The Coolgardie safe uses evaporation to keep the food inside cool, while protecting it from flies and scavengers. It was invented in the late 1890s on the Western Australian goldfields, an invention credited to a local contractor named Arthur Patrick McCormick. The Coolgardie safe was widely used in country areas well into the 20th century. (Image: Museum Victoria)
The Coolgardie safe was Australia’s precursor to the domestic refrigerator. The appliance consisted of a timber or metal-framed cabinet with open sides covered in hessian fabric. On top of the cabinet a tank was filled with water and strips of felt trailed down from the tank to the hessian. Through a wicking action, water dripped onto the hessian, keeping it damp.
The safe was generally kept on a verandah or in a breezeway. As the breeze evaporated water from the fabric it absorbed the heat from the surrounding air and kept the contents of the Coogardie safe cool. The feet of the safe were often placed in another tray of water to deter ants.
Although McCormick is credited with the invention, the principle of keeping things cool with wet fabric was not new. A columnist in the Melbourne publication “Table Talk” wrote in 1911: “It is just a variation of the bushman’s hessian bag hanging in a tree, but whereas that has to be wetted constantly, with this idea of having a tin full of water, it only needs to be filled once or twice in the twenty-four hours.” Agricultural journalist and educationist William Catton Grasby attributed the invention of the first water cooled safe to Mr. B. Seppelt of Seppeltsfield in South Australia, in 1895.
Coolgardie safes were sold commercially, but many were also home-made. There were many different manufacturers in Western Australia and elsewhere. The Trafalgar Cold Safe was widely distributed throughout Australia and promoted as “Cold Storage Without Ice”. As ice-making technology became more widespread in the early 20th century, the icebox replaced the Coolgardie safe in cities and country towns where ice was readily available.
In rural areas, the introduction of the kerosene fridge in the 1920s provided an alternative before the widespread availability of electricity. However, these were expensive to run and regarded as a luxury item, so the Coolgardie safe remained the main method of food storage in country Australia for many decades.