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Many older cookbooks call for filling a “refrigerator tray”. For example, in the 1960 Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cook Book the recipe for “Banana Ice Cream” says to “Pour into refrigerator trays. Freeze till firm.” and in Anne London’s 1972 American-International Encyclopedic Cookbook, the recipe for “Refrigerator Tray Pie” says to “Pack half the crumb mixture into a refrigerator tray. Chill… Return to refrigerator to freeze.”

Doing a search for “refrigerator tray” on archive.org, I found the pamphlet for Use and Care of Your New Norge Refrigerator which mentions many uses for refrigerator trays, all involving freezing in some way. From the various recipes for ice cream and other frozen desserts on pages 31-32,

Pour into refrigerator trays and freeze.

Freeze in refrigerator tray.

…freeze in refrigerator tray until firm.

From this, I can deduce that a refrigerator tray is something that you can pour liquids into and then put into the freezer, but that’s about it.

Those pages also mention trays without the qualifier “refrigerator”:

Pour into tray of chilling unit and freeze to mush.

Pour into tray and chill to soft jelly… Return to tray and freeze to desired firmness.

Turn into freezer tray and freeze 45 minutes to 1 hour.

The list of definitions on page 9 does not include a definition for refrigerator trays, although it does include one for ice trays, and specifically mentions using them for making ice cream:

Ice Trays: Fill the trays with water to within 1/4 in. of the top. Place trays in their section on top of main freezer compartment. When making Ice Cream, use the aluminium tray by removing plastic cups or dividers.

I would guess that the ice trays mentioned are the metal trays for making ice cubes, which used to come with a removable (always metal, in my limited experience) divider that doubled as a loosening device for the ice cubes. They seem awfully small for use as a dessert pan, but then the Better Homes and Garden recipe did use the plural for its mention of refrigerator trays.

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  • Old recipes were pretty simple - there's no tricks, and they definitely expect that you have a basic understanding of what you're doing in the kitchen. A refrigerator tray is nothing more complicated than what it sounds like - a tray that fits in your refrigerator. The author of the recipe is assuming that you know what the dish should look like and that you are capable of selecting an appropriately sized and shaped tray to fit the recipe.
    – J...
    Apr 1 at 16:12
  • A thing to keep in mind is that, in modern times, many people don't really spend a lot of time in the kitchen and recipes are generally written for an audience that may not have a lot of experience cooking. A hundred years ago, however, nearly all adult women were effectively professional homemakers - they spent their full working days cooking, cleaning, and, looking after the home. Cookbooks from that time are written with that audience in mind, so they assume a certain routine familiarity and they omit a lot of details that such a professional would simply be expected to know.
    – J...
    Apr 1 at 17:05
  • @J… That looks wholly true and how did it help poor Jerry Stratton? The problem here seems to be not what a refrigerator tray is, but how it might be involved in freezing which, of course, refrigerators can't do. Jerry, don't you think the tray is one thing and what it's used for, quite another. Some early fridges might not have but all half-way modern models did and do include freezing compartments… Is that enough to make sense of the recipes you quoted? Apr 5 at 19:49
  • Thanks, Robbie. Yes, older recipes often assume a lot that isn’t general knowledge today. Note, the Norge fridge whose manual I referenced and linked does have a freezer section. For now, when a recipe calls for freezing in a refrigerator tray I mostly use dessert glasses, cover in plastic wrap, and freeze, so that I have single servings in the freezer. It works. But I would like to know what they mean by “refrigerator tray”; all modern references I could find were refrigerator bins. It seems unlikely they meant take the meat or crisper bin, fill with ice cream mix, and freeze. Apr 5 at 20:27
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I ran a quick search on ebay Images. Looks like a refrigerator tray is a shallow glass or enameled dish. I saw a few plastic ones, also from the 60s-70s.

Examples of refrigerator trays

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    I mean eBay, not Google Images! LOL Mar 31 at 23:37
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    Hi, Sharon. In your searches, did you find any evidence that refrigerator makers include the cold storage trays for the purpose of freezing foods? That they expect the consumer to occasionally remove the meat or crisper bin from the refrigerator section, fill it with, say, an ice cream recipe, and then place it in the freezer to freeze? Apr 1 at 13:20
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For freezing ice cream or other confections in a refrigerator’s freezer area, a refrigerator tray was a rectangular, shallow, open container. The ice cube tray (often provided with the refrigerator) began, around the mid-to-late thirties, to be fitted with a removable divider so that it doubled as the refrigerator tray.

Ice cube trays with removable dividers are referred to as “refrigerator trays” and were designed specifically for freezing desserts.

The terms “refrigerator tray”, “freezer tray”, and “ice cube tray” were used somewhat interchangeably for making desserts with these trays, at least during the period after ice cube trays with removable dividers were included with refrigerators and until the included ice cube trays became one-piece plastic trays.

The Carnation Fun to Cook Book, for example, has a recipe for “tropical freeze” on page 40; for the final freeze, the recipe is poured into “two small (or 1 large) refrigerator trays”. The drawings accompanying the recipe show shallow, rectangular trays.

Tropical Freeze recipe with drawings

Experiences with Foods by L. Belle Pollard includes notes on “making ice cream in the home refrigerator” on page 258.

The ingredients have been combined according to the recipe and poured into the refrigerator trays or molds.

The accompanying photo shows two of these refrigerator trays. They are metal, rectangular, and shallow.

Making ice cream in the home refrigerator

You can also see refrigerator trays used for desserts in this 1951 commercial for a Westinghouse refrigerator.

By at least the late 1960s, authors had begun to use the term “ice cube tray” in recipes for ice creams made in the refrigerator. In Vincent and Mary Price’s 1965 A Treasury of Great Recipes, there is a recipe for Tre Scalini’s Hazelnut Ice Cream on page 93 that says to “Pour into 2 ice-cube trays and freeze. This makes a soft ice cream.”

Borden’s The Dessert Lovers’ Hand Book from 1969 also contains recipes for making ice creams in the home refrigerator. The accompanying illustration shows the same shallow, rectangular container, but in this case calls it an “ice cube tray”—despite there being no cube shapes in that container as drawn. The ice cube grid has been removed.

Vanilla ice cream recipe from Dessert Lovers’ Hand Book

Borden’s 1952 Borden’s Eagle Brand 70 Magic Recipes uses the term “freezer tray” for the same Vanilla Ice Cream recipe that their 1969 Dessert Lovers’ Hand Book contains. The recipe is the same; only the terminology has changed.

One patent for a refrigerator tray with removable grids for ice cubes is Richard E. Kaufmann’s patent 2,112,027 filed October 3, 1936, found in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office Volume 488. The patent is labeled “Refrigerator Tray” and shows a “removable grid for ice cube trays”.

Patent 2,112,027 diagram

A slightly earlier patent, Louis Brownstein’s patent 2,037,364 from March 17, 1934, is labeled “Ice Cube Tray”, but specifically mentions its use for desserts:

My invention further contemplates the provision of a freezing tray from which the grid partitions and other parts may be readily removed for purposes of cleaning or when the tray is to be used without its partitions, as when it is desired to freeze desserts, etc. in the tray.

Brownstein writes specifically that the grid-less tray may “be used for freezing liquid desserts in one mass”.

You can see ice cube trays with removable dividers in this 1954 commercial for a Crosley Super Shelvador.

Here’s an example of a later iteration of an ice cube tray with a removable divider, a double-sized Quickube from a Frigidaire refrigerator:

enter image description here

Notes

  • While traveling recently I acquired Borden’s Dessert Lovers’ Hand Book and Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes. The reference to ice cube trays in these two books provided the necessary clue to answering my own question—that a refrigerator tray and an ice cube tray were at least in some instances the same thing. This led to finding Kaufmann’s patent on a refrigerator tray that was clearly an ice cube tray.
  • Borden’s 1969 Dessert Lovers’ Hand Book also includes instructions for making ice cream in specialized ice cream churns; the 1952 70 Magic Recipes only has recipes for making ice cream in the refrigerator.
  • The archived version of Borden’s 70 Magic Recipes that I linked to is supposedly dated 1956; I’m not sure how archive.org arrived at that date; the only obvious differences between the archived version and my copy appears to be that (a) mine has a copyright year of 1952 on the inside front cover where the archived version does not include the year in the inside-front-cover copyright statement; and (b) the inside back page on mine has what I think is a print date of 8-52 and a version of E-56 where the archived version has what I think is a print date of 5-63 and a version of E-56 Rev.
  • The Quickube ice cube tray has levers for more easily removing the grids from the tray, a feature mentioned in later patents such as F.W. Sampson’s 1946 patent 2,573,066 and E.H. Roberts’s 1956 patent 2,763,997 both of which are fascinating historically but don’t address this question.
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    This has to be the best researched and sourced answer for a not-that-popular question I've ever seen across all of stack exchange
    – MGOwen
    Jul 6 at 10:15
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Fridges circa that era didn't have a dedicated freezer compartment, instead they had a section in the main compartment, where you could utilize those trays, in or under. This Google search should give a better idea. These trays were used for ice, for which we have a modern resemblances.

With the recipe I think they mean that you don't have to empty your freezer section, simply putting a tray under it should be enough.

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