The Coolgardie safe was a piece of domestic equipment widely used in Australia before refrigeration to preserve perishable food in summer. It was an Australian invention used especially in country areas from the 1890s until the mid 20th century.
Coolgardie safes were manufactured both commercially and home-made. They worked on the principle of capillary siphoning and cooling due to evaporation. They usually comprised a timber-framed Hessian-covered cabinet which had one or more internal shelves, a hinged door and a rectangular tray or small round tank of water on the top. Strips of flannel fabric were trailed from the water down the outsides of the cabinet or safe, which kept the Hessian wet. As the water evaporated from the wet Hessian, it absorbed heat from its surroundings and kept the contents of the safe cool. The drier the air, the greater the rate of evaporation and the cooler the safe.
The legs of the safe could also be stood in another tray of water or in separate tins, one for each leg, to deter ants from crawling into the safe. The most effective position for a Coolgardie safe was to locate it in a direct breeze. For this reason it usually stood on a veranda or under a covered way. The safe also kept food away from flies, dogs, dingos and birds.
This Coolgardie safe differs from the usual style described above in shape, materials and design. It was most probably home-made or made in a basic workshop. If home-made, considerable care went into the fabrication and soldering of the metal frame, cap and shallow base. With its sloping sides, it is quite unusual. It features a frame of flat galvanised-iron instead of wood and metal mesh on the sides instead of the usual Hessian. In materials it resembles a meat safe rather than a Coolgardie safe. Two metal brackets on the top of the safe would have supported a small round water tank or bucket. This would have had a small water cock let into its base so as to continually drip water onto the sloping cap over which were most probably laid flannel strips which wet the sides of the safe.
The Coolgardie safe began to be replaced by ice chests from the turn of the twentieth century in cities and country towns which had ice works. Despite the availability of kerosene, and later electric, refrigerators they were a luxury and did not become common place in Australia until the 1950s with greater prosperity and the widespread availability of electricity.
Curator, Science, Technology & Industry
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