The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land and gives respect to the Elders – past and present – and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that the MAAS website contains a range of Indigenous Cultural Material. This includes artworks, artifacts, images and recordings of people who may have passed away, and other objects which may be culturally sensitive.
K1245 Domestic appliance, Coolgardie safe, home-made, galvanised iron, made in Australia, 1900-1910. Click to enlarge.

Australian Coolgardie safe, 1900-1910

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.

Margaret Simpson
Curator, Science, Technology & Industry
March 2012

Butler, Susan, "The Dinkum Dictionary: The Origins of Australian Words", Text Publishing, 2009.

Fearn-Wannan, W., "A Dictionary of Australian Folklore: Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions", Landsdowne Press, Sydney, 1981, pp.150-1.

McPhee, Margaret "The Dictionary of Australian Inventions & Discoveries", Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, St Leonards, NSW, 1993, p.38.

New Settlers' League of Australia. Victorian Division and Victoria. Dept. of Lands and Immigration "Makeshifts and other home-made furniture and kitchen utensils",. The League, Melbourne, 1924.

Ramson, W.S. (edit.) "The Australian National Dictionary: A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles", Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p.168.


Object No.


Object Statement

Domestic appliance, Coolgardie safe, home-made, galvanised iron, made in Australia, 1900-1910

Physical Description

Domestic appliance, Coolgardie safe, home-made, galvanised iron, made in Australia, 1900-1910

This Coolgardie safe comprises a four-sided cabinet made of a galvanised-iron frame with mesh insets. The sides taper outwards towards the base. The top is surmounted by a square pyramid-shaped cap onto which are soldered two support brackets. These would have held a small round tank or bucket of water. The safe has two hinged doors, each with a simple handle made of a strip of metal. The door frames are made of flat galvanised-iron. At the bottom of the cabinet is a shallow tray to catch the water. The cabinet stands on four short right angle galvanised-iron legs, which are cross braced. The interior shelf is missing.


Stamped on two sides of the tray: "With Care".



1370 mm


650 mm


650 mm


15 kg




The Coolgardie safe was said to have been invented in the dry and arid Western Australian gold-mining town of Coolgardie in the 1890s by Arthur Patrick (Paddy) McCormick, who later became mayor of Coolgardie.

It is thought this Coolgardie safe was home-made.



This Coolgardie safe was purchased from an antique shop in South Caulfield, Victoria, in 1984.

Coolgardie safes could have been made at home from simple and easily procurable materials. The New Settlers' League of Australia advised in their 1924 publication, "Makeshitfts and Other Home-made Furniture and Kitchen Utensils", that "to make a Coolgardie safe, build a frame from strong packing cases, and put a shelf about 2 feet from the ground, and another on top 5 feet from the ground. Cover the frame with Hessian, putting a door on one side. On top, place a kerosene tin cut in half lengthwise. Keep this filled with water, and, hanging from it over the sides of the safe, put strips of Hessian, towelling or flannel. Make gutters of pieces of tin to go around the bottom of the safe, making them all slope toward one corner. Here let the water drip into a tin underneath. This water may be used again. Keep in a breezy place."

A Coolgardie safe is described in Randolph Stow's 1965 Australian novel, "The Merry-Go-Round and the Sea": "Once, one hot day at Sandalwood, he and his cousin Didi had got into the big Coolgardie safe on the back veranda and closed the door. It was very cool in there, water seeping continually down the clinker-packed walls. They shared the safe with half a sheep, and amused themselves by swinging the meat back and forth on its hook like a punching bag".


Credit Line

Purchased 1984

Acquisition Date

5 September 1984

Cite this Object


Australian Coolgardie safe, 1900-1910 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 25 November 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Australian Coolgardie safe, 1900-1910 |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=25 November 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.