During power outages, one of the first issues people worry about is what they’re going to do without a refrigerator. But this invention has only been a widespread household appliance since around 1913, meaning that centuries ago, people had to come up with other ways to preserve food.

Drying Mammoth Meat

Paradoxically, some of the most effective pre-refrigerator preservation techniques were centered around heat. Drying meat helps thwart bacteria that would otherwise spoil it quickly.

The technique of drying meat goes all the way back the time of Neanderthals. According to NBC News, a 2009 study found that Neanderthals dried mammoth meat after slaying one of the beasts. Then, they could have 14 to 16 days to transport the preserved meat home during repeated round trips. For a typical group, killing and eating an entire mammoth at once would have been impossible. Drying most of the meat and eating it later allowed Neanderthals to make one kill go much farther–which was important since killing a mammoth couldn’t have been easy.

Food Preservation Before The Refrigerator

Smoking Saves

Smoking meat–cooking it for a long time at a low temperature–has been around for nearly as long as humans’ understanding of fire. According to an article published by The Guardian, this cooking method has roots around the world and has a thriving following in America today. If done correctly, smoking can serve as both a powerful preservative and a flavor enhancer. The heat produced by fire cooking can be enough to kill microbes and dry meat out, making it unpalatable for other microorganisms to move in. However, it’s important that meat reach the proper temperature–160 degrees, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation–for smoking to work as a preservation technique.

Seagoing Salts and Spices

The Chinese were using salt and spices by 1000 B.C. for food preservation. Salt helped dry fish and meat out, making them much more suitable for long journeys like those taken by overseas travelers. As for spices, some of them might have anti-bacterial properties. Finally, as many cooks know, the right spices can make less-than-great food taste passable.

Napoleon Gets Canned

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army–which prided itself on mobility and self-sustenance–needed an easy way to transport preserved food. A chef-turned-inventor named Nicolas Appert answered that call. Appert’s method was to heat food to water’s boiling point (which killed off germs) before putting it in airtight jars. For his troubles, Napoleon award Appert 12,000 francs, which Appert fittingly used to open a cannery.

Nature’s Freezer

Before the invention of the refrigerator and freezer, people used natural means to keep foods cold. The National Center for Home Food Preservation describes people using caves, streams, and cellars to keep food cold. This was an option anywhere the weather got cold enough. Some American estates took the process a step further and built icehouses dedicated to keeping food cold.

By the early 1900s, the refrigerator began to gain popularity and made these techniques less necessary. But all of them are still around in some form, a testament to the ingenious nature of pre-refrigerator food preservation.


Along with food preservation, Henry Stewart writes on plastic tanks, water storage tanks, environmental science, wildlife preservation, conservation and other related subjects. Henry recommends Go-To-Tanks for those who’d like to view a selection of storage materials.

Image credit goes to IPS Inter Press Service.