The 1940s: War and Amazing Prosperity

Jan. 1, 2009
The 1940s was a decade that began in the deepest depression the world had ever seen, and ended in previously unimaginable growth and prosperity. World War II began a shift in demographics from the farm to the city. In its aftermath, the population grew exponentially. We became better educated, and our newfound growth and prosperity offered amazing opportunities for the refrigeration and comfort industries.

It was in the midst of a war highly dependent upon refrigeration for troop supply that a new magazine, The Refrigeration Industry, precursor of Contracting Business, was born.

Publisher Irving B. Hexter’s message then was much the same as our mission now. He wrote, “We are going to try to give you an interesting, timely, and informative magazine that will bring you answers to some of your problems.”

In 1944, the majority of this new publication’s readers, contractors, dealers, and jobbers (wholesalers), were primarily concerned with refrigeration. Some were involved in systems for food production and storage, even more were involved in grocery store and domestic refrigeration. They sold domestic refrigerators,and they kept frozen food lockers and locker plants operating.

Mechanical cooling — air conditioning — was a luxury enjoyed mostly by moviegoers.

As more people were drawn to the cities and exposed to air conditioning at work and at play, the idea that they could be cool at home as well gradually began to take hold.

Clarence Birdseye’s frozen foods had been marketed since 1929. It wasn’t until after the war, however, that frozen food had any real impact. It took home freezers to really get the idea going. Many contractors and dealers began manufacturing their own home freezers to meet the post war demand. Some even sold frozen food and the packaging to do home freezing.

Restaurants and food markets soon became promising and growing consumers of frozen foods and the refrigeration equipment to preserve them.

Because of the war, and then the housing boom following it, refrigerators were in short supply, and it was common to joke about when the refrigerator you ordered might arrive.

While sulfur dioxide and methylene chloride refrigerants were still widely used, the new Freon gases were making an impression; however, Freon supply was a problem because of a dire shortage of cylinders. That shortage would remain a problem for most of the decade even though product capacity grew rapidly. In 1949, the first one-pound cans of R-12 and R-114 — called Charg-a-Can — appeared in the market.

Seeing a need to share ideas, and increase professionalism and standardization in contracting, a group of contractors met in December 1945 at the Palmer House in Chicago to complete the formation of the National Association of Refrigeration Contractors (NARC). Reflecting the growing market for comfort cooling, at the end of the decade that group changed its name to the Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association(RACCA). It was also in 1949 that this magazine had its first name change to Commercial Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, perhaps foretelling the time when air conditioning would overtake refrigeration as a market force.

As early as 1945, Walter L. Bartel of the Ricwil Co., said of the comfort cooling industry, “Air conditioning is from the status of a luxury to that of a necessity. This is especially true of such commercial establishments as theaters, restaurants, and specialty shops, where to build a new structure without provisions for comfort cooling would be courting economic disaster.”

As the decade progressed, packaged vertical air conditioners known as Store Coolers were popular for restaurants, bars, barber shops, and stores. Heavy, cumbersome window units became a regular sight.

Hermetic compressors made a debut in condensing units, but servicing them was a problem. One technical school’s answer was to cut the top off canisters, repair the units, then reseal the compressor. Another technical advancement that captivated the entire industry was the heat pump. Even ground water heat pumps were in use.

As the 1940s grew to a close, technological advances and economic prosperity promised a bright beginning to the next decade. The biggest problem was supplying the demand. Next month, we’ll look at the 1950s and how demand issues were addressed.

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