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Waterloo’s Meat Packing Industry

Refrigeration and Its Effect on the Meat Packing Industry

Source: Atlas of Black Hawk County, Iowa, The Iowa Publishing Company, Des Moines, Iowa, 1910Before the invention of the modern refrigerator, people used a variety of ways to preserve food. In ancient times people put food in caves and holes in the ground to keep it cool. More recently, people built underground rooms sometimes called fruit cellars. These underground structures worked because the temperature of the earth remains constant at between 50 and 60 degrees. An underground room will stay cooler than the summer air.

Have you ever heard someone call your refrigerator the “ice box”? Before refrigerators were available for use in homes, many people literally had an ice box in their house to keep food cool. In 1910 in Waterloo, the Herrick Refrigerator Company manufactured ice boxes. People could buy meat products from Rath Packing Company and preserve them in their ice box.

The ice box had an insulated compartment for ice and another for food. The ice was replaced periodically by purchasing blocks from the "iceman," whose wagon was a common sight on the streets of towns and cities.

In the winter, ice was harvested from the river and kept in a large building. Sawdust was packed between each block to keep it from melting during the hot summer. During the warmer months of spring, summer and fall, ice was sold door to door by the “ice man.”

Rath Ham Reefer Railroad Car

By 1922, improved refrigerated railroad cars had been developed. This allowed Rath Packing Company to send well-preserved goods to every state in the union and throughout Canada.

Rath Railroad Car

During World War I (1914-1918) half of Rath products were sent to Europe. This was a very good time for the company and it continued to expand and grow. By 1922, Rath Packing Company employed nearly 600 workers. It was estimated to be worth over one-million dollars.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, wages fell as the economy weakened. At that time a worker earned only 20 cents per hour. As the country grew out of the Depression, Rath Packing Company continued to prosper. By 1940 it employed 5,270 workers.


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