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Configuring domestic technologies: the normalisation of freezers in Finland, Norway and the UK

Mika Pantzar, Elizabeth Shove, Dale Southerton & Pol Strandbakken.


From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.


How is it that so many new objects find their way into people's homes? How do people think about new technologies and objects, and what part do these devices and gadgets play in peoples’ households and in their imaginations? Technological visions of today, for example those concerning the breakthrough of pan-European television or digital mass entertainment networks, are generally based on images and theories of purely technical development (Burgelman, 1997; Garnham, 1996.) In practice such models and ideas are often proved wrong for they typically over-estimate the speed at which the subjective and objective structure of everyday life changes (cf. Rosenberg, 1995, Schnaars, 1989). Interestingly this relates to what seems to be a clear "path-dependency" and "irreversibility" in the construction of needs. The early uses of a technology and early images of its proper use exert an influence which persists long after the actual introduction of the new object in question. The image or sense of what something is really for is thus a critical determinant of its future trajectory in the real world.


This paper draws together a cross cultural history of the freezer which both challenges and substantiates this opening claim. The following account is based on an exchange involving researchers from the UK, Norway and Finland, the aim of which was investigate the process by which the freezer came to be an accepted, normal everyday domestic technologies in each of the three countries. By focusing on just one object we sought to compare and contrast the evolution of cultural meanings and everyday practices which inadvertently and indirectly increase demand for energy and other resources.


From the start we recognised that demand for domestic technology is something which has to be configured and manufactured. This is anything but a one-way process for the generation of need and the creating of a market for a product is as important in the domestication of technology as novelty or inventiveness. Given the ordinariness and cross-national standardisation of the freezer, and the relative simplicity of the object itself, it is not surprising that its diffusion shares a certain cross-cultural similarity between Finland, Norway and the UK. Rather than relying on a common comparative framework, the three case studies which follow each take a slightly different approach to the task of understanding how the freezer became normal. Though all make use of secondary analysis of advertisements and other documentary material each offers a distinctive perspective on the freezer’s career as that has evolved in each of the three countries.


In drawing this material together, we highlight points of similarity and divergence: themes of economy, efficiency, and time recur with different weight and significance at different points in the freezer’s trajectory. The general pattern, however, is one in which the freezers’ logic and purpose changes over time, and does so in ways which mirror increasing concern with the management not of food and food preservation, but of time and the scheduling of daily life.


The social construction of freezer use(rs) in Finland from 1950s to the 1980s

The material reviewed in this study includes all freezer advertisements in the magazine "Kotiliesi " (KL) published from 1961 up to 1979. In addition, educational material relating to the freezer and produced by the Finnish Work Efficiency Association during the 1950s has been analysed.


This Association, which was a major promoter of new kitchen technology, first refers to the freezer in the 1950s. After reflecting on the wonders of the washing machine, Wallensteen (1948: 22) approaches a room which contains what is described as "the most gorgeous deep-freezing cupboard! This is where the housewife stores fruits, vegetables, berries, meat, etc. And so she is totally spared the time-consuming job of preserving these foods."


Gebhardt wrote the majority of freezer-related educational articles to appear in the 1950s. These place particular emphasis on the image of a highly technological American society and the associated values of rationalisation: "Of all the novelties and aids that have been developed during recent years to ease housework, only very few have won such unanimous popularity as the freezing chest" (Gebhardt, 1959).


But for the ordinary consumer the nature and purpose of the freezer remained a mystery. Householders contacted the Work Efficiency Association advisors with questions such as: "Does the freezing chest replace the refrigerator?" Despite this initial uncertainty by the mid-1950s authors began to ponder the question: which is better - the chest or upright freezer? This debate was followed by a prediction that models combining both a fridge and a freezer would soon be available. Two years later, this prediction came true and soon enough "conventional" refrigerators with ice making compartments were being regarded as old-fashioned. Refrigerators without an ice-maker were referred to as "cooling cabinets". Cooling cabinets or "larder fridges" only make sense when used in conjunction with a dedicated freezer and their development in part implies the diffusion of specialised freezing technology.


Many of the Finnish articles pointed out that it was important for the buyer of a new freezer to choose a sufficiently large model. "Experience gained in other countries" apparently indicated that families conclude that their freezer had "grown too small" within a year. A clear case of the expansionary logic of the market economy if ever there was one! However, the use of the freezer was restricted by the fact that it was targeted at women. Men were, by contrast, portrayed as the hunters whose duty it was to fill the chest (Boys’ toys vs. Girls’ tools, Cockburn, 1997).


Two main benefits of freezing emerge from analysis of these early educational articles: bulk storage of foods and the less obvious advantage of saving the housewife’s time. Gebhardt (1957b) summarises the construction of the need for a freezer as follows:


  1. Preservation of foods by freezing saves work and is easy.
  2. Frozen foods are quick and easy to prepare and they taste fresh.
  3. Diets are healthier since there is no need to salt food to preserve it.
  4. Producers prices can be kept at a higher level since meat does not have to be sold to the wholesaler all at once.
  5. The freezer widens the assortment of preservable foods (e.g. cauliflower and spinach).
  6. Peaks in work can be avoided, since preparations, e.g., for a wedding can be made months in advance.
  7. Freezing is a quick way of preserving items such as spring chicken or game.
  8. Preparation of food in series and in bulk saves labour. It is possible to hire specialised freezer-cooks for such tasks.
  9. Unexpected guests no longer cause a headache for the hostess.
  10. The housewife can enjoy trips away from home for her family can now cater for themselves with food from the freezer chest.


The only problems with the freezer were its high purchase price, its operating costs and the uncertain supply of electric power. However, in contrast to many other new technologies, the freezer did not encounter moral opposition of the sort faced by the dishwasher 10 years later. Moreover, the first users associated with the freezer were farmers who stood to gain most from economies of scale and production. The experts of the Work Efficiency Association were, however, quick to alter this perception: "One might assume that a freezer would be bought only for farmer households where freezing the products of the farm is most economical. But no! ..." (Gebhardt, 1957a, 346). Parallels were drawn with urban Swedish households where the freezer became a common item even for professionals.

"I was talking to a professional woman from Stockholm and in the conversation it turned out that she owns a freezing chest. When I expressed my surprise about this, she contradicted me by saying that the freezing chest is just perfect for an unmarried woman living alone, and for working women in general. The freezing chest wonderfully spares you the trouble of buying food. The last time I went shopping was sometime before Christmas, and now at Easter I still have what I need in my freezing chest: meat, fish, pre-cooked meals, vegetables, berries. It’s fantastic!’ ... We may anticipate that these work efficiency innovations will shortly ease the workload of the Finnish housewife as well." (Gebhardt, 1957a, 347)


This promised easing of labour was still a long way off. Interviews with 532 farming households in 1957, revealed that the most common method of preserving meat remained salting (81% of the households), half used smoking and around one fifth preserved meat hermetically. Only one household had a freezer at the time of the interview (Janhonen, 1993).


Returning to the history of freezer advertisements, magazines from the period 1960-79 contained 62 adverts for freezers, and nearly as many articles dealing with frozen foods and freezer equipment. The few cases from the 1950s were all "availability adverts" for deep-freezing cabinets, the purpose of which was merely to inform consumers that such items were available for sale. The adverts of the 1960s picked up themes first developed by the Work Efficiency Association and rely heavily on a logic of rational argumentation. A second feature is an increasing reference to the international environment. Experiences are drawn from Denmark, Sweden and the United States, not to make a point about social comparison but to document and provide evidence of benefits gained elsewhere. The following example summarises the tone of the 1960s freezer adverts:


"Rosenlew is the solid foundation of your family’s food economy" (Rosenlew, KL, 15/65), the freezer was seen as a: "steel-walled and durable" (Ignis, 1965) and a: "food bank" (Electrolux, 1965).


As time went on, there were fewer references to the functions of the freezer and more to its functional properties, its dimensions, and its technical specifications. Pictures focused on the freezer and if people were shown at all, they were usually wearing evening dress. The theme of practicality gained further ground with the launch of combined fridge-freezers in the 1970s. As the 1970s progressed, the freezer unit was increasingly described from an "architectural" perspective, as a "building resembling an apartment house". One picture in a Rosenlew advert shows apartment buildings and freezers, the parallel between the two being that a freezer could resemble either "A tall building or a low bungalow" (Rosenlew, 1972)


Rosenlew, the market leader, continued to develop impressive imagery in its 1970s adverts, also illustrating an increasing variety of frozen foodstuffs - fish, strawberries, mushrooms - but still not showing any people. The adverts of this period also contained a great deal of useful information. By the end of the 1970s, the adverts had, however, reverted to the 1960s’ emphasis on economy. Whereas previously you had to save money, the obligation now was to save energy, a theme reflecting the political context of the energy crisis.


The message of Finnish freezer advertising from the 1950s can be summarised as follows: the first adverts in the early 1950s provided information about availability. In the early 1960s, the emphasis was initially on the requirements of rural homes (preservation of the harvest) and then on the time saving needs of urban households. By the 1970s the purpose of the freezer was established and the role of advertising changed: it was now necessary to discriminate between types of freezer and to describe specific properties, first their dimensions and technological qualities, and later their energy consumption.


Freezer advertisements echo the messages of consumer education from the 1950s. The freezer is seen as the family food bank; it saves time and trouble; and forms part of a rational and convenient regime of household management. However, the freezer was not quite such an emancipating and rational machine as the refrigerator had been a decade earlier. According to the advertisements of the early 1950s, the main purpose of the refrigerator had been to liberate the housewife: "Free at last" (Elektrolux, 1953). With the freezer, it was more a question of introducing Tayloristic disciplinary work ideals into the kitchen, explained by the fact that the freezer first spread to the large-scale kitchens of farm households.

Societal contexts and rational arguments

In Finland the primary function of the freezer was aptly formulated by a farmer’s wife in the 1950s: "Knowing that you always have something in store - it’s the wonderful security that the freezer brings you." (Anon, 1957). Despite the benefits of security and protection, only a few "pioneering" Finnish households owned a freezer in the 1950s. In the United States on the other hand, books were already being published on the theme of home freezing. Meyer, a housewife and mother, employee of an advertising agency and home economist, wrote in her book that the freezer was in no way a luxury item:

"Although a freezer may be used as a sort of luxurious gadget in which to keep on hand a supply of out-of-season delicacies, party refreshments and the limit of pheasant your husband bagged a few months ago, it is not the general rule. You would hardly buy an automobile to use exclusively for transportation to the theatre…"


The freezer is represented here as a hard-working, utilitarian, co-operative partner in everyday living. It is an investment that will pay dividends which far exceed its original cost (Meyer, 1959). These plainly functional arguments mirror those presented in the early freezer adverts, and related educational materials.


It is important to recognise that the freezer arrived in a specific social context in Finland. Finnish citizens followed those of richer countries, sharing their aspirations, and introducing the freezer into normal household use as part of what might be seen as an imitative narrative of consumption. The most relevant societal changes since the arrival of the freezer in the 1950s include the weakened situation of agricultural producers and the strengthened position of consumers. Besides farm housewives, the freezer now also serves other users such as urban males, children, and owners of microwave ovens. But has the freezer as a product adjusted itself to these new markets, new users, and new challenges? An educated guess would be that only essential technical modification has taken place as a result of pressure to improve the energy efficiency of this product. We might go so far as to say that freezer is itself an object frozen in time. Its basic purpose and function – to save time, money, and finally energy, have changed very little (cf. Orel, 1995). On the other hand, the history presented above is one of shifting markets and users (from farmers to urban households); and of establishing knowledge (from knowledge of availability to knowledge of models and makes; and of building a base of familiarity with freezing as a means of preserving food). When compared with the countries considered below, the Finnish case is distinctive in the particular blend of public and private interests at play. We have, for instance, seen the interaction of state education (provided by the Work Efficiency Association) and commercial marketing and advertising, and shown how both subscribe to a rational, Tayloristic model of household management. This, then, is the context into which the Finnish freezer fitted.


Domesticating Norwegian freezers

The discussion which follows is based on content analysis of three volumes of the Norwegian weekly family magazine "Hjemmet" ("the home"), and on scrutiny of the freezer adverts featured in more than 150 copies of this magazine between 1969-71. The three year period produces approximately twenty different adverts for freezers (pure adverts) and product lines that include freezers (impure adverts). Variations from year to year and between different seasons do exist but are not significant.


"Impure" freezer adverts


Impure adverts come in three variants: those which

  1. advertise refrigerators, but mention that the importer/producer also supplies freezers.
  2. advertise something else, but mention related products including freezers.
  3. advertise a whole range of products from single supplier, each product being displayed on equal terms.


Adverts of the third type generally focus on the quality of the producer and the brand. They typically emphasise technical quality, for example: "Electrolux is guaranteed future quality". "All products in the KPS refrigerator and freezer series are awarded the label for "Good Norwegian Design"". "Combinette is Norway's only refrigerator with a mini-freezer (all of 60 litres) that easily meets demands for 'freezing in' capacity for fresh products". This last argument about the capacity for 'freezing-in’ refers back to controversy surrounding questions of volume and technical efficiency. It seems that a newspaper critic had warned of problems which might arise should freezing capacity be too low. If this is the case it takes too long to freeze fresh goods, and in the process the temperature in the freezer rises so reducing the quality of previously stored food. Hence the need for special technical assurance on this point.


Certain adverts of the impure 'product line' category feature users and consumers. These underline the benefits of simply having the object in question, as well as highlighting the quality of its production. For example, "Philips produce cold for munchers" (or "Philips make cold for food-lovers"). This advert depicts a man who has got up in the middle of the night in order to satisfy a sudden appetite. The textual arguments mainly concern technical quality, but the rationale for the image of the mid-night consumer is that the end result of all this technical expertise is that food can be kept on hand, and preserved in a way which maintains its taste and nutritional quality.


By contrast, another advert depicts three young women admiring the "Electrolux Interior Series 1970". The key message here is that "you can not see enough of Electrolux Interior Series". This is because the 'white goods' featured in the advert are not necessarily white, they come with exchangeable 'decor panels' in oak, nut, avocado and coppertone. The message here is more or less all about aesthetics; in the modern world, fashion conscious women are concerned about the look, image and style. Questions of technical performance are not mentioned: the only details provided are those describing the different sizes of fridge-freeze combinations and a rather vague statement about being the "leading fridge-freeze combination cupboard on the market".


There is a general trend to celebrate modernity in all these "impure" adverts (in the form of being contemporary; Designline 1969, Interior Series 1970). While the main focus is technical quality, issues of aesthetics and the "joy of consumption" are not far below the surface. Price is not an issue at all, and none of the adverts claim that the products on offer are 'cheap'. Larger freezers were often said to be economical, although it is not clear whether this is because they are energy efficient, or because rational use of a freezer promises to be beneficial for the family economy.


Pure freezer adverts


Pure freezer adverts are, of course, more focused and it is possible to observe the more elaborate development of scripts relating to specific products. An example is an Electrolux chest freezer advert, which includes a drawing of monkeys eating bananas and a picture of freezer. The headline is: "Some live from hand to mouth. Others look forward". Additional text explains how families becomes addicted to their freezer because of the benefits it offers both in terms of diet and household economy: "Seasonal offers? Fill the freezer… Season for berries? Prepare for winter… Proud father home from autumn's hunting expeditions?" The difference between living from hand to mouth and looking forward concerns ideas about the planned society; securing supplies for the future; beating price variations; being prepared (for surprise visits). Behind this we glimpse the family as an economically rational unit, led by the manager-housewife but fed by the hunter-father. The increased flexibility of having frozen chickens and strawberries at hand at all times, is also a script of modernity, freeing consumers from constraints of natural cycles of scarcity and abundance.


Aesthetic messages generally presuppose the desirability and quality of the product in question. In these cases, planned family economy and modern flexibility are taken-for-granted, suggesting that beyond modernity we reach another stage of societal evolution represented as a kind of 'high' (or even post) modernity. The implication here is that what was once a very rational product (square, white, and functional) can acquire symbolic and aesthetic value in its own right, and so enter the maelstrom of 'wasteful' consumerism. The predominant script however, remains that of 'traditional' modernity. Rational living seems to be the ideal and, in Norway at least, this is associated with a cultural rejection of the excesses of consumer society.


Scripts of modernity


The scripts which 'made' or 'domesticated' the freezer came in two basic forms: the theme of modern rationality and planning is dominant, yet we have also detected a supplementary narrative of 'high' modernity which highlights the aesthetic aspect and the pleasure of consumption. Both narratives take a measure of consumer education for granted. The freezer-education of Norwegian consumers had taken place 20 years earlier, when institutes like The National Institute for Consumer Research had published reports such as: "Experiments with scalding of vegetables for freezing", "What happens to ascorbic acid in frozen vegetables" and "Thawing/melting of frozen strawberries". The same kind of literature was published in Denmark Sweden and American, with titles like "Principles of Food Freezing" and "The Frozen Food Cook Book" dating from 1948. Though the theoretical advantages were well known, Norwegian consumers also needed supporting arguments about technical quality and economic efficiency before they added the freezer to the list of priority purchases alongside the car, dish-washer, colour TV, stereo, or new house.


For the purposes of this discussion, the concept of modernity has been understood as something related to technological and economic optimism and to faith in the ideals of progress, science, rationality and planning. As suggested above, nothing could be more modern than the freezer. If we agree, with others, (Giddens 1991; Lash et al 1996), that such ideals faded in the decades preceding the early 1970s, we have to ask what defines and stimulates consumer society (and the sale of freezers) beyond classical modernism? There are two main problems in developing a post-modern perspective on freezers.


One is that the 'classical' freezer, located in the kitchen or garage, is socially invisible, it lacks the conspicuous element that a consumer object requires to operate as a carrier of social status. Thus the invisible freezer is reduced to a purely functional object. Consumers simply expect it to do the job properly, that is to freeze whatever is put into it. Moreover, freezers have never been criticised as being 'un-necessary', nor have they been taken to represent the supposed 'stupidity' of consumer society.


We might however, suggest that the freezer has been part of a transition from planning to spontaneity. Freezer technology may achieve post-modern status when combined with the microwave oven. With both devices in place, consumers, no longer have to plan their meals in advance, everything can be prepared on impulse and in an instant. The difficulty with this suggestion is that planning is still necessary, at least in the sense that it is necessary to buy food which has the potential for spontaneity. Forward thinking, planning and shopping are all required if 'ready meals' are to be produced on demand.


With supermarkets being open longer hours we might expect the size of the freezer to decrease and its use to change. Labour and time intensive activities once associated with filling the family food bank, such as collecting berries or mushrooms, are becoming less common; price variations for bulk goods are reducing and consumers' tastes are changing with an apparent increase in preferences for fresh goods. We might therefore expect the contents of the average freezer in 1999 to be very different from that of twenty years ago. Further, we would expect younger and older people to fill and empty freezers in ways which reflect their contrasting lifestyles. Post-modern consumers are believed to be more mobile, they shop more often and they have new tastes. They do not really need large food banks, but nonetheless find themselves surrounded by freezers acquired in an earlier era and adapted to the life style of classical modernism.


These deliberately speculative thoughts on post-modern freezing introduce a number of new themes. First, the points made above remind us that we use devices and technologies designed and sold to fit lives which we may no longer lead. Second, they suggest that modern and post-modern narratives can readily co-exist: in the right circumstances, the functional freezer can acquire symbolic meaning. Equally, it can be part of a regime of rational planning, and of impulsive spontaneity. Finally, it suggests that the freezer acquires different meaning depending on the context in which it is used. In reviewing the history of freezing in Finland we suggested that early scripts informed subsequent perceptions of what the freezer was for. In the Norwegian case, and in British story outlined below, we take a different tack and instead highlight the invention of new purposes and new interpretations of what freezing is all about.

Defrosting the British freezer

Thirty years ago, only three percent of the UK population owned a freezer but by 1995, more than 96% of households had one or more, a rate of diffusion unrivalled by other kitchen appliances. How is it then, that the freezer, an apparently functional if energy consuming device singularly devoid of symbolic meaning, has become so readily accepted within our homes and so central to the provisioning of food within our daily lives? In addressing this question we review the ’multiple histories’ out of which the social biography of British freezers can be constructed (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986). We group these histories into three phases, each representing a different moment in the freezer’s career; in the evolution of specialist knowledge and in repertoires of arguments regarding the benefits and purposes of freezing. The narrative which follows is based on content analysis of fourteen freezer cookery books published between 1968 to 1996 (the first and last dates on record); on in-depth unstructured interviews with owners of a kitchen company and retailers from national electric goods stores. The researchers involved also visited freezer retail stores and spoke with freezer salespeople, sometimes in the guise of potential purchasers. Finally, we draw upon thirty five in-depth interviews focusing upon the domestic organisation of suburban British households.


Figure 1 summarises different aspects of freezers and freezing, paying attention to: trajectories of technological development and dominant sales narratives; aspects of style and design; the freezer’s positioning with respect to potential consumers; the uses of freezing, and benefits of freezer ownership.


PHASE 2. 1970-1980s


PHASE 3. 1980 +


Technical character-istics

Compression or absorption. Chest or upright.

Fridge-freezer, fast freeze, microwaves.

No CfCs, frost-free, energy labelling.

Sales narrative

Novelty, the latest technology from industry to the home.

Essential labour saving device for the efficient and healthy household

Customary device for the convenient home.

Style and design

Curved, white, free-standing, isolated unit in garage location.

From garage to kitchen, becomes standardised and square, with utility emphasis.

Colours, high-tech gadgets, integrated appliances and the stylish kitchen.

Imagined consumers

Niche market for those with a lot of home produce

For the competent housewife with the modern, efficient home.

Taken-for-granted object, mass consumption, essential for domestic organisation


Freeze home grown fruit and vegetables.

Freeze home batch cooking, bulk buying and reserve stocks.

Store essential food stuffs and convenience meals.


Long term storage of home grown produce to beat the seasons.

Modernise household organisation for efficient economy.

Imperative of convenience in the organisation of everyday life.


Figure 1. Multiple histories of the freezer

Introduction: 1960 – 1970

Technical characteristics. From the beginnings of its domestic biography, the freezer had a close relationship in design, if not function, to the fridge. Forty (1996) argues that the whiteness and functional styling of fridges (as square, symmetrical boxes), embodied themes of household efficiency, hygiene and order, and the moral welfare of the family. In essence, the freezer mimicked fridges in their design and embodied their cultural meaning. Despite this, the domestication of the freezer was slow, largely because of the initially primitive construction of demand.

Benefits and uses - beating the seasons. At first, the only people who really stood to benefit were those confronting seasonal 'problems' of over production. The freezer was first marketed to housewives who could freeze their home baking and home grown crops. The freezer’s novelty lay in its 'ability to beat the seasons... to freeze summer fruits and eat them in the winter' (Norwak, 1969). It was not until the development of an effective frozen food industry, that the freezer became associated with those unable to produce or obtain large gluts of freezable food.


Establishment: 1970 – 1980

By the mid 1970s, one third of British households (rising to over half by 1980), owned a freezer. It is safe to suggest that it was not until the 1970s that the freezer made the transition from niche market for those with access to batches of home grown foods, to an established place as a ‘necessary’ appliance in urban and suburban homes.

Technical characteristics. This phase is marked by a handful of technological developments:

  1. The move from absorption to compression technology dramatically reduced the initial cost of a freezer.
  2. By the early 1970s small frozen compartments in the top of fridges became the norm for most households, introducing a whole new population to the methods of freezing.
  3. More prosaically, consumers were also able to choose between a chest or upright freezer, although at this point chest freezers were most popular, being larger and more efficient than upright models.

Throughout this period, the freezer remained a purely utilitarian object. It was even possible to calculate the size required for your family and the exact quantity of food to be stored, including the length of time for which it could be kept. This functional role was further emphasised by the freezer’s location in the garage.

Benefits and uses - efficiency and economy. The most significant development during this period was the rapid expansion of supermarkets and with them an extensive and reliable commercial infrastructure of frozen food provision. The benefits of owning a freezer increased exponentially in line with opportunities for rationalising household provisioning:

'To sum up, adding a freezer to your domestic equipment will allow you to cater more economically and more flexibly; to control the output of your own energy in a way you never could before' (Ellis 1973: 5).


The 1970s also witnessed the development of a new kitchen infrastructure organised around the concept of the 'fitted kitchen'. The principle was to fit all appliances into ready-made spaces beneath the work surface, paving the way for kitchens to be brought as standard packages. Until this point, refrigerators had been designed as stand-alone items. The fitted kitchen imposed new demands: forcing fridges to square up and squash down below the 600mm threshold of the standard work top. This development created a new opening for the freezer. In the early 1970s, the freezer was a large rather awkwardly shaped coffin, commonly located in the garage. By the end of the decade it had become a much more accessible appliance designed to belong in a standardised fitted kitchen.


Freezer acceptance within the kitchen also owes much to the introduction of the microwave. Although first available in the late 1970s, it was not until the early 1980s that microwaves found their way into British homes in any significant number (McMeekin & Tomlinson 1998). Initially marketed as ovens, the microwave’s popularity really began through its association with the freezer. For all its economic advantages, the freezer had one major drawback: it froze things solid. It was thus as an instant de-frosting device, not as a cooker, that the microwave really made its name.


To summarise, by the early 1980s the freezer was (presented as) essential for the efficient management of the modern household. Efficiency had a number of dimensions: the economic efficiency of bulk buying which not only reduced the cost of products but also the cost of regular shopping trips; efficient household organisation in the management of time devoted to shopping and cooking, the ready availability of reserves of frozen food and, finally, the efficient use of household space, thanks to the fitted kitchen. Moreover, the establishment of the freezer during this stage is not simply related to a growing demand for a functional domestic appliance. The growth of supermarket shopping, the increase of dual-income families and a cultural emphasis on household economy, not to mention the standardisation of the kitchen, all play significant roles in establishing the freezer as normal. Added to this the impending ‘take-off’ of the microwave and it becomes apparent that the freezer, as an object, had many allies in its move from a novel yet peripheral device, to its now central position within the home.


Re-definition: 1980s onwards

Technological characteristics. Recent developments in freezer technology have been contradictory, some reflecting increasing concern with energy efficiency and the environment through energy labelling and the phasing out of CfCs (Menanteau 1997). Others revolve around the development of new features and 'new' benefits, such as frost-free technology.

Benefits and uses - convenience. Frost-free freezers cost approximately £100 more than their non-frost-free equivalent and are considerably less efficient to run. They are however, more 'convenient' in that they never need de-frosting and so do not require regular de- and re-stocking: 'Frost-free is now very popular because they are so convenient, they not only save the time it takes to defrost, they also save the hassle… Frost free saves on all that and means you don’t have to defrost. This reference to convenience signals a significant shift in the benefits which freezers are supposed to offer. This latest stage re-positions the freezer as something which allows its user to save and re-orders time. The narrative of convenience subsumes rather than wholly replaces earlier emphasis on economic efficiency.


The replacement of 'fitted' with ‘integrated’ kitchens in the mid-1980s has also changed the freezer’s place and status within the home. Integration involves the co-ordination of all kitchen appliances and hardware (cupboards, work surface) in terms of colour and style. Major appliances are typically hidden behind a matching suite of ‘cupboard’ fronts. Meanwhile, smaller items still on display - such as the microwave, toaster and kettle - conform to a stylistic theme of, for example, bottle green with features picked out in gold. As a kitchen specialist put it: '15 years ago kitchens were built and then the appliances installed, today appliances are installed and kitchens are built around them'. In such cases integration and co-ordination counts for more than the specific characteristics (for instance of efficiency, or detail) of individual appliances.


Though it is important to treat this rather haphazard data cautiously, our interviews also suggest that freezer contents have been changing:

'In the seventies, people had immense things, this gigantic freezer, which they filled with everything, a month’s worth of shopping, left-overs, batch baking and of course veg… now, they mainly fill ‘um with packet stuff, you know Birds Eye lasagne, and the basics, bread and milk, peas remain but people prefer fresh veg on the whole nowadays. Oh and pizza'.

In contrast to the bulk stocks of frozen foods kept in the chest freezers of the 1970s the 'stylish' freezers of the 1990s appear to fulfil a more selective function. This is in part because the range of ready-frozen food has increased dramatically and in part because the volume of frozen space within the household has decreased with the move from chest freezers (garages) to uprights (kitchens). Today's freezers appear to have two quite distinct roles: one as the storehouses of bulky but ‘essential’ commodities such as bread, frozen vegetables, and milk; the other as the location of a varied range of convenience foods. Assuming a microwave, these often exotic and always compact meals are ready and waiting for virtually instant consumption. However, this is more a question of timing than time per se, as the following quotations suggest, the freezer and its ally, the microwave, help manage those ‘mis-timed’ moments:

'we are all pushed for time nowadays, so if you’ve got stuff in the freezer it doesn’t necessarily matter if one of us can’t get to the shop, you know, it just makes things a bit easier, one less thing to worry about'.

'I wouldn’t say I buy things in bulk, but things like bread… well I buy that… its good to have them for reserve and that, saves having to nip out at times when you haven’t really got the time."


Concluding remarks: being and becoming normal

It is important to note that narratives of ’benefits’ build up over time. The advantages of freezing, which were heavily promoted in the 1970s, have not been forgotten but have instead become established and so taken for granted. Equally, ‘new’ benefits are not always entirely novel. In many cases new features, for example, the qualities of ‘convenience’, come to the fore as interpretations of the main ‘purpose’ of the freezer evolve. This suggests that the primary role of the freezer has changed during the course of its development. In other words, it would be wrong to read the account given above as the unfolding narrative of a stable object. Quite the opposite, for the chameleon-like freezer appears to have taken on the spots and stripes of its surroundings despite its persistently white disguise. It is, for instance, a symbol of modernisation in the 1970s, a pre-condition for domestic and economic efficiency in the 1980s and a device of convenience in the busy 1990s.


In addition, the freezer’s history has been tied up with developments in the rest of the kitchen, and with the parallel careers of other devices and appliances. Despite divergent technological ancestries, the freezer, like the fridge and the cooker, share something of a common history, starting life as stand-alone objects then being incorporated first into fitted, and then integrated kitchen designs. Yet it is not only a question of appearance. The evolving functions of the freezer are also bound up with changes in the way that households feed themselves, whether those relate to the development of supermarkets, the mass-production of convenience foods, or the introduction of the microwave. In this way, the freezer's perceived benefits are caught within a web of inter-dependent technologies and practices. It therefore makes sense to see the shape and form of the freezer as a consequence of the context into which it fits. British freezers, like those in Norway and Finland, have grown and shrunk at different points in their history, their size and volume now relating as much to the imperatives of kitchen design as to family size or apparent 'need'.


Yet the freezer is not a totally responsive device. In Madelaine Akrich’s terms, it also has a script of its own (1992). From the moment of purchase on, freezer owners are obliged to behave in certain ways: they have to learn the likes and dislikes of their new acquisition (it likes ice cream, it doesn’t like potatoes); they have to take special steps to prepare food for freezing, they have no option but to wait, sometimes for hours, before they can make proper use of deep frozen food; and so on. Taking a broader view, home freezing technology requires an extensive support system of freezer lorries, commercial food freezing technology, appropriate agricultural methods, frozen cabinets and stores, and more.


On one level the case studies tell a story of cross-cultural standardisation, the process of becoming and being normal follows similar patterns across the three cultures, with identifiable themes of rationality, domestic economy and organisation. However, there are also variations in the process. For instance, in Scandinavia the freezer became normal rather earlier and rather faster than it did in Britain. This is largely due to Scandinavian Work and Efficiency Institutes and Associations. The only comparable body in Britain is the Good Housekeeping Institute, and freezers did not feature in their literature. Rather, in the British context, freezer normalisation remained in the hands of the commercial sector. The development of Scandinavian 'educational scripts', offered an authoritative framework for the interpretation of the freezer use(rs). In Britain, it was not until the arrival of supermarkets and mass produced frozen food that the benefits became apparent on any scale. Moreover, arguments about handling seasonal gluts, exploiting the potential for economic efficiency and for shifting and managing time appear omni-present in Scandinavian scripts. In the British case one argument appears to have succeeded another.


'Convenience' is now a powerful theme in the repertoire of freezing arguments in all three contexts. The promise of convenience represents an unassailably persuasive logic, promising to make life easier, offering more choice, and creating new opportunities to (re)gain control over the ordering of daily schedules. In this context, the language of convenience typically refers to the re-distribution of time and labour. If the freezer is ‘necessary’, then it is so not because it is necessary to have frozen food, but because it has become increasingly important to be able to manage time and domestic labour in ways that only freezers allow. As Loren Lutzenhiser and Bruce Hackett (1985) observe, what freezers (or in their case, fridges) are good for "is a consequence not a determinant of their use".


There is a curious form of escalation at stake here. At the level of the individual household, the freezer might well help to re-distribute time and labour and alleviate some of the pressures of modern life. On the other hand, those pressures are in part a consequences of that (and many other) (re-)distributions of time and labour. Though sold in the name of convenience, freezers, like many other modern appliances, help manufacture some of the problems to which they represent a response. Even within households, these various gadgets and appliances script the actions of their users in ways which simultaneously create the illusion of choice whilst also closing avenues of possible action. If you have a freezer, you need to stock it with suitable food. That means going to a suitable store. Once you’ve loaded the car with sacks of frozen peas and tubs of ice cream, there is no option but to nip back home before the whole lot thaws into an unpleasant mush.


It might be a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that freezers have become post-modern monsters, taking over the kitchen and ruling peoples’ lives but there is a grain of truth to the broader observation that the proliferation of convenience devices has the unintended consequence of tying people into an ever denser network of inter-dependent, perhaps even dependent, relationships with things designed to free them from just such obligations. In this paper we have represented freezers as devices which are both scripted and scripting. Initially promising to increase opportunities for modern rational planning and household management there is at least a chance that it is the freezers, not the users, which are doing the managing and structuring household practices in ways that are not easy to resist.



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