Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ice, Ice Baby

Jonathan Rees

When I titled my book Refrigeration Nation, I had to fight the urge to try out any number of bad puns first. Somehow doing that for blog posts seems more acceptable since they’re more transient. So no, I’m not going to make you watch a Vanilla Ice video (although I’m sorely tempted). Instead, take a look at this:

By the time this amateur film was made in 1919, the practices it documents had largely passed into history. Testing  ice for thickness, cutting a grid pattern on the ice with what looks exactly like horse-drawn plows, moving blocks of ice across a narrow channel cut in a lake and into an ice house – each of these practices began over a century earlier in New England. Even today it seems incredible that New England once sent its ice for sale as far away as India. Other than shipbuilding and fishing, this may have been that region’s largest industry.

Or was it an industry at all? I once knew a retired engineer who told me that anything humans have ever used was either mined or grown. While that’s an interesting way of looking at the world, I’m not sure that statement fits New England’s ice industry. The first ice industry in world history began in 1806 when a Boston merchant named Frederic Tudor sent a shipment of ice cut from Fresh Pond in Cambridge to the island of Martinique. It didn’t go well. While I could name many reasons for this fiasco, the most obvious one was that the people of Martinique had nowhere to put ice to keep it from melting.

But Tudor persisted. Over time, he and his associates gradually developed a series of practices that helped turn ice into big business. For example, Tudor learned how to pack ice in ships using sawdust the same way that you’d use mortar in a brick wall. Packed this way, over half the ice would in a cargo hold would remain intact when it reached the other side of the world even in bad weather. Tudor also developed new kinds of ice houses, designed to drain the melted ice away from the intact sections (since melted ice was warmer than frozen water).

By mid-century, when Tudor’s employees reached Walden Pond during Henry David Thoreau’s famous stay there, all of these methods were so well known that Thoreau didn’t feel he had to describe them. Thoreau even joked about how it looked as if the band of men who disturbed his peace there were sowing “a crop of winter rye, or some kind of grain recently introduced from Iceland.” Yet, if you understand exactly what ice harvesters did, this joke doesn’t seem like much of a stretch at all. Rather than simply take their chances with nature, ice harvesters like Tudor developed many methods to goose their ice supply. For example, if the ice had not reached sufficient thickness by harvesting time, they would drill holes through the ice, press the ice down so that water would come up through the holes, then cut their ice the next day after that new water on top froze too. Another way to achieve the same ends was to stack to thin sheets of ice on top of each other so that they would melt together into a block that would stay solid longer.

Like a modern day agricultural marketing board, Tudor also worked diligently to increase demand for his product. When he entered a new market like New Orleans or Savannah, he would instruct his onsite representatives to give away ice to saloons and taverns for free for a year. Many Americans then, like many people around the world even today, assumed that drinking cold drinks was harmful to your health. Tudor’s thinking was that once someone becomes used to cold drinks, there would be no going backwards. Even though this strategy cost him a fortune, he made a fortune too, becoming one of New England’s richest men by the time of his death in 1864.

There would be an ice industry after Tudor. Mechanical ice elevators would make it easier to stack huge volumes of product in huge icehouse along the Hudson and other large, deep northern rivers. Thanks to such improvements, natural ice harvesting lasted through World War I, as large mechanical ice machines were not cheap or efficient enough to compete with even hundred-year old methods of ice extraction in places where bodies of water froze every winter year in and year out. Ice itself would remain a commodity through the 1950s, as ice delivery men would bring the stuff to people’s doors every day so that they could drop them in their iceboxes. That changed when electric household refrigeration became cheap enough for the vast majority of Americans to make their own ice.

Ice remains is certainly an industry now. (If you have any doubts, go buy your local grocery store and pick up a few bags on the way home.) However, it remains an industry with roots in America’s rural, agricultural past. Most of the men who worked in ice harvesting were, in fact, farmers who had nothing else to do in the dead of winter. Like farmers, they were dependent upon the weather, both for it being cold enough in the winter to create marketable ice and for it to be warm enough in summer to drive up demand.

I argue in my book that it is this pre-history of refrigeration (since that’s what so much of the ice cut from New England’s ponds and streams was ultimately used for) that explains why Americans are so refrigeration crazy compared to the rest of the world even today. Unfortunately, it does nothing to explain the brief popularity of Vanilla Ice.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post, Jonathan. Just ordered your book. It's not hard to tell--as someone who fell through the ice once--that this industry could only blossom in the days before OSHA! One side-note (which you may cover in your book): Dr. John Gorrie invented an ice-making machine circa 1850 but found it impossible to commercialize, in part because (he believed) sinister New England interests were working against him. Gorrie never refers to Tudor, but you have to believe our cranky Ice King was playing competitive hardball all the way. . .

hcr said...

This is fascinating. I've wondered about ice harvesting since reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy as a kid. There's a local history museum in Maine that still does it, and then serves ice cream chilled with it in July.

And fell through the ice, Eric. Ouch! Glad you lived to tell the tale....

Jonathan said...


Gorrie was actually trying to invent air conditioning. Making ice was a side effect. He appears in Chapter 2, but I wanted to do more than just cover inventors so there isn't that much.