How was ice made and sold in pre-industrial times?

March 17, 2006

Dear Cecil:

When I'm reading novels of, say, the antebellum south and there's a guy who goes around on a cart selling blocks of ice, how the heck did he get it? I mean, they didn't have the fridge to rely on. Did they go way up north and cut blocks of ice and pack it in straw for the summer, or was there a way to manufacture ice at that time? I can't figure this one out and have nowhere else to turn. Please help.

Cecil replies:

Don't despair, Terwiliger. The ice business, like carburetor rebuilding or vinyl record manufacture, is one of those vanished (or mostly vanished) enterprises that baffles later generations. If you think selling ice is nutty, ask an old engineering geek what it was like using a slide rule.

To answer your question, yes, they cut ice up north in winter and packed it away for sale in the summer. You might guess that ice harvesting, as it was called, was an ancient trade. Not really. While stories of hauling snow down from the mountains for summer cooling date back to Roman times, the widespread practice of chilling food to preserve it, and thus the need for a reliable source of cold, is less than two centuries old.

The man credited with creating the ice business and ushering in the era of fresh foods is Frederic Tudor, described by his biographer Gavin Weightman (The Frozen-Water Trade, 2003) as "a diminutive, pig-headed Bostonian." Tudor was one of your classic when-life-hands-you-lemons-make-lemonade kind of guys. While his fellow New Englanders waited out the long winters huddled around the stove, Tudor beheld the frozen landscape and thought: There's money in that ice.

In 1806 Tudor made his first shipment of ice cut from a frozen Massachusetts pond. His initial market wasn't the American South, though, but the West Indies, which had torrid summers and ports served by ships needing paying cargo on the trip south. The first voyage was a fiasco, Tudor having neglected to consider (among other oversights) how prospective customers would store the ice once they got it. Undaunted, he toiled for years building up the market (two smart moves: selling customers insulated "ice boxes" and promoting ice-cold drinks), enduring ridicule, financial hardship, and a nervous breakdown. One critical advance came in 1825, when his associate Nathaniel Wyeth invented the horse-drawn ice plow, whose twin blades set roughly 20 inches apart made it possible to score a frozen lake into a checkerboard pattern and harvest ice on an industrial basis. Tudor built up a thriving business in Havana, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans and in 1833 profitably shipped ice around the Cape of Good Hope to Calcutta. The industry now firmly established, Tudor was celebrated as the Ice King.

Ice-harvesting technology was pretty basic. Although the principles of mechanical refrigeration were generally understood in Ben Franklin's day, practical application was decades away. What kept harvested ice frozen was its sheer bulk: the more that could be tightly packed together, the longer it stayed cold. Ice houses, where stock could be stored year-round, had double outer walls separated by an insulator such as sawdust. An opening at the top vented the latent heat released by melting; water drained at the bottom lest it hasten thawing. Even so, the melt loss was huge — Wyeth guessed that in the early days 90 percent of the ice harvest disappeared before it could be sold. Better transportation, notably railroads, reduced losses, but even as of 1879, when the annual harvest was upward of eight million tons, about three million turned to water before it could reach market. Weather was another concern — an unseasonably warm winter could lead to an "ice famine" the following summer.

Despite these problems, ice revolutionized the way Americans ate and drank and eventually the way they did business. Tudor and his imitators initially made their money in the steamy south, but soon everybody wanted the stuff. Ice cream and cold beer became summertime staples. A dependable ice supply made it possible to deliver fresh meat, seafood, dairy products, and produce to distant markets and keep it safe from spoilage in home iceboxes. Fruit growers and meat packers capable of shipping refrigerated products worldwide became huge multinational corporations.

Ice harvesting eventually became the victim of its own success. Industrialists grew impatient with the unpredictability of natural ice (one problem: water pollution made it tougher to find suitable supplies) and by World War I had largely switched to mechanical methods both to make ice and refrigerate shipments. Home delivery of ice continued for a long time — in the 1920s apartment buildings were still constructed with ice doors opening into each kitchen. In the 30s, though, electric refrigerators replaced iceboxes in most city households. Some nonelectrified rural areas relied on ice deliveries until the 50s, but eventually what had always been a faintly comical business melted away with scarcely a trace.

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