Although “Coolgardie” sounds like something that could have been dreamed up by a product marketing department, this precursor to the modern refrigerator got its name from the place where it was created.
In the late 1800s, Coolgardie was the third-largest settlement in Western Australia (behind Perth and Fremantle), as a result of the gold rush in that part of the state. Being 550km from Perth, however, fresh food supplies were hard to come by, and food preservation became a high priority. So was born the Coolgardie Safe, an invention attributed to local contractor Arthur Patrick McCormick.
The safe operates on the principal of evaporative cooling. A reservoir at the top drips water onto flannel strips that are draped over hessian panels, which cover the metal frame of the safe on all sides. When this water evaporates, it creates a cooling effect, keeping the contents of the safe fresh. The effect is enhanced by air movement, so the safes were often kept on verandahs and in breezeways.
The safes also stood in a basin to catch water dripping off the flannel strips (water, like fresh food, was a valuable commodity in the goldfields), and to stop ants from getting inside. The water in the basin also added to the cooling effect as it evaporated. Coolgardie Safes were made commercially but also by individuals, and were still widely used in Australian homes until the mid-20th century. One popular brand was Trafalgar.
The Trafalgar cold safe, image courtesy of Museums Victoria.
Instructions for the Trafalgar cold safe, image courtesy of Greg Ernst, Affil.AIRAH.