GE Monitor-Top Refrigerator

Mechanical refrigeration units for home use became available to American consumers for the first time in 1910 when General Electric of Schenectady, New York, manufactured a model called the Dumbbell. Its wood case looked like traditional ice boxes, but when it debuted the electric unit sold for the significant amount of $1,000.00, a pricetag beyond the reach of most Americans. GE’s Electric Refrigeration Division soon set to work making improvements.

In 1927, the company marketed a refrigerator with the compressor mounted on top. The unit quickly gained the name “Monitor Top” because the top-mounted refrigeration compressor ressembled the gun turret on the Civil War ironclad ship named the USS Monitor. The refrigerator entered the market with a price tag around $525, but within a few years models were selling as low as $200, making GE’s Monitor Top refrigerators affordable for many Americans.

In addition to being affordable, the Monitor Top’s hermetically sealed steel case, designed by GE’s chief engineer Christian Steenstrup, looked modern (even though it had legs that mimicked colonial period furniture) and appealed to consumers increasingly concerned with food safety and health. The compressor coils were completely covered, which prevented dust from collecting in hard-to-reach places, and the steel case could be easily scrubbed, both inside and out.

During the 1930s competition from other companies led to design changes, most noticeably the concealment of the compressor unit within the refrigerator case, instead of on top of it, and the elimination of feet, resulting in a box-like unit that resembled our modern day refrigerators.


Magnifying Glass
Monitor-Top Refrigerator
General Electric, Schenectady, New York
c. 1933
Steel with enamel finish
Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of the estate of Ruth and William Streets, 2003.56
Magnifying Glass
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Photomechanical print on paper