Frozen Water TradeThe Frozen-Water Trade
by Gavin Weightman

Ice cream is surely the all-American dessert, almost as ubiquitous in winter as in summer. We Americans are known to drink tea iced, beer cold, and mixed drinks “on the rocks”. At first thought, we might assume that these tastes developed in the first half of the 20th century, with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. But they actually began almost a hundred years earlier, in the first half of the 19th century. They were dependent on the exploitation of a natural resource so commonplace that it was taken for granted — Ice.

In the cold winters of New England and the Midwest, ponds and rivers froze regularly and solidly during the heart of winter. The locals would cut the ice and store it in ice-houses, providing themselves with enough to last through the summer. It was a small-scale individual operation which flourished only in regions where nature provided the ice, and even then, only if you happened to own access to your own bit of frozen shoreline.

In 1806, a Boston merchant named Frederick Tudor had what seemed like a crazy idea. He loaded a cargo of Massachusetts ice aboard a ship and set out to sell it in Martinique, confident that it would fetch a good profit in that tropical island. That first improvised and less-than-successful attempt was ridiculed by other New England businessmen. Investors ran the other way when approached about the project.

But Tudor stuck stubbornly to his idea, and committed himself to working the bugs out of the project. Improvements in the insulation of the ice dramatically reduced loss in transit. Arrangements to have ice-houses built and waiting in advance of shipments, and to organize expeditious unloading of the cargo, stopped loss at the destination. Marketing strategies familiarized those who were unfamiliar with the product, demonstrating proper transportation and home ice storage technique. Recipes for such treats as mint juleps and ice cream drummed up demand for the ice. Ice-water dispensers were provided to restaurants and taverns to whet customers’ appetite for cold drinking water.

By the 1830’s, Tudor had created a thriving market for ice in the American south, shipping tons of New England ice to New Orleans, Charleston, and Atlanta. He was shipping ice to Cuba and other Caribbean ports. And in 1833, he tapped the markets of British India, shipping ice over a distance of 16,000 miles to Calcutta, then to Madras and Bombay.

Tudor had launched a business that rapidly outgrew him. By the late 1800s, the United States was home to a huge ice industry. Hundreds of ice companies employed thousands of men to harvest millions of tons of ice every year. Many more were employed in the development and manufacture of specialized ice-harvesting tools and equipment, and in the shipping and handling of the ice.

Ice, which was an imported luxury in other parts of the world, had become a commonplace pleasure to Americans. Every home had its ice-box, and the ice-man’s wagon was a familiar sight on the streets of towns and cities across the country. While in rural regions, many farmers continued to harvest their own ice, the urban dwellers now also expected ready and convenient supplies of ice. Milk and eggs were kept cold, fruits and vegetables fresh and crisp, meats unspoiled. The ice-cream freezer, a small churn with a crank to be turned while the treat froze, was found in kitchens everywhere.

On a larger scale, the availability of tons of ice made possible refrigerated railroad cars, which were the lifeline of the Chicago meat-packing industry. Farmers could tap markets outside their local regions by shipping milk, butter, and fresh produce cross-country. Florida oranges reached New York, and New York apples reached Texas. Hospitals discovered the uses of ice for treating fevers, and began expecting regular supplies.

Ironically, all of this activity was overlooked by the economic bean-counters. Ice was a gift of nature, free for the taking. It didn’t require planting, so it wasn’t categorized as agriculture. It wasn’t a mineral ore, so it didn’t count as mining. Because ice in shipment frequently served as ballast, it tended to be overlooked by shipping statisticians tracking values of cargoes. Although the patent office was seeing many designs for new and improved ice houses, for home iceboxes, and for tools and systems for harvesting and transporting ice, somehow this booming business still remained almost invisible.

Remarkably, [in the 1850’s] this wild beast of an industry … which was growing as fast as, or maybe faster than any branch of commerce in the United States, did not figure in any official statistics. Since it could be classified as neither mining nor farming, it was not subject to any taxes that would have given federal or state governments an interest in it.

It wasn’t until late in the century, when the ice industry had become well-established, that officials recognized what a major factor it had become. In 1880, the very first time the U.S. Census collected data on the subject, it was discovered that the twenty largest cities in the U.S. consumed 4 million tons of ice annually, and that over a million tons of ice were harvested in one season in the state of Maine alone.

Well into the 20th century, after the invention of the electric refrigerator, many homes still continued to use iceboxes, with refrigerator use only becoming really widespread after W.W.II. While reading parts of this book aloud with Daddy, he got started reminiscing about how it had been his chore to help empty the drip pan under the icebox. This was in the old days before they moved to Van Stallen Street, which was where they lived when Grandpa bought their first electric fridge. That fridge was small, similar to an icebox in size, but with the round electric motor perched on top, so the whole contraption looked like a square robot with a round cake-shaped head.

Even when they had the fridge at home, Grandpa continued to use big blocks of ice in his milk truck, because the truck wasn’t refrigerated. Those heavy blankets that I remember seeing stored in the basement were the ones he used in the milk truck. The big ice blocks were broken with a mallet and chisel into manageable sized chunks, and the wooden cases of glass milk bottles were buried in ice chunks, with the blankets keeping everything cold as Grandpa made the milk rounds for the day. When the route was done, the remaining ice was dumped in a heap at the curb to melt, and kids would grab ice chunks to play with on hot summer days.

So it turns out that this book isn’t the story of some long-ago time, but a part of familiar daily life in the not-so-distant past, within living memories.