John Lee Pratt's Frigidaire

 This sizzling summer seems a fitting season to recall the almost forgotten story of John Lee Pratt and the Frigidaire, one of the first "mechanical" refrigerators.

In 1919 Mr. Pratt, a King George County boy who would become a multi-millionaire and owner of Chatham Manor, was a General Motors engineer.

That same year GM had produced the Frigidaire, one of the first mechanical refrigerators for home use. They were called "mechanical" because some were powered by electricity, others by gas.

But the first Frigidaire owners were not happy. In fact, they had so many complaints that GM sent John Lee Pratt to Ohio to close down the Frigidaire plant.

Mr. Pratt wasn't sure that was the right idea. First he visited Frigidaire owners. He offered them their money back but had no takers since no one wanted to go back to the old ice boxes, and they certainly didn't want to go back to those 19th-century days when ice was taken from local millponds and stored in ice houses.

"Keep the plant open and improve the product," was John Lee Pratt's advice to General Motors. He was instrumental in developing a better refrigerator, including use of the relatively safe refrigerant, freon.

Frigidaire became a household word, especially in the Fredericksburg area. Here, for many years -- no matter what the brand -- a refrigerator was a Frigidaire.

By 1923 there were 20,000 mechanical refrigerators in the United States. This figure jumped to 850,000 by 1933 and two million by 1936.

In 1929, Frigidaire advertised its time-saving features in serving up cool summer desserts. The 1932 Pet Milk Cook Book, in its modern loose-leaf style with bright yellow binding, listed 24 recipes for frozen desserts using "the mechanical refrigerator."

Many cook books and magazines were full of recipes for both frozen and refrigerated desserts. (Freezing space in the early refrigerators was limited to the small ice cube tray compartment and desserts were frozen in the ice cube trays or in small molds.}

Ad for a 1928 FrigidaireThe mechanical refrigerator was as revolutionary then as the microwave would be in our day. When that frozen pie is perfection and those ice cubes are endless, we can thank John Lee Pratt.

A Generous and Modest Gentleman

John Lee Pratt, son of a Confederate veteran, had grown up in very modest circumstances on his family's Aspen Hill Farm in King George County. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in civil engineering.

His career as a vice president of General Motors brought him fame and fortune. In fact, he was listed in Fortune magazine in 1957 as being worth between $100 million and $200 million.

While an engineer for General Motors in Tacoma, Washington, he met Lillian Thomas, and they married in 1917. They bought Chatham in 1931 and restored it to its former splendor.

Portrait of John Lee PrattChatham was elegant, but modest John Lee Pratt was not. Dressed in old clothes, he was sometimes mistaken for a laborer as he walked across the Chatham Bridge to play penny-ante poker games with friends.

Mr. and Mrs. Pratt gave millions of dollars to educational, historical and other worthy causes. Lillian Pratt, who died in 1947, left her entire Faberge collection to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

John Lee Pratt, who died in 1975, willed Chatham to the U.S. Government. Today it is the headquarters for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Refrigerator Recipes from the 1930s

Whether for afternoon contract bridge parties or evening dessert parties, ladies of the 1930s vied with one another to make the finest creations in their new refrigerators.

Frozen fruit salad was a trademark of the time with a half dozen versions appearing in current cook books. Another favorite was the National Biscuit Company's (Nabisco) Silhouette Pudding.

An early Frigidaire cookbookFrozen Fruit Salad

1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/8 cup whipping cream
1/8 cup lemon juice
1 (15 1/2 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup canned Royal Anne cherries, drained, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup chopped BLANCHED almonds
1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Beat cream cheese until smooth; add mayonnaise, 1/8 cup whipping cream and lemon juice, mixing well. Stir in pineapple, cherries and almonds (you may substitute other nuts). Gently fold in whipped cream. Pour mixture into one or more ice cube trays, with dividers removed. Cover and freeze overnight or until firm.

Place frozen salad in refrigerator about 5 minutes before serving. Cut into slices and serve on lettuce leaves. Recipe can be doubled and frozen in larger container.

Silhouette Pudding

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream, whipped
1 package Nabisco chocolate wafers

Stir vanilla into whipped cream. Spread 1 1/2 cups to 2 cups on wafers using this method: Put wafers together with whipped cream in stacks of 4 or 5. On platter stand stacks on edge to make one roll. Frost with remaining cream. Chill 4 to 6 hours. If desired, garnish with chocolate curls. Slice diagonally at a 45-degree angle. You also may freeze until firm, then cover with plastic wrap and return to freezer. If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator one hour before serving.

Additional Sources

Icebox Pies: 100 Scrumptious Recipes for No-bake, No-fail Pies by Lauren Chattman.
From crusts to toppings, from pies made with fruit and cream to chocolate dream pies, Icebox Pies carries on the fine tradition of cool, no-fuss summer desserts.

"John Lee Pratt: A Man of Good Works," UVa Alumni News, Mar.- Apr. 1976, pp. 8-9.
Available in the vertical file of the Central Rappahannock's Virginiana Room.

Sloan Rules: Alfred P. Sloan and the Triumph of General Motors by David Farber.
From 1923 to 1946, Mr. Sloan served as president of General Motors, contemporaneously with John Lee Pratt. This is the story of how Mr. Sloan successfully expanded and consolidated the company, aiming to keep in step with the growing consumer market demands.