Industrial antiques, fridge magnets, history...

Friday, October 16, 2015

International Harvester plant in
Evansville, IN, former
Republic Aviation facility.
On July 18, 1949 a small explosion at a gas meter sent 400 lucky workers at the International Harvester (IH) plant in Evansville, Indiana home early.  Plumbers had mistakenly connected high pressure air lines to the gas furnaces used to bake porcelain enamel on refrigerators.  Nobody was hurt and everyone went back to work the next day.

IH's Evansville plant, constructed in 1942 to build P-47 Thunderbolt fighters for Republic Aviation,
P-47 Thunderbolt
fighter, 1943
was located next to the Evansville airport on U.S. 41.  After world war II, IH converted the facility to house it's new division for commercial and residential refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.  The 70-acre property included 962,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space under roof.  

Refrigerator Capital of the world
In the 1940s and 1950s, refrigerators played such an important role in the Evansville economy and community that there was a local "refrigerator bowl" for high school football.  As home to Seeger, Servel and International Harvester, Evansville contributed over 10,000 workers to refrigerator manufacturing firms.  

The mid fifties were watershed years for the refrigerator industry.  In addition to International Harvester's closing,  Whirlpool merged with Seeger in 1955.

Of International Harvester refrigerator division products, home refrigerators were the most successful, although short lived.  In late September, 1955 International Harvester announced that, faced with a choice between expanding the product line and discontinuing it altogether, the decision had been made to get out of the refrigerator business.  In a $19 million deal, the Evansville facility, tooling and machinery was sold to competitor, Whirlpool-Seeger. It is not known how many of IH's 3,900 workers were then hired by Whirlpool or how many dealers IH had at the time of the announcement.  It was reported that the deal was struck in a few days between the topmost management at International Harvester and Whirlpool-Seeger, without the knowledge of even high level managers at either firm.

Produced for barely a decade, roughly 1946-1956, few International Harvester refrigerators remain to satisfy collector demand.  The original price tag of $220 to $400 is many times that in today's vintage collectible market.  A few years ago International Harvester's present owner, CNH Industrial, negotiated with licensees to produce Irma Harding  products.

In 1950 there were six International Harvester home refrigerator models and a choice of ten door handle colors.  Another model was added in 1951 (including the HA-74, HA-82, HA-83, HA-84, HA-92, UA-87, UA-95) and in 1952 came an eighth model, the G-93, and an eleventh door handle color. By 1954, a year before the plant was closed, the number of models dropped to seven and colored door handles were discontinued.


International Harvester tried some unique marketing techniques that are well described in 
Ben Mark's story about Irma Harding.  

Find Irma Harding
on Amazon

The Wisconsin Historical Association Society has an impressive collection of International Harvester material that will be invaluable for researchers, including most of the advertisements run for the refrigerator division.  Copies of the ads purchased from the Society help to defray operational costs.

1950 advertising saw the introduction of the "femineered" slogan, appealing to women and letting the marketplace know, "We're not just about trucks and tractors, we have stuff for girls, too."

1951 advertising emphasized handle color variety, the in-door butter keeper, built-in bottle opener and the Egg-O-Mat egg tray on the door (requiring that eggs be removed from the carton and placed in the tray one at a time).  In 1951 IH also did some cooperative advertising with the Udylite Corporation of Detroit, a supplier of plating services, materials and equipment. 
Also in 1951,
the Evansville plant was awarded a $7 million government contract, involving 1,500 new jobs, to make M-1 rifles and parts for the U.S. army for the Korean war effort. 

1952 advertising was all about defrosting, hitchhiking colored handle selection. 


This advertisement from 1952 promoted a "femineered" refrigerator made by International Harvester, picturing model G-93-D.  The appliance offered "Tri-Master" defrosting  (three methods to defrost: automatically nightly and manually fast or slow).  Also cited was a choice from eleven colors of door handles.  Handle colors included dark green, peach, black, light blue, yellow, light green, white, red, dark blue and grey.

Photo props in the advertisement would be welcome additions to a variety of collections.  I noted milk bottles, the kind once delivered by a milkman to a customer's front door, Coca-cola, those cute little bottles, a step stool that might be a Cosco and refrigerator dishes.  I could not guess the brands of other soda pop bottles or pottery (though I know I've seen that china pattern before).  The product photo was probably taken at a studio in Evansville, Indiana where the IH appliance division was headquartered.  Young and Rubicam had the IH truck & bus account but I've not yet learned if they also handled refrigerator advertising.
Purchase copy of Sophisticated Lady
advertisement from 1954
1954 advertising replaced housewife Irma with a sophisticated model but continued to offer interior decorating tips.  A 1949 PR theme was revived to promote the capacity  for do-it-yourselfers to cover the fridge door exterior with a fabric panel.   
Fridges and fridge magnets
International Harvester was ahead of its time in recognizing that people like to personalize fridge fronts.  Sixty+ years later, consumers purchase thousands of fridge magnets every year to express almost every hobby or interest under the sun.

 International Harvester Refrigerator Magnet

Founded in 1902
International Harvester was founded in 1902 when J. P. Morgan merged McCormick Harvesting and Deering Harvester with three smaller manufacturers.  In 1985, following decades of labor problems and devastating $2 billion labor strike, most of the company was acquired by Tenneco, Inc. who merged International Harvester with its J. I. Case division.  In 1999 Case and New Holland were merged into CNH Industrial, a division of Fiat Industrial.

I recently read A Corporate Tragedy: The Agony of International Harvester Company by Barbara Marsh about the management, market and labor problems that plagued IH.  It confirmed my sense that refrigerators were an odd market for the company to enter, but they were not alone by any means.  Magazines during the first decade after the end of world war II are filled with advertisements from over a half dozen refrigerator manufacturers.  Market was seriously overpopulated and many of the makers were gone by 1965.

Set of five refrigerator magnets picturing vintage refrigerator magnet advertisements.


Additional reading about International Harvester 



  1. Interesting article. Thank you. My father William Hanlon worked at Young and Rubicam on the IH account and refrigerators I believe. Also have a Remington artwork with 1950 Y AND R written on back.

  2. Very interesting and informative blog and about the refrigeration and I must appreciate your work well done keep it up.