Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The California Cooler Problem

The California Cooler was an invention that popped up around 1910 or so and was in wide spread use around here until about 1930. The only time I’ve seen them on a house built in the 19th Century they seem to be retro fitted. That’s my problem. I’ve got two of them that are on the north side of the house over the porch. The bedroom that is on the other side of this exterior wall was turned in to a kitchen when the house was cut-up in to apartments in the 20s.

The California Cooler was always built on an exterior wall of the kitchen. There was a louvered vent on the outside that lead to a cabinet in the kitchen. The cabinet wall that faced the vent had wire mesh instead of wood, this was to keep the bugs out, and the shelves were either wood slats or wire mesh. The idea was that the cool costal air would flow through the vent and then circulate around the wire shelves and keep perishable food stuffs cool. Maybe this was a cheap alternative to ice. Maybe there wasn’t an ice plant in the city. I’m not sure. Even in the dog days of summer the temperatures stay somewhat cool in the day, and noticeably cool at night. In the winter, of course, it’s much colder, but it rarely freezes. It was a clever idea.

Here’s what one looks like. This was the 1920s addition I removed from my house. I was able to salvage some of the kitchen cabinets, but the cooler cabinet was already in rough shape, and the door was now plywood, so I moved it out to the garage and I now store tools in it.

Anyway, the first picture is the outside shot of the cooler, and then there are 2 shots of the cooler cabinet that was just on the other side of the vent, with it’s wire mesh wall and wire shelves.

You can see the vent just to the right of the upstairs door.

The open side with wire mesh is on the right. This faced the vent above.

Another shot of the shelves.

So, if you have a 1917 Craftsman with California Coolers, you celebrate them and restore them. If you have an 1895 Victorian with two of them cut in to the upstairs bedroom wall, you get rid of them. That’s what I have. Also on this same wall are some plumbing vents that are no longer used. These are also left over from the apartment days.

In the picture above, you can see one of the cooler vents on the far left just past the downspout. It’s much smaller than the one shown above. There is a second one out of view, below the rectangular window. The plumbing vents also need to go, but I’ve decided to paint first and then go back and fix these items. My concern is that I’ll waste a day or two fixing all this and run out of nice weather for painting.

There is also the fact that the plumbing vents are nice to hold on to while working on the porch. This north side porch is cold, windy, and slanty. The roof seems more narrow, and it seems to slant more than the south side. I’m sure that’s just my imagination. Also, because the porch roof sees very little sunshine, it has small growths of slippery fungi in places.

I just can’t wait to finish this section. Working up there is really no fun at all.


K said...

How interesting. I think there's a reason these aren't called Alabama Coolers. Your food would probably rot faster with access to the elements around here.

Anonymous said...

On coolers. They lasted longer than you might think. My family moved to a brand new home in San Francisco in 1939 or '40 and it had a cooler just as you describe. However, we had what would be called an apartment-sized refrigerator today and it would have been impossible to insert a larger one in the space allowed. I believe the cooler was an extension of the refrigerator. It wasn't used for obvious perishables such as milk but, rather, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, etc. I wish I had one today but they require a moderate climate. Have you considered restoring one and making it unobtrusive from the outside? You sure have the skills for that, for which you shall receive my undying admiration.

Greg said...

1939 is later than I would have thought. I was just guess on the range of years based on local architecture. As for using one in my house, they're just in the wrong place. The two apartments over the garages still have theirs. They are original and I would never think of getting rid of them. They are boarded up from the inside now. Someone else did that, and I think it was done to keep the draft out.

Anonymous said...


Greg said...

Restauro! me sale sólo. :-)

Derek said...

The ones I've seen on the houses here have a vent on the top and bottom, to get a draught going I think. I think we might find evidence of one, once we strip the stucco off the back of the house.

Anonymous said...

We have these in the bedrooms of our house. They are on each side of the window. We are looking for more for a remodel/addition, does anyone know the real name?

Joe said...

The first one of these I saw was in the tour of Richard Nixon's childhood home at his library in Yorba Linda. Interesting concept.

subgirl.hate said...

I've got one of these in my apartment in Berkeley. I was told by the landlord that they were used with dry ice and the vents were to exhaust the carbon dioxide gas as it "melted". Mine has round louvered openings with wire mesh behind those. Two slatted wood shelves behind teh two louvers.

I can't imagine this being really useful, as we get ants and pests in them even now with no food in the cabinet (it's REALLY hard to access, so it's got my kitchen-aid in it)

(found this post while searching for more information on this "wonky-cupboard" as I call it - I'm originally from the South, so this is something I've never encountered before)

Greg said...

Dry ice is a good a guess as any I suppose. My gut feeling is that most people did not use them that way, except for maybe the few warm weeks we have each year. Berkeley may be different than Eureka, though. Eureka weather is nearly identical to the SF peninsula. By "a few warm weeks" I mean temps in the mid 70s for a few hours during the day. Eggs, butter, and vegies would hold fine without the dry ice.

Anonymous said...

In my early teens (I will be 72 too soon) we moved into a home built in 1917 and it had a "Calfornia Cooler" built into it, accessible from the kitchen. It was built exactly as described in this article.

IT WAS TRULY A REMARKABLE DEVICE!! We simply took our harvested fruit from our many trees, vines, berry patches and the vegetable garden and put them directly into the "Cooler". This kept our fruits, berries and vegetables much, much fresher and very, very longer than the refrigerator ever could. Berries stayed fresh for up to 4 to 6 weeks. Peaches, apricots, cherries and plums lasted 6 to 8 weeks. Applea, oranges and citrus to 6 months. Potatoes, onions and garlic were good until our next season harvest was ready to eat.

I have though of this marvelous invention many times over the years, with fond recollection.

Bill Hart
Sacramento, CA

Unknown said...

I am in the process or restoring our cooler in a 1915 Craftsman Bungalow. It is in great shape but needs a tiny bit of TLC with paint and new mesh. Ours is double cooler. Top and Bottom separate cabinents. I store fruits,tomatoes and my butter in the top and wines, onions, potatoes, oils and vinigars in the bottom one. We love it. I wish I had one in my back porch to store bleaches and soaps. Great vintilation.

Robert Teal said...

Thanks for the photos. One day it was really hot here in Oakland and a guy I know said the California Cooler in his bungalow really made a difference and I couldn't quite picture the device. I felt like I hadn't been keeping up with the Joneses. :)

Unknown said...

I used to have a California Cooler in the first home I ever purchased . . . my grandparents lived in it until they passed in the 60's. I bought the house in 1976. The idea is that the basement or area under the home is much cooler than any area above. Air from the lower parts of the home travel upward by air flow (vents) through the cooler. Yes, it does keep vegetables and fruit much better than the humid environment of our current day refrigerators. Fruit and veggies keem MUCH better. Perhaps an idea we might return to in these "cost effective" days?

I think so.

Debra said...

Aha, so that's what those shelves are... I was wondering. Mine are not on the exterior wall though as my entire kitchen is enclosed.

I learn something new every day!

Greg said...


If yours are not on an exterior wall I wonder if there was a modification at some point. Some did get cool air from the basement. Does your house have a basement?


Animal Elvis said...

I just found out about this. We just purchase a home built in 1915 and in the top of one cabinet is a screen in to the attic and all the shelves are wooden grates, so there must be a another screen under the base of the cabinet, I am excited to get this cooler in working order again!