Nearly all of the books I've consulted highlight the importance of a clean and tidy refrigerator. 101 Things for a Housewife to Do, 1949 states:
To obtain the best results from a mechanical refrigerator, the shelves and the interior should be kept perfectly clean. The contents should be checked daily and spills wiped up. Once a week the interior should be wiped clean, especially the shelves. The ice trays should be emptied and refilled regularly.
America's Housekeeping Book agrees. To care for automatic refrigerators, it suggests the following:
Daily: Wipe up any spilled food at once.
Wipe top of refrigerator with a cloth wrung out in soapy water. Rinse with a cloth wrung out in clear water. Dry.
Remove any fingerprints around the handle of the door with mild soap and water. Rinse and dry as above.
Weekly: (This cleaning is usually done after defrosting. Unless your refrigerator is equipped with an automatic defrosting device, it should be defrosted whenever the accumulation of frost is 1/4-inch thick.)
Empty the pan under the freezing unit, wash in warm suds, rinse thoroughly and dry.
Remove freezing trays, empty and wash in hot soapsuds. Rinse with scalding water and dry. Remove racks or shelves and wash the same way. Wash interior and exterior the same way as the ice refrigerator (below).
Follow the manufacturer's directions for oiling the motor at regular intervals. (With most new models no oiling is necessary.
The book goes on to explain how ice refrigerators, which were still fairly common in 1941, should be taken care of:
Daily: Same as for automatic refrigerators.
Weekly: Remove racks or shelves and wash them in hot soapsuds. Rinse with scalding water and dry thoroughly.
Wash interior with a cloth wrung out of cool water in which borax or baking soda has been dissolved. (1 tablespoon of borax or soda to 1 pint water.)
Pour a strong solution of washing soda and water down the drain pipe and use a long brush to remove any accumulation of dirt or slime.
Remove drain pipe for cleaning if necessary.
Wash exterior with mild soapsuds. Rinse with a cloth wrung out of clean water, dry thoroughly.
Note: Be sure ice is washed before it is put in the refrigerator. Dissolve baking soda in cool water and pour over the ice occasionally to keep the drain pipe fresh and sweet.
Now for the confession: I can't remember when my refrigerator was last cleaned out. We occasionally take out disgusting stuff and throw it away, but actually removing the contents and washing everything down? Maybe once since we moved here in August. And while improvements in technology have obviously made it so we don't have to be quite as careful with fridge cleanliness as we did in ice box days, the truth is that my fridge is pretty gross.
Wanna see? Of course you do. This is what I'm starting with:
As I set about my task, I was surprised to see the first step in the instructions wasn't "clean all the gross, moldy, and otherwise disgusting crap out, then stack everything else all over the counters." Why? Could just be because that's obvious, but I think it's probably more due to the changes in circumstances between the 40s and now. People used to spend a far larger percentage of their incomes on food, and probably didn't have six open jars of jam or several half-bags of different types of bread clogging up their fridges.
That said, my fridge wasn't nearly as full of that stuff as I expected. Which is not a reflection on my housekeeping so much as the fact that we keep so much crap in our fridge that we have to weed it every time we go grocery shopping. The lack of food grossness was more than made up for in shelf grossness, though--there was more than one dried lake of something-formerly-sticky that I wouldn't even venture a guess at, as well as an entire spilled and fossilized bag of bay leaves and several loose shriveled baby carrots to contend with.
After I pulled everything out, I scrubbed all the interior surfaces with Mrs. Meyer's and hot water, then wiped them with a clean wet rag and dried them. I removed the crisper and meat drawers and washed them in the sink with dish soap and warm water, rinsed, and dried. Finally, I neatly replaced the contents. After repeating the process on the freezer, I removed all the magnets and things from the top of the fridge, used the Mrs. Meyers and water on the outside and top, rinsed, dried, and replaced much more neatly and sparingly.
All in all, the project took about 45 minutes. The results?
Will I do this one again? Absolutely. Will I do it once a week? Not a chance.