It isn’t so long ago that refrigeration was a very rare thing. Go back a few generations and you probably have a relative who didn’t have refrigeration earlier in their lives. The way things are now, you almost can’t survive without some sort of freezer and refrigerator in your home. Some of this was gotten around through canning, drying, curing and fermentation. With that said, there were ways to ensure relatively fresh vegetables through a longer period of time. I am going to list a few of these manners and a little bit about them. At some future point, I will probably go into greater detail
Clamps and Silos
Many items can be kept underground in simple mounds or barrels known as any number of things, including clamps. Methods include several very easy options. Burying a trashcan with a hole in the bottom and filling the bottom with stones or sand for drainage can create a mini root cellar. Trenches (aka: a trench silo) can be dug alongside the garden where the harvested root vegetables are placed and then covered with mounds of straw and dirt to insulate them. Some vegetables don’t even need to be harvested, but simply covered with a thick mat of straw for easy digging later in the winter. Smaller barrels can be buried at angles into hills and make for easy retrieval. Of course, great hills can be mounded as well with the food at the center. The clamping method is best for the winter when the outside temperatures are quite low and there is less animal activity going on.
More advanced than clamps, these are large underground structures that can hold a lot of food and can offer all the benefits of a walk-in refrigerator without the electrical costs. The temperature will vary depending on the time of year, but are always cooler than the outside temperatures and can greatly extend the shelf-life of most foods. They do take some effort to make and do require space, but can be a huge boon for someone who chooses to go without a refrigerator or for when the power is out and you need a cool place to store things. If you intend to make them, a book known as Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel is a must-have.
All but forgotten, the spring house was the refrigerator of old. Temperatures could get quite low between the fact that the water was coming from underground and the fact that evaporation would drop the temperature further. Most of the time this is where dairy products were kept to greatly extend their shelf life. Some items would be stored on shelves or benches, while those like milk and cream would be kept in urns mostly submerged in the water. The added bonus is that these became a great place to go and cool off between tasks. Even if you have no intention to use anything but electric refrigeration, it can be nice to have a true spring house to retreat to on a warm summer day.
These can vary a lot. One old variety was a rack sitting over a pool of water in some sort of dish. A muslin cloth would be draped over it to soak up some of the water and as the water evaporated from the surface, the interior was cooled. Other versions are things such as the zeer pot, which is a pair of terracotta pots with wet sand between them and a cloth over the top. Metal-interior pots work just as well or better in these. In modern times, one young girl ‘invented’ an evaporitive solar fridge using the same principles entirely out of metal. There is even a company called Mitticool that uses the ancient technology in a very modern-looking box fridge.
Effectiveness of these varies based on the humidity and air flow, so when in a very humid area with little air movement, they cool very little. If you are in an area that is drier or has a lot of air movement, they can drop the temperature by ten degrees or more inside of the container. More or less, if a swamp-cooler works where you are, these will as well.
There is of course a reason most people don’t still use these methods if they have the option for a refrigerator. They each come with more work, less cooling and less control. Often, they involve having to go outside to get to the product you need. They aren’t without flaws. In the end, the use of them has more to do with your own intentions than anything else. If you don’t like the fact that refrigeration makes up so much of your household energy use, maybe these are an option. If you don’t have a choice for some reason, these again become a viable option. Whatever the case, it is good to be aware of their existence since knowledge of the many methods is easily lost to time if not used.