If you're thirsty for an icy cold drink, you know just what to do, even in a stranger's kitchen. Having located the big cabinet shingled with papers, you swing open the door and hold it ajar. With your free hand, you scoot the pickled okra to the left, nudge the artichoke salsa to the right, and grab your refreshment. To be told, "The check is in the mail," is to be given the brushoff. But to be told, "The beer is in the fridge," is to be offered both invitation and map.

It turns out the refrigerator is just about as old as the United States. It was a local man, Thomas Moore, who coined the word refrigerator to describe an appliance he patented in 1803. An engineer, inventor and farmer, Moore transported butter to the Georgetown market in his refrigerator, which was one oval wooden container within another; in the space between he put ice, and he wrapped the whole thing in rabbit fur for insulation. Customers preferred his fresh bricks of butter to the soft, melting tubs of his competitors.

The same basic technology endured for more than a hundred years: Ice cut from a frozen pond or river was put in a box to chill food. Many a grandpa still refers to the "icebox" (a newer word than refrigerator, icebox entered the vocabulary around 1846). In 1915, Sears, Roebuck offered a status icebox: a high-end model with a mahogany cabinet and a brass spigot that dispensed chilled water through the door.

Unfortunately, by then American waters had already become so sludged by industry and sewage that ice cut from them caused health problems in people's homes. The demand for "artificial" ice, manufactured from cleaner water, sped the arrival of the new technology, mechanical refrigeration.

Mechanical refrigeration starts with the principle that a liquid absorbs heat to vaporize and releases heat when it condenses. (Think of how water cools your skin as it evaporates, and how steam heats up the bathroom as it condenses back to water.) So modern fridges pump a liquid coolant around until it vaporizes, cooling what's inside; then they compress the coolant gas until it condenses back into liquid, and the cooling begins again.

In the early years, refrigerators weren't home appliances, they were factories. At first, they were nothing more than giant ice machines, although soon enough manufacturers figured out that they could skip the step of making ice in order to chill food elsewhere, and began chilling food on-site. Still, these refrigerator plants tended to leak or vent their coolants -- deadly sulfur dioxide and ammonia -- into the original toxic waste dump, the outdoors. You did not want a refrigerator plant in your back yard, let alone your kitchen; so at home, the icebox still prevailed.

Many a modern refrigerator brand can trace its origins to a guy puttering in a shed. In the early years of the 20th century, inventors around the world raced to build a compact, sealed cooling system, one that would recycle the same coolant indefinitely. The various brands used different technologies to solve the same problem; by 1920, there were more than 200 brands in all. Now that refrigerators were at last fit for home use, the market took off: U.S. companies manufactured 5,000 refrigerators in 1921, and 6 million in 1927.

George Foerstner was one of those guys puttering in a shed -- but a guy with a head for marketing, too. Foerstner hailed from Amana, Iowa, a communal settlement in the middle of nowhere. Foerstner had worked at Amana's general store, the woolen mill and his father's auto parts business. His reputation as a tinkerer and salesman prompted a local businessman to challenge him to build a reliable beer cooler. Foerst-ner brought together existing technology and the town's experienced cabinetmakers to build a walk-in refrigerator whose high quality appealed to brewers and butchers. He took his home town as his brand name. Foerstner cast Groucho Marx, Gary Cooper and Cecil B. DeMille in Amana ads, and he also sponsored a golf tournament. When golfers began wearing their Amana caps elsewhere, Foerstner had the original notion of paying athletes to wear his logo.

The industry's push to sell a refrigerator to every household in America coincided with the industrial design phenomenon of streamlining. Products of the 1920s and '30s look as if the world were spinning faster and everything had to run to keep up. Inspired by actual speedsters like airplanes and locomotives, streamlining spread to staplers and refrigerators. One designer, Raymond Loewy, had his hands on all of them.

Loewy gave a sleek, speedy look to the Pennsylvania Railroad, turned out a pencil sharpener that might have been a comet, and then tackled the refrigerator. At the time, the General Electric "Monitor Top" was America's most popular brand. Selling for $525 in 1927, it was a steel box with Queen Anne legs on the bottom and, on top, a whirring, honeycombed compressor that looked enough like the Civil War gunship the Monitor to take its name.

Sears, Roebuck wanted as distinctive a look for its own line of refrigerators. Another notable industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss, had previously fashioned a refrigerator with the compressor hidden in the cabinet. But for the 1935 Sears Coldspot, Loewy went further, encasing the machinery in a white, rounded-corner housing, and then he put on the door a chrome Coldspot nameplate, as if you could drive the refrigerator right out of the kitchen.

Loewy's Coldspot "Super Six" wiped clean easily, the handle could be nudged to open the door if your arms were full, and it featured such innovations as a glass rolling pin that, when filled with ice cubes, made pie crusts easy. There was a water cooler inside as well as a defroster and instant-release ice-cube trays, and buyers ate it up. In its first five years on the market, sales of that model soared from 60,000 to 275,000. That all those sales occurred during the Depression made industrial design a viable career choice.

For the next few decades, phones came in black, coffee came in caffeinated, and refrigerators came in white. A kitchen makeover meant new curtains and maybe a change of wallpaper. Now, however, entire magazines, television series and exclusive stores are devoted to kitchens. Those upgrading the kitchen today can consider such items as a refrigerated drawer -- faced with the same tiger maple as their cabinets -- where ice and chilled martini glasses slide from the wall. Or a fridge with built-in computer screen ("You've got kale"?). Customers can choose refrigerators that reflect their income, aesthetics and even lifestyle. Who ever thought an appliance could be so personal?

Whirlpool recently set out to answer a question that had been nagging its experts: With smaller families and more empty nesters, why weren't people asking for smaller refrigerators? The company installed video cameras in the homes of 75 volunteers. Triggered to run whenever the refrigerator door was opened, the cameras showed actual use, along with loading and unloading. At first, the scarcity of fresh meat and produce being stored in the fridge only underscored the company's question. But what the researchers realized was that people were stocking up on bulky packaged foods instead. And shelving an entire lasagna is more challenging than finding room for the ingredients alone -- especially since noodles and tomato paste would normally live in the cupboard, not the fridge.

It's hard to tell if customers are driving design or designers are driving customers. Take Sub-Zero's stainless-steel refrigerator. This space-age appliance broke the price barrier -- at $5,000, it costs at least five times the average -- imparting cachet where there was none. The steel implies that serious cooks (or lab technicians) work their magic in your kitchen. While customers appreciate how the shallow frame installs flush to the kitchen cabinets, one notes its massive girth and wonders whether it is the Humvee of refrigerators.

For all the space-age behemoths being installed in upscale kitchens, there's a curious countertrend going on. Capitalizing on nostalgia, companies are offering rounded-corner models in colors like lipstick red, despite the fact that refrigerators were almost always white until they were avocado green. And Roseland Icebox Co. of Blacksburg, Va., creates wooden iceboxes with modern refrigerator components inside. This flip-flopping of old and new can practically induce vertigo: Roseland's Web site touts a reproduction of an 1897 two-door Sears, Roebuck icebox with 2001 technology inside and an optional distressed finish outside, "which makes the 'new' icebox look aged."

The reproduction starts at around $5,000. George Foerstner would be impressed.