Household Hub

by Kieran Healy on July 8, 2003

I’m in the process of moving house. While packing up the kitchen last night, it occurred to me that the moral center of many houses (in the Durkheimian sense) is not the living room fireplace or even the TV. It’s the fridge. The Romans had their lares and penates, the ancestral spirits and household gods who kept an eye on everyone. We have the fridge and its family photos, magnets, possibly poetry, timetables, assorted cards, drawings and the like. Together the accumulated stuff represents the social world of the household’s inhabitants.

Surely someone has written a bit of amateur (or professional?) cultural anthropology about this before. For instance, given that there’s a fridge in the house, will it always be co-opted as the moral focus of daily life? Does this vary by class? Ethnicity? Has the shift away from homecooked family meals increased the practical — and by implication cultural — importance of the fridge in everyday life?

I see a short New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell or Adam Gopnik. A few well-chosen illustrations. An amusing fridge story. Historical speculation. (What was the functional substitute for the fridge in Victorian households?) The whole held together by an aphorism just plausible enough to be believed for as long as it takes to read the article. If it works out, they could spin the thing out into one of those “A Cultural History of x” books (watches, pencils, mauve, cod, etc), making sure to point out that x changed the world. As fridges undoubtedly did.



aphrael 07.08.03 at 6:19 pm

I can honestly aver that the fridge is not the moral center of my house; that would be the computer. I suspect that is true for a lot of young childless families in which all of the adults have grown up with computers; I do wonder, however, if the presence of children would cause this to change.


dsquared 07.08.03 at 6:29 pm

Some fridges do not have magnetic doors, as the fridge-poetry and magnet industries never cease to not remind me …


pathos 07.08.03 at 6:40 pm

One would assume that the functional equivalent of the refrigerator before the refigerator was the fireplace (i.e., the “hearth” of “hearth and home” fame).

In many houses today, the holiday cards are placed on the mantle on top of the fireplace, rather than magneted to the fridge, as are favored artworks of the sculptural (rather than pictoral) variety.

The historical speculation will be on the post-War shift from “a culture trying to keep warm” to a “culture trying to keep cool” and all the associated metaphors and economic ramifications. Also discussed will be the shift from the horizontal (mantle) to the vertical (fridge door) surface


Ross 07.08.03 at 7:40 pm

I’m not sure it’s the refrigerator itself or the kitchen table, but I know a number of builders who, when building new homes for themselves, always build very large kitchens (disproportionate to other rooms on the first floor), often with multiple “staging” areas, such as center islands with seating. As one mentioned to me, “Everyone always ends up gathering there anyway.” In fact, often the “living room” (as distinct from the “family room”) is shrunk or sacrificed to make more room for the live in kitchen.

If studies can be done on the increasing size of dinner plates over time, why not on the increasing size of kitchens?


Martial 07.08.03 at 8:46 pm

Why do people always hang out in the kitchen during parties? Because that’s where the booze is!

Why do people stick things to their fridges? Because that’s where the magnets are.

Can you eat in your kitchen? If “yes” then the kitchen will likely be the site of a lot of life’s little activities (stick a TV in there too and you’ll hardly ever use your living room). Perhaps we don’t cook as much as we would like to, but American refrigerators are usually well-stocked anyway – especially with whatever beverages and snacks the household consumes. Put a table near the fridge (and toss in a useable door to the outside for maximum effect) and you’ll read your mail/newspaper/bus schedule right there while drinking your coffee/tea/bottled water/sodapop. This postcard/article/notice, you’ll say, is important/interesting/fun; I’d better leave it where someone/I will see/remember it…

Having lived in a series of apartments with kitchens that had no room for even a stool, much less a meal, the refrigerator remained bare of all but a magnetic churchkey. However, having just moved (last week!) to a place with ample room for a kitchen table, I expect we’ll finally use that magnetic poetry kit some thoughtful, if unobservant soul gave us years ago. And our back door – from the driveway – enters the kitchen. Moral center or cluttered kitchen? Only a sociologist can tell.

Actually I am put in mind of the work done on the social changes in the American South due to the air conditioner by Raymond Arsenault and others. A social history of the refrigerator would be fascinating. If this “open source” thing doesn’t pan out…

Good luck with your move, Mr H! Two academics means a lot, a lot, a lot of boxes of books, so take it easy and always lift with your legs.


sidereal 07.08.03 at 10:59 pm

The evolution of the fridge is ongoing:

Now for only $8,000, you can watch TV and browse the web on the damn thing.
AKA, space-shifting for rich dummies.


Guessedworker 07.08.03 at 11:18 pm

Surely, our sociologist friend would have been happier with a hearth and a roaring log fire in it. These days, of course, central heating has rather yaken over – a poor alternative from the great man’s perspective. The fridge is OK but it has a door. Admittedly ours is covered with the eponymous attracting objets (mostly of the Simpson family, whatever that means). Doors generally are so exclusive, denying, divisive. No, the moral centre of the household should reflect open-heartedness and Durkheimian unity and stability. It has to be the sofa where they cuddle up to talk about any old thing, to watch telly, to eat (too often) and read (not enough). Yep, shove up so I can sit down.


Adriana Cronin 07.09.03 at 12:31 am

We are not all libertarians at and we are not called Libertarian Samizdata but


Adriana Cronin 07.09.03 at 12:32 am

The above comment belongs to the post below…


kate 07.09.03 at 12:54 am

My fridge sports a glorious collage of cartoons, headlines, photos and such about the illegal reign of George the Inferior. Everybody who comes into the house just loves it. They stand for minutes just reading and laughing. Laughing through their tears for sure, but laughing all the same. I tear it all down every few months and start anew. But then I’m one of those traitorous moderate Democrats who just can’t get over the stolen election, the moronic phoney patriotism of most of so many and of course the illegal attack and occupation of Iraq. Oh and yes, my guests do go to the fridge for food and booze too!


Tim Lambert 07.09.03 at 2:57 am

Don Norman has written about this in
“Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles”
Unfortunately that chapter is not online, but it’s well worth reading.

One online essay of his that I enjoyed is here:


Dan Simon 07.09.03 at 7:45 am

Did it ever occur to you how hurtful all this discussion of “moral centers” might be to those of us unfortunate enough to be born without one?

Just asking….


Guessedworker 07.09.03 at 8:15 am

At last, Dan, a truly Durkheimian comment.


Edward Hugh 07.09.03 at 12:52 pm

A lot of the comments are reminscent of anecdotal stuff on the chilled water dispenser in the american enterprise.

With one difference: the fridge has now replaced those grotesque holiday snaps. In the 50s they were black and white, sixties slide shows, 80’s videos. Today, perhaps due to time constraints, such narratives are reduced to a collection of magnetised pins stuck on the fridge door.

On Aphrael’s point, maybe the dynamic is computer-fridge-computer, a process, I suspect well known to Brad and Daniel too – how to put on weight, effortlessly.

Incidentally, maybe the interesting social history would be that of ice. Round here – in Catalonia – many villages had underground vaults where water was frozen in winter and rationed-out in summer. In the city people would go the round of the houses selling ice in summer. And ice had a lot of uses. My wife’s parents were born in the mountains, far from running water and electricity, if anyone had an accident they used ice to staunch the blood flow to give time for the doctor to arrive. Meanwhile I’ve just banged a load of cubes in a mug to make an ice-coffee, it’s stiffling in here.


Jonquil 07.09.03 at 5:17 pm

What was the functional substitute for the fridge in Victorian households?)

I know of three: the larder, the root cellar, and the icebox. The larder (British) and the root cellar (American) were special rooms in the basement that were earth-sheltered and thus cooler than the surrounding air. The icebox contained (duh) ice, which was delivered regularly by the iceman. Many New England villages made money in the wintertime by sawing ice out of frozen ponds and rivers, packing it in sawdust, and shipping it to hotter climes.

The icebox survived well into the 20th century. My 72-year-old father remembers a square card that you put in the window; the top side indicated whether you needed no ice, 10 pounds, and so on. When you wanted to cool a drink, you chipped ice off the block with an icepick.

And, of course, you didn’t store perishables for weeks on end. My mother-in-law lived in an apartment in Paris in the ’60s that didn’t have any refrigeration at all; it was assumed that you marketed every day. There was one wire cage in the window that you could use to keep eggs and milk cool for a day, two at most.


Avedon 07.10.03 at 12:03 am

All this puts me in mind of old feminist discussions of building a house so that the kitchen is its center – therefore, even if Mom is in the kitchen, she’s still in close contact with whatever is going on in the rest of the house. Of course, this assumes that the rest of the family isn’t hiding in their room, but those were the days when people were mostly clustering around the TV. My mom put a TV on the breakfast bar and brought everyone inside the kitchen with her.

In my house, I tried leaving notes on the fridge, but my beloved partner quickly learned to ignore them. Now I put Post-It notes on the TV screen.


Avedon 07.10.03 at 12:05 am

I just want to announce that I am really annoyed to see that there appears to be no space between the periods and the next sentence in your comments. I believe this should be corrected as soon as possible before the Punctuation Police start taking people away.


JP 07.10.03 at 5:20 am

I think David Brooks discussed the anthropology of refrigerators in Bobos in Paradise. Not necessarily with insight, however.


Mary Kay 07.11.03 at 2:57 am

We recently moved into a house which has one of those fancy refrigerators whose doors are made to look like the cabinets, i.e. they’re wood. I had quite a collection of refrigerator magnets and cool pictures and cartoons and things on the fridge in our old house. I was disappointed. Not to weep however, the market has solved my problem. You can now buy metal bulletin boards. One of which, designed to use both pins and magnets, now hangs over the hall desk.



Matt Weiner 07.11.03 at 9:40 pm

Funny. I don’t spend nearly as much time in the kitchen as I might because my fridge is very noisy and, when cycling, drowns out the music that I’m constantly playing.* And, back when I had a roommate, urgent notes were always left on the dustcover of the turntable–not only were they bound to be noticed there, but they had to be dealt with before you put a record on.

(Hopefully the troll isn’t going to pick on the fact that I still listen to LPs. Buy ’em at a good used record store and they’re cheaper.)

*Currently: veggie, by food.


irritant 08.07.03 at 2:27 am

Adriana: So those who do not describe themselves as Libertarians in your posse, what monikers do they use?


pru 10.24.03 at 4:21 pm

Not even sure what a blog is but the 8k fridge is what brought me to this disscussion, I think it’s the cats pajammas. But then I live in a wireless networked house. Can’t get enough gadgets. Looking forward to the day my future shock fridge reminds me the Sell by Date in the salad dressing is about to go off and that it’s pre-ordered the milk. The best

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