies, they worked to stay top of the mind of consumers so that people wouldn’t forget them, and would buy their products after the war.

The Servel Company was founded in 1923 as the National Electric Products Company. They became Servel Manufacturing in 1925. The name comes from combining the first letters from the words in its slogan, “Serving Electric.” They made the cabinets for gas-powered refrigerators. The refrigeration machinery was made in Newburgh, New York.[1]

Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration, there were several ways to keep perishables fresh. One was to use large blocks of ice (this is why we sometimes call refrigerators ice boxes). In the early 1800s, ice harvesting became a commercial business.

Ice was cut from freshwater lakes and ponds and stored in huge warehouses. It was then shipped all over the world, as well as sold locally.[2] Households would have blocks of ice weighing up to 100 pounds each delivered by the local iceman. These would be placed in a compartment in an insulated icebox; the food would go into a separate section.[3]

A white fridge with chrome handle on the left, hinges on the right, and a Servel logo. The drawer is on the bottom; the door on top.
A circa 1935 Servel gas refrigerator.

Collection of the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, Gift of Charles Daum (1993.032.0002).

The first system for mechanical refrigeration was patented in 1834 in Massachusetts. Improvements were made throughout the 1800s, and commercial refrigeration was widespread as the 1900s began. It wasn’t until the late 1910s that the first (very expensive) electric refrigerators were marketed for use in peoples’ homes.[4] They cost between $500 and $1,000 at the time (approximately $7,500 to $15,000 in 2023 dollars).

In the late 1920s, fridges became increasingly common in private homes as more and more people lived in urban areas where food was trucked in and had to be kept fresh. The Electric Home and Farm Authority, one of the New Deal programs of the Great Depression, provided low-cost financing to Americans for the purchase of electric appliances like refrigerators, putting them in reach of more consumers.[5]

Before the war, Servel was best known for their refrigerators. By 1941, they had made and sold over 2 million of them. On April 30, 1942 the last civilian products at Servel rolled off the lines. As at other manufacturers, all production capacity was slated for military use.[6] What each factory made was considered secret, to prevent enemy sabotage.

But after the war, an Evansville Courier article shared Servel’s wartime production: “field kitchen fire units, … P-47 Thunderbolt wings (over 6,000 pairs), 37mm and 40mm cartridge cases, breach cases, anti-tank mines, land mines, gasoline heaters, lanterns, cylinder heads and other parts for aircraft engines.”[7] Also during the war, Servel published the “Vita-Min-Go” game to help families eat to the Basic 7 nutritional guidelines.[8]

After the war, Servel returned to making consumer goods, including household and commercial refrigerators, gas water heaters, and air conditioning unit.[9] Employing as many as 7,000 workers, Servel made their gas-powered refrigerators until 1957, when they went out of business. Consumers were no longer interested in gas appliances, and were embracing all-electric kitchens. Whirlpool bought the Servel factory in 1958 as part of its expansion. The company closed its Evansville plant in June 2010, moving refrigerator production to Mexico.[10]

A color illustration of a kitchen. It includes white cabinets and appliances, bright green walls, red counter tops, a red sofa, several plants, and a kitchen island. The floor is black and white checkered tiles.
After the war, Servel promoted “The Living Kitchen” that recognized the kitchen as the social center of the home. From Servel News vol. 4 no. 4, p. 1 (Sept – Oct 1945).

Collection of the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Central Library Indiana Collection (621.57 SERVE).

Even though they hadn’t been manufactured in over 40 years, enough Servel refrigerators remained in use that in 1998 they were recalled by the government. Fridges that had not been properly maintained risked releasing carbon monoxide into people’s homes, causing sickness and death. In 2022, a fire destroyed part of what was left of the old Servel factory complex.[11]

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023