If a Fridge Has Run For Years, Collectors May Be Chasing It —

To Vintage-Appliance Buffs, Depression-Era GE Model Is So Cool That It’s Hot

By Rachel Emma Silverman

The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

When John Morgan is thirsty for a soda, he reaches into a gadget that looks like a bowlegged cupboard with a salad spinner perched on top. Mr. Morgan, a 40-year-old bakery-goods sales representative from Fargo, N.D., owns two of the squat white steel appliances. To him and a growing number of collectors nationwide, these GE Monitor Top fridges, from the 1920s and 1930s, are the epitome of cool.

“I think they are artwork. They’re beautiful,” says Mr. Morgan, who prowls junk shops, estate sales and auctions for vintage refrigerators, and repairs and sells them on the side. Looks are just part of the appeal. With their thickly insulated steel doors, instead of plastic ones, vintage fridges typically are quieter and more durable than their modern successors. And, because they’re often smaller and lack energy-guzzling features, they can be cheaper to run.

Ray Folsom, 73, says the old appliances transport him back to his childhood, when electric refrigeration was a glamorous new technology. Mr. Folsom, a retired movie stuntman who grew up in the Los Angeles area, remembers when his family had an icebox. Later, when they got a refrigerator, he says, “I thought it was the neatest thing.” Today, Mr. Folsom, a part-time dealer, owns about 20 vintage fridges, which he restores.

Others are looking to add a touch of authenticity to the kitchens of their period houses. In February, Valerie Lowich, 47, started posting ads on the Web and distributing fliers locally in her search for a two- or
three-door Monitor Top for her 1935 home in Milaca, Minn. “No one would sell,” she says. “I was getting a little depressed.”

Ms. Lowich finally found a two-door model for about $1,400, including shipping, in Tulsa, Okla. It should arrive this week. “It is the refrigerator of my dreams,” she says. Many of those who can’t resist old Monitor Tops, colorful 1950s Frigidaires or even the boxy harvest gold or avocado refrigerators popular in the ’60s and ’70s have found each other through the Old Appliance Club. The club, founded in 1994 in Ventura, Calif., brings together vintage-appliance users, restoration experts and parts suppliers. The club says its ranks have increased 25% in the past year to about 5,500 members, many of them also interested in such gadgets as old Magic Chef or Chambers stoves.

Dealer showrooms and repair shops have sprung up to cater to those who long to return to a simpler, predefroster era. John Jowers, owner of AntiqueAppliances.com, in Clayton, Ga., says he is booked 20 months in advance for vintage-appliance refurbishment jobs. This time last year, he says, he was booked only five months in advance.

Many dealers say the Monitor Tops, manufactured by General Electric Co. from 1927 to 1937, are the most sought-after old refrigerators. They estimate that demand for the machines, one of the appliance industry’s earliest and biggest mass-produced hits, has more than doubled over the past few years, and prices have increased accordingly.

Five years ago, a fully refurbished single-door Monitor Top, with its distinctive top-mounted cylindrical motor, could go for about $1,250, says Mike Arnold, owner of Twentieth Century Appliance Restorations, in Troy N.Y. Now, it can fetch about $2,500. Rare three-door models, fully restored, can command $10,000 or more.

During the decade they were made, GE sold well over a million Monitor Tops, aided by an advertising campaign that extolled their reliability in preserving food. The Monitor Top, GE’s ads said, “Makes It Safe to Be Hungry.”

Old-appliance buffs estimate that thousands of the machines are still in use. That’s because they were built to last. Each part, from the tiniest screw to its thick steel casing, was designed to work for at least 25 years, according to an internal GE engineering document. The average modern refrigerator has a lifespan of between five and 19 years, depending on the model, according to a recent survey provided by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group.

“We get calls and notes from consumers all the time, from customers who still have the refrigerators their parents had, and they just want us to know it is still around and kicking,” says Kim Freeman, a spokeswoman for GE’s Consumer Products unit. GE no longer services or makes parts for the Monitor Top.

Anne and Gary Graves, both 40 and commercial photographers, have eight Monitor Tops, which they keep in their 18th-century stone house in Raubsville, Pa. But their parents are “aghast that we have these old refrigerators,” says Mr. Graves. “I can’t imagine defrosting a refrigerator again. I can’t imagine not having a marvelous freezer section with an icemaker. I like all the modern conveniences,” says Ms. Graves’ mother, Betsy Callahan.

Many vintage-appliance aficionados also snap up fridge-related ads, signs or promotional merchandise. Peter Mintun, a 52-year-old cabaret singer who lives in New York, treasures an old GE songbook, which he thinks was published around 1928. The book’s refrigerator-themed tunes were set to popular songs of the day, like this one, to the tune of “Baby Face.”

“New GE
She’s simply wild about her new GE
It just relieves her mind of every care,
Keeps her fair.
Nothing spoils within it; Ice cream just every minute.”

Mr. Mintun also owns vintage refrigerator cookbooks, published to teach households how to use their new kitchen tool to make such novel chilled dishes as “jellied mushroom soup” and “graham cracker refrigerator pie.”

Mr. Mintun’s home, a four-floor Manhattan brownstone is full of old appliances, mainly from the 1920s and 1930s, including toasters, radios, phonographs and a huge three-door Monitor Top, about 5-feet tall by 5-feet wide, which he bought two years ago on eBay for $500.
“I’ve never owned a new refrigerator,” says Mr. Mintun. “Why bother — when there are so many old ones that work?”

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Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Rachel Emma Silverman
Wall Street Journal
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