North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

A technological tour of the Biltmore Estate

By Sue Clark McKendree

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Refrigeration room

The refrigeration room in the Biltmore House had two thick doors to keep the room cold. (Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. More about the photograph)

Interpreting the refrigeration room

Mechanical refrigeration saw its first commercial use in the U.S. in a hospital in Apalachicola, Florida as early as 1844. However, it was still considered to be very innovative in 1895 in domestic applications, and at a time when the rest of the country was still making do with ice boxes and spring houses, Biltmore House was equipped with five refrigerators operating off of an electrically-powered system.

The first successful domestic refrigerator was developed in the United States. The Domelre (Domestic Electric Refrigerator) was marketed in Chicago in 1913, eighteen years after the completion of Biltmore House. Kelvinator made its first machine in 1916 and Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors, followed quickly in 1917. The first mention of the use of domestic refrigerators in England was the Swedish Electrolux in 1926.1

It is extremely challenging to talk about original systems that later were upgraded or removed and for which little documentation survives. While there are many archival references to proposals for upgrades to the original refrigeration system for Biltmore House, it is not possible to tell what changes were actually made.

  • Hunt specified that Biltmore’s original refrigeration system be capable of chilling 50 gallons of liquids and 500 pounds of meats and vegetables to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • James Garrett & Co., Contractors, Philadelphia, and F. M. Lindsey of Asheville supplied materials for the installation of the refrigeration system.2
  • The refrigeration system in Biltmore House chilled two walk-in refrigerators in the Basement hallway as well as several smaller units in the Main Kitchen and Pastry Kitchen and the Butler’s Pantry. The largest, the walk-in cooler, was for general storage and measured ten by thirteen by seven feet, six inches in height.

refrigerator doors

One of the smaller refrigeration units in the Main Kitchen in Biltmore House. Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company.

Interpreting the refrigerators

The first archival references to refrigeration equipment are found in correspondence with the Wickes Refrigerator Company, 860 Broadway, New York dated 1893. They include orders for ice blocks [moulds?] and a patent tile-lined refrigerator 4×2’3”x5’1” for $95.00.3 It is possible that this refrigerator was to be used at the Brick House where Mr. Vanderbilt stayed when the House was still under construction.

  • The refrigerators now seen in the House were ordered in 1894, the following year. “Estimate and Specification No. 8112, covering the construction of Five (5) ‘Lorillard’ Refrigerators, for the residence of Mr. Geo. W. Vanderbilt” is dated Nov. 22, 1894. These five refrigerators included:
    1. A general storage cooler measuring 10 feet 31/2 inches wide by 13 feet deep by 71/2 feet high with an ice tank at the back, moveable shelving and meat hooks.
    2. A cooler for the Pastry Room measuring 5 feet wide, 21/2 feet deep and 5 feet high with an ice tank in the center dividing the unit into 2 sections. The lower right side was fitted with a row of galvanized iron drawers while the left side had moveable shelving.
    3. A cooler for kitchen use measuring 6 feet wide by 21/2 feet deep by 5 feet 4 inches with ice tank, drawers and moveable shelves similar to the pastry cooler.
    4. A cooler for the servant’s pantry [adjacent to the upper servants’ dining room] measuring 4 feet 2 inches wide by 2 feet 3 inches deep by 4 feet high with an ice tank in the center and moveable shelves on either side, and
    5. A series of small coolers for the Butler’s Pantry Dimensions and arrangement to be in accordance with sketch No. 8076, previously submitted.
  • All of the refrigerators were to be lined with hammered glass, treated with the “Lorillard” special process, which resembled white porcelain.
  • All of the floors were to be tiled.
  • Other materials included galvanized wrought iron, oak, ash, pine, felt paper, boiler hair felting [horsehair insulation?], tinned hooks and solid polished brass hardware.
  • All of the units were fitted with special locks made by Lorillard.
  • All of the units contained ice tanks on sliding rails that could be filled with ice.4

Interpreting the mechanical refrigeration system

An “Order and Contract Form” dated July 8th, 1895 describes Hill’s Patent Refrigerating Apparatus, made by The Hill Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, PA. This was the equipment that was installed in the Sub-Basement to produce the chilled brine water that would cool the refrigerators described above.

  • The equipment included a “No. D Iron Ammonia Still or Boiler, complete with heads, coils, fittings, supporting frames and insulation.”
  • Other parts included a “Separator, Condenser, Absorbers, Relief Bottle or Equalizer, with all the necessary tanks and connections.”
  • An iron brine tank also was specified, as well as “one Brine pump, either electrical or steam, for circulating the brine from the tank to the refrigerators.”
  • The “heating apparatus for supplying heat to the ammonia still” [which evaporated the condensed ammonia back into gas] consisted of a “steam boiler carrying not less than 50 pounds steam pressure.”
  • Hunt was to make provisions for the “chemical [sodium chloride] for making the charge of brine, and the Concentrated Aqua Ammonia for charging the apparatus.”
  • The refrigerators and cooling apparatus were required to cool 50 gallons of liquid and 500 pounds of meat and vegetables from 80 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The still for condensing the ammonia was to operate 5 to 6 hours a day and consume “not more than 2 H. P. of steam per hour…and consumption of water not more than 2700 gallons per day at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”
  • On June 5, 1900, the Henry Vogh Machine Company submitted a proposal for replacing the original cooling system with their “Standard Six Ton Refrigerating Machine.”
  • The Absorber and Regulator were to be the “Latest type vertical tubular absorber” with a “patented automatic regulator.”
  • The horizontal ammonia pump featured a fly wheel with a speed of 20 to 30 revolutions per minute.
  • The unit contained a “Standard equalizer for heating the strong liquid [ammonia] and cooling the weak liquid [ammonia].”
  • The “equalized” ammonia then entered a “generator” with an “evaporating surface to be ample large to generate all gas necessary for the machine.”
  • The “Condenser and Weak Liquid Cooler” was to “consist of ample number of coils made with heavy wrought iron pipe.”
  • Finally, they proposed to “paint the ammonia pump and absorber in a tasty and artistic manner…”5
  • In 1901, Charles Waddell wrote to Charles McNamee regarding a proposal to Messrs. Steele & Condict of Jersey City to install a five-ton refrigerating ice plant, including a new brine tank to replace the one currently in use. Waddell wrote that “the great trouble with our present plant is the rusting through of the brine tank at the joints [most likely from the corrosion caused by the salt].”6
  • In 1903, Waddell submitted another proposal, this time from the Frick Company, to install an engine, two gas pumps, ammonia condenser, brine cooler, anhydrous liquid ammonia and 10 600-pound drums of calcium chloride (salt) for making the brine, at a total cost of $1400.7
  • We do not know whether either of these last two systems was installed, because in 1923, Waddell wrote to Estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle proposing to make renovations to the “mechanical plant in Biltmore House.” Waddell included in this 1923 letter a quotation of $4,395 from the Johns-Manville Company to replace the complete refrigeration plant with the “same type of machine as that used at the Grove Park Inn” which was fully automatic and required no attendant to operate. The Johns-Manville proposal must have been accepted and the equipment installed.
  • Although we know little about the men who worked here, the 1903–1904 budget for the Electrical Department includes a salary of $638.75 for an Ice Plant Engineer.8
  • Unfortunately, we have very few parts of any of the systems left. They may have been sold or donated for scrap metal during WWII.

Interpreting the system operation

Suggest that students use their imagination as you describe how the system worked.

  • Ammonia gas was chilled and condensed into liquid form by an electrically-powered compressor. The liquid ammonia then circulated through coils inside a large iron tank of brine water which sat on the platform.
  • When the liquid ammonia absorbed the heat from the brine water, it evaporated back into gas. It was then was re-compressed and condensed back into liquid and re-circulated through the coils.
  • The ammonia gas never mixed with the brine water!
  • The brine solution was chilled to (20-22 degrees F) by the liquid ammonia in the coils. Brine water was used because the addition of salt to water lowers the freezing point. It was the addition of salt that allowed the solution to be chilled to below the freezing point (32 degrees) and still remain a liquid.
  • This brine water was then circulated through pipes from the Sub-basement into the insulated refrigerators, where it absorbed the heat from the food. It then was re-circulated back into the Sub-basement to be chilled again.
  • Essentially, the system consisted of two closed loops with heat exchange occurring when the ammonia passed through the brine and when the brine passed through the refrigerators.
  • Similar systems are still in use today in commercial applications.
  • Ask who might have travelled in an RV, and ask what kind of refrigeration they use. It may very well be an ammonia gas and brine system.
  • We have been told that this same kind of system also is in use in the NASA Space Station although we have not yet been able to confirm whether it is true.

Interpreting the ice-making plant

Point out the ice chest, with the holes in its lid from ice picks. Ice was used at Biltmore House for mealtime drinks or for chilling bottles of wine, as well as for keeping food cold during an afternoon picnic.

Hunt’s specifications called for the Hill Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia “to furnish and erect one three hundred (300) pound Ice Maker, consisting of one brine tank with all connections, valves and fittings, and with full complement of ice molds, each mold holding 25 pounds of ice.”

Additional interpretation

The refrigeration Room is currently used to display examples of other modern technologies incorporated into Biltmore House.

washing machine

A washing machine at the Biltmore House. Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. About the photograph

The washing machines

Electric washing machines could be found in many American homes by the mid-1920s.9 The Biltmore House laundry consisted of a four-room complex that was organized on a commercial scale. With 33 guest and family bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, the family, guests and servants required literally hundreds of pieces of table and bed linens, towels, and articles of clothing that needed to be washed, dried, and pressed and folded.

  • In the Main Laundry, a turn-of-the-century barrel washing machine was driven by an overhead belt turned by a shaft powered by a remote electrical motor.
  • An extractor removed excess water from wet laundry by rapid spinning it before it was dried. Its power source was a dedicated electrical motor.
  • A booster mounted on the wall of the Main Laundry provided extra hot water.

Between 1906 and 1908, Charles Waddell carried out a modernization scheme of the House’s electrical systems. In some cases, he converted machinery designed to apply heat to certain tasks from solid fuel to electricity. Several of his innovations were designed for use in the laundry. The ironing mangle, used to press linens, was a very innovative addition. The large rotating drum was originally heated by steam. As part of Waddell’s modernization scheme, the mangle was converted to electricity by installing heating elements inside the rotating drum.

  • Fine clothes and linens were washed by hand in the Brown Laundry.
  • At Biltmore, all laundry was dried indoors, eliminating the need for unsightly clothes lines and dependence on dry days and sunshine.

Correspondence in the Archives refers to problems with the servants “hanging” their personal laundry by spreading it on bushes to dry in the sun near the Stable complex. Estate Manager Charles McNamee found this method of drying clothes to be unsightly and insisted that the practice be discontinued immediately.

laundry drying racks

Laundry drying racks in the Biltmore Estate Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company.

  • The system for drying clothes and linens consisted of a drying chamber where heated air was circulated through laundry draped on wooden racks. The racks rolled in and out of the chamber for loading and unloading.
  • From 1895 to 1906, the air in the drying chamber was heated by steam pipes. This proved to be very inefficient, and under Waddell’s direction, the steam pipes were replaced by electric coils buried in the chamber’s floor.
  • After drying, much of the laundry had to be ironed with small but very heavy “sad irons” (so-called perhaps because ironing was such an unpleasant task) heated on special coal stoves.
  • After 1906, the coal stoves were replaced by electric stoves as part of Charles Waddell’s modernization program.
  • Waddell described a typical day’s ironing to calculate the amount of power used: “Two girls worked six hours each. 219 pieces were ironed: articles were stockings, handkerchiefs, towels, napkins, pillow cases, petticoats, skirts. Gross weight, damp, 63 lb. Net weight, dry 41 lbs. Kw-hr, 24.”

The first electric iron was patented by H. W. Seeley in 1882. A similar model made in France just a few years later had been described as “a handful of blinding light, flying sparks and weird noises.” An early model manufactured in London in 1895 weighed fourteen pounds.10 All of the early electric irons needed to be turned off periodically to cool down. Temperature controlling thermostats were not invented until around 1925.11

  • The door opposite the entrance to the Main Laundry originally led into the Ironing Room. It is now used as a storage room and is the location of the floral cooler.
  • The older wooden washing machine is not original to the collection, but is very much like the original machine that was in the Main Laundry. The washing machine now displayed in the Main Laundry is not original to the collection, and represents the kind of machine that the Vanderbilts might have upgraded to around 1917. We purchased this older machine with the intentions of using it when the Basement was restored and opened in 1980, but, according to Rick King, there were some problems in fitting it to the original pipes in the laundry. We still may install it at sometime in the future, if we can find a way to make it work.
  • The newer washing machine dates to the 1930s. It was a more modern addition used by the Cecils, who, like the Vanderbilts, constantly upgraded technologies in the House as they became available. Front-loading washers like this one are more efficient than top loaders, use much less water and detergent, and consequently are enjoying a resurgence of sales. In fact, in Europe, it is virtually impossible to buy less–efficient top-loading washing machines.

The telegraph machine

In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone invented the electric telegraph. However, it was not until the invention of Morse code by Samuel Morse in 1844 that the telegraph machine came into common use.

  • Telegraph service was in place here as early as December of 1895.
  • The Dec. 26, 1895 Asheville Citizen described the preparations for the first Christmas in Biltmore House, and noted that “For the better convenience of the house party, a loop of the Western Union Telegraph Company has been wired in the chateau and J. P. Miller, an Asheville boy, is the operator in charge.”12
  • A letter from the Archives dated March, 1896, refers to an order for a “carload of red cedar telegraph poles, all twenty-five feet long, excepting ten, which I should like thirty-five feet long… We require such poles as you furnish the Western Union Telegraph Company.”13
  • We do not know how long the telegraph office was in operation. There is no mention of a telegraph operator in a listing of House staff in a May 29, 1898 edition of the New York World, although the machine may have been operated by a servant with other duties.

The vaulted ceiling

All of the bricks used in the fireproof floors, ceilings and walls of Biltmore House were manufactured on-site, at the Biltmore Brick and Tile Works factory, at about one-half the cost of purchasing bricks. The fire-proof vaulted ceiling was much stronger than a flat ceiling, and provided much-needed support and stability for the five levels of structure above.


Explain that the group will now be seeing the mechanism for one of the dumbwaiters and will get an introduction to the heating system.