Refrigerator Magnets, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
American Community

The typical American refrigerator acts as family communications center.

specialty and novelty refrigerator magnets

Specialty and novelty magnets on display at an American bookstore.

Refrigerator Magnets
The idea of a bare refrigerator strikes a dissonant chord in American life; refrigerators should be well stocked within, of course, but Americans also use magnets that adhere to the outsides of their refrigerators for a number of purposes. The imprinted magnets can often make statements themselves—a souvenir of a vacation or a political sentiment perhaps—or serve the more practical purpose of holding up a shopping list, a photograph, or an example of a child’s artwork.

When an American family moves from one residence to another, the placing of the old magnets on the new refrigerator may well function as the final act that turns the new house into a “home.” Festooned with magnets, the refrigerator will serve as the family’s center for communication, cultural commemoration, and even emotional expression. Local community services distribute magnets to serve as emergency resources: the telephone number for the local police and fire departments, for example, or a poison control hotline. Local businesses also distribute magnets in the hope they will be placed on the refrigerator for handy reference; a real-estate agent’s magnet may come in the shape of a house, an automobile repair shop’s magnet in the shape of a car, an electrician’s in the shape of a light bulb. Business card and calendar magnets are also widely used as advertising.

Specialty magnets, either purely decorative, or commemorating a geographic location or event, are sold in a wide variety of formats, even a three-dimensional magnet featuring an miniature refrigerator that opens and lights up. Magnetic picture frames and mirrors are popular. Magnets may express political sentiment (making fun of one politician for example, or in support of another) or may reflect religious themes. A common specialty magnet theme is the simple statement “Danger” or “Don’t Open Me,” reflecting the fact that Americans are often overweight and diet conscious and need to avoid their refrigerators (or at least the inside of the refrigerator).

Cheap souvenir magnets often have only enough power to hold themselves up. More powerful “rare earth” magnets are available that are suitable for holding up heavier items like brochures and artwork, though these are available in a smaller range of designs. American hardware stores and home centers sell small plain magnets that provide good holding power at an affordable price.

Book and specialty stores sell sets of magnets imprinted with words that allow the owner to combine and re-combine them to create poetry, to make humorous statements, to tell stories, and even make psychiatric diagnoses. Magnet sets also come in the form of dress up dolls; you can alter the magnetic clothing depending on your mood of the day. Art museums sell larger-format magnets featuring reproductions of their exhibitions. Many Americans collect refrigerator magnets.

In the psychological, emotional, and sociological realm, American refrigerators undoubtedly speak. It would not be difficult, for example, to tell the difference between the refrigerator of a diet-conscious, travel-obsessed single person and the appliance of a home in which several pre-teens take soccer practice and music lessons. Do the magnets and messages of one family member crowd out others? Are the magnets neatly and symmetrically arranged, or is the refrigerator a hodge-podge of overlapping photos, brochures and lists? Does the configuration of refrigerator images reflect hidden or even pathological needs? In the alternative, is there a paradigm of an emotionally healthy refrigerator? To make matters even more complicated, what about the comparison of the outside of the refrigerator to the inside. If one is a mess, while the other is steadfastly neat, have we encountered a potential emotional time bomb? What about the people who (provided their refrigerator is ferrous) refuse to adorn their refrigerator at all? Certainly the question of how American “refrigerator real estate” is allocated is one that is fertile for further rigorous academic study.

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