Biography of John Stanard, Inventor of a Better Refrigerator

The Black innovator also created a space-saving oil stove

John Stanard patents
Images submitted by John Stanard with his patent applications for improvements to the refrigerator and oil stove. Public Domain

John Stanard (born June 15, 1868) was a Black inventor from Newark, New Jersey, who patented improvements both to the refrigerator and the oil stove. Overcoming racial division in the United States at the time, Stanard revolutionized the modern kitchen and was granted intellectual property rights to two patents throughout his lifetime. In many references, his name is spelled "Standard," but there is no question that the correct spelling of his name is "Stanard," as that is how he spelled it in his two patent applications.  Little is known about Stanard's life, but his two patent applications—which were both granted—survive, including detailed drawings of his patented inventions.

Fast Facts: John Stanard

  • Known For: Black American inventor who patented improvements both to the refrigerator and the oil stove
  • Also Known As: John Standard (This is likely a misspelling of his name, found in many references.)
  • Born: June 15, 1868, in Newark, New Jersey
  • Died: 1900
  • Parents: Mary and Joseph Stanard
  • Notable Quote: "This invention relates to improvements in refrigerators; and it consists of certain novel arrangements and combinations of parts." 

Early Life

Stanard was born on June 15, 1868, in Newark, New Jersey, to Mary and Joseph Stanard. Although there is not much known about his early life, Stanard's improvements to kitchen appliances eventually led to more innovations in both refrigerator and stove designs that would change the way people around the world stored and cooked their food.

Stanard is commonly attributed with creating the first-ever refrigerator, but the patent issued on June 14, 1891, for his invention (U.S Patent No. 455,891) was a utility patent, which is only issued for an "improvement" on an existing patent.

Life for Black People in 1880s Newark, New Jersey

Throughout his career, Stanard defied the racial norms of his time by delving into scientific pursuits of research into cooling devices and stove constructions—a pursuit that was usually very limited to the Black community.

Though little is known about Stanard's life specifically, he lived and worked in an era and in a place—Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1880s and early 1890s—where life for Black people was difficult. After the Civil War, many Black people had migrated from the South to New Jersey, where they tended to live in cities. New Jersey at the time boasted a large Black community with Black service clubs, Black-owned businesses, and at least 12 Black-owned newspapers, according to Giles R. Wright, in "Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History," which was published by the New Jersey Historical Commission, a state government agency.  But most Black people in Newark, and throughout New Jersey, faced economic and racial repression, Wright stated:

"The masses of the race continued to occupy the lower rungs of the occupational ladder....(B)lack urban males...tended to be laborers, deliverymen, janitors, porters, teamsters, chauffeurs, waiters and servants. Women were heavily employed as laundresses, dressmakers and domestic servants. The prejudice of white employers and employees combined to exclude blacks from factory work and skilled crafts."

Wright said that comments such as this one from a report of the New Jersey Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries was typical:

"Their color and low instincts make them undesirable associates of white men."

With such a pattern of prejudice and discrimination extant in the cities of 1880s New Jersey, it's all the more remarkable that Stanard was able to design a new configuration for the refrigerator and oil stove that would be the standard for the millions of units of the appliances sold in coming decades.

The Refrigerator: A New Design

In his patent for the refrigerator, Stanard declared, "this invention relates to improvements in refrigerators, and it consists of certain novel arrangements and combinations of parts." Stanard was saying that he had found a way to improve the design of refrigerators—a non-electrical and unpowered design, Stanard's refrigerator made in 1891 used a manually-filled ice chamber for chilling and was granted a patent on June 14, 1891.

Stanard did not invent the refrigerator itself, vapor-compression, or the liquifying of gases (which was an important step toward the development of refrigerators), as others had taken those important steps decades before Stanard received his patent. What Stanard created was a manually filled ice chamber that was separate from the main refrigerator unit. The ice-filled chamber was located in the left bottom corner area of the unit, while the main refrigerator section was to the right. He introduced air ducts or holes to help cold air circulate from the ice chamber to the main refrigerator.

The cold air, and cold "drip," was passed from the ice chamber to the refrigerator through "cold-air ducts and perforations...(ensuring that) a constant circulation of air is maintained through the several chambers, and the water for drinking purposes in the receptacle d is always kept cool," Stanard wrote in his patent application. Years later, others commented on the originality and usefulness of Stanard's invention. "One of the clever features of Mr. Stanard’s refrigerator was the provision of cold, clean water from a tap on the front of the device," notes 3D Warehouse, a website owned by Trimble Inc., a Sunnyvale, California-based hardware, software, and services technology company.

A New Oil Stove: Perfect for Buffets

A couple of years earlier, Stanard had also worked on innovations to improve the home kitchen, and his 1889 oil stove was a space-saving design that he suggested could be used for buffet-style meals on trains. He received U.S. Patent No. 413,689 for this improvement on the Stanard stovetop on Oct. 29, 1889.

As Stanard described his oil stove improvement:

"The hereindescribed invention consists in certain improvements in that class of oilstoves. used more particularly in places where space is limited-as, for instance, in buffet cars, &c. the object being to furnish attachments for such stoves which will enable the cooking of a great variety of meats, vegetables, &c., at one time."

Generations of caterers and patrons of wedding receptions, meetings, parties, and buffets—where food is served hot in portable catering stoves—have Stanard to thank for the basic design.

Death and Legacy

As with his life, little is known about Stanard's death. He died in 1900, which would have made him 31 or 32 years old at the time. The basic idea of having a "freezer" separate from the main refrigerator unit was his—though the freezer and refrigerator were not yet electric at the time. Still, Stanard foreshadowed the millions of sports fans and TV-watchers, who would in later years rush the fridge to grab a "cold one" between commercials.

Stanard even mentioned cold alcoholic drinks in describing his device's benefits:

"The (refrigerator) chamber cf is adapted for use for bottles-such as wine or liquor bottles-over which the drip passes, keeping them perfectly cool."

And the notion of catered buffets and events was also, really, Stanard's invention. As noted, he even mentioned the "buffet" as a perfect use for his modified oil stove, though he was referring to buffets on rail cars, as trains were a major mode of passenger transportation in his largely pre-automobile era.

These inventions were certainly remarkable achievements for a Black man who grew up and lived in an area and time plagued by racism and discrimination, and more so for the fact that he created these seminal appliance design changes during little more than three decade of life.

View Article Sources
  1. US455891A - Refrigerator.” Google Patents, Google, patents.google.com.

  2. US413689A - Oil-Stove.” Google Patents, Google, patents.google.com.

  3. Wright, Giles R. Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History. New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Department of State, 1988.

  4. The History of the Refrigerator.” Sandvik Materials Technology.