Intriguing Historical Artifacts – The Ice Plow

A vintage Imperial ice plow on display at the South St. Seaport Museum in New York City

What the heck is an ice plow?  In the 19th century it was a key piece of equipment in the booming business of ice harvesting. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration and machine-made ice, Americans annually consumed millions of tons of ice harvested from ponds and lakes. The ice plow, fitted with a series of sharp blades (where the runners on a typical sled were located), made deep cuts in ice as it was pulled by horses. After completing a checkerboard pattern of cuts, men armed with crowbar-like tools pried the blocks apart and floated them on the water to storage facilities. From there the ice was transported to distribution centers for wholesale and retail sale.
Did you know: the #2 export by weight from the United States (cotton was #1) in the 1850s was ice?
Read more here about the man who created the ice harvesting business.

The Imperial Ice Plow company was a leading manufacturer of ice harvesting equipment in the 19th century.

Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age? Part 1

“Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age?” is an ongoing examination of the parallels between the first Gilded Age (1870-1900) and what many contend is a Second Gilded Age (1980-present). A key source of these musings is my forthcoming book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the First Gilded Age (Columbia University Press, June 2015).


bicentennialAmericans have long loved to celebrate centennials and sesquicentennials of major events in national history such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the start of the Civil War, and the March on Washington in 1963. Of course, no such commemoration occurred in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gilded Age (1870-1900). But it’s useful to imagine for a moment what such an event might have looked like. Given the context of 1970, it’s not hard to imagine the primary theme that would have dominated speeches, museum exhibitions, and documentary films: The Gilded Age was a period of extraordinary growth and innovation, but also dangerous levels of poverty and inequality that threatened the integrity of America’s cherished republican values; this threat was eventually checked by the efforts of social reformers who empowered the state to place limits on corporate power and adopt policies aimed at promoting the common good over raw individualism. Americans in 1970 were riding the greatest period of economic growth and prosperity in the nation’s history (from 1946 to 1973 the U.S. economy grew by an average rate of 3.8%). And they were living at a time of the greatest level of economic equality in the nation’s history. It seems likely that the average American in 1970 would have viewed the Gilded Age as a dark and ugly chapter in American history that few would want to repeat.

And yet, since 1970, a rising chorus of scholars, activists, and social critics has emerged to warn Americans about rising corporate power, wealth inequality, and poverty and the threats they posed to the nation’s republican values. By the 1990s some began to invoke the phrase, “Second Gilded Age,” to describe this era in an attempt to conger up images of an age of unrestrained robber baron industrialists and financiers, roiling social conflict, and a widening chasm between rich and poor.

NewGildedAgeBookThis pessimistic view of the direction in which the United States was heading really took off in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 that triggered massive job losses and home foreclosures and a bitter debate over how the federal government should respond. Since that moment, references to the Gilded Age and invocations of a “Second Gilded Age” have become increasingly popular in public discourse. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the term Gilded Age shows 11 articles employing it in the 1970s, 76 in the 1980s, 184 in the 1990s, and 541 in the 2000s. And the trend shows no sign of abating as the period 2010-2012 already has generated 450 articles. Many books since 2008 now bear the phrase Gilded Age in their titles, such as Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), David Grusky and Tamar Kricheli-Katz, eds., The New Gilded Age: The Critical Inequality Debates of Our Time (Stanford, 2012); Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), Susan P. Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale, 2013); and Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi, eds., Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age (NYU Press, 2011).

one percentThis sudden return of Gilded Age to common American parlance reflects a keen awareness of the eerie similarities between the United States of today and that of the last third of the nineteenth century. The nation then and now was consumed with intense debates over wealth inequality, labor unions, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, family values, money in politics, voter eligibility, Wall Street recklessness, political polarization and paralysis, religion vs. secularism, individualism vs. the common good, free market capitalism vs. regulation, wars of choice vs. diplomacy. If we take a closer look at just one of these issues, we learn that in 1890 the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, while the lower 44% owned just 1.2%. Income taxes, inheritance taxes, and other measures adopted since the early 20th century reduced wealth disparity significantly by 1979 to 20.5%. But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1% owned 35.4% of all wealth, leading to the sudden popularization of the pejorative phrase “the 1%” among progressive protesters like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Twain history rhymes copyThose who claim that the United States has entered a Second Gilded Age are not invoking the tired and thoroughly misleading notion that “history repeats itself.” Instead, they are guided (knowingly or unknowingly) by a maxim offered by Mark Twain, the man who coined the phrase, Gilded Age back in 1873: “The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It is the ways in which our times rhyme with the late nineteenth century that many Americans who possess a sense of history find so disturbing.

In this series of articles I will explore this rhyming between the First Gilded Age and the Second Gilded Age. History does not offer a specific map, formula, or blue print for dealing effectively with contemporary social, economic, and political challenges. Yet we study history in part because we believe it allows us to understand where we as a society have come from and why things—institutions, ideas, practices, customs, and power arrangements—are as they are. We believe these insights have the capacity to guide individuals and societies as they make the choices that will shape the future. “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past,” Daniel Boorstin once quipped, “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” In the late nineteenth century the United States faced a host of vexing challenges regarding policies related to economic opportunity, democracy, citizenship, freedom, and human rights. Likewise, the United States in the early 21st century also faces a great many problems that remind us of that past Gilded Age. What choices the American people and their political leaders make in the coming years will, as they did in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have a profound impact on the future vitality of their nation and its cherished values.

The Origins of the Mighty Casey

This statue of the Mighty Casey stands outside a ballpark in Williamsport, PA, home of the Little League World Series.

Athletic competition in the U.S. has produced many superb writers who have penned many gems of sports literature. Grantland Rice gave us “the Four Horsemen” and Roger Angell the “Boys of Summer.” But arguably the most famous piece of sports literature was not written by a seasoned journalist with thousands of hours in stadium press boxes. Rather, it’s the funny and endearing poem, “Casey at the Bat,” composed by a little-known newspaper humor writer.

The poem’s unlikely rise to fame began on August 14, 1888, when a young actor named DeWoIf Hopper stepped on stage in New York City and recited a humorous poem about a fictional slugger named Casey who, despite the hopes of the Mudville faithful, strikes out to end a big game. No one at the time, including Hopper and the man who penned the poem a few months earlier, knew just how famous the poem was to become – so famous, in fact, that statues of Mighty Casey are found all across the country, including one at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

A young Ernest L. Thayer penned “Casey at the Bat” while living in California in 1888.

“Casey at the Bat” was written by Ernest L. Thayer, a Harvard graduate of solid elite New England pedigree.  He’d graduated from Harvard in 1885 and headed west to San Francisco at the urging of his fellow classmate, a young man named William Randolph Hearst who was about to take over a newspaper owned by his father.  Thayer jumped at the chance to delay his inevitable return to his father’s textile mills in Worcester, MA and soon found himself writing humor and satire pieces for Hearst’s paper, the San Francisco Examiner.  Three years later, with only weeks to go before he joined the family business back east, Thayer penned “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic, sung in the year 1888.” He submitted it under the pen name “Phin” and received a mere $5 for his effort.

Actor DeWolf Hopper performed “Casey at the Bat” more than 10,000 times in his long career.

The poem was published in the Examiner on June 3, 1888. It became a hit in the Bay area and soon found its way into papers all across the country.  But what really set it on its way to becoming one of the most well-known poems in American history its discovery by the manager of DeWoIf Hopper, a brilliant young actor who was then starring in “Prince Methusalem” at New York’s Walleck Theater.  Knowing Hopper was scheduled to speak at an upcoming dinner honoring the New York Giants, his manager suggested he recite the poem.  Hopper loved the poem and committed the 52 lines to memory.  It proved such a hit at the Giants dinner, he soon began reciting it on stage (beginning on August 14, 1888), adding gestures and inflections that thrilled his listeners.  “Casey” became Hopper’s signature act and he would recite it an incredible 10,000 times before his death.

The sign in Holliston, Massachusetts, one of several towns that claim to be the inspiration for the “Mudville” in Casey at the Bat.

Because Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” many imposters arose in the years to come claiming authorship – and royalties, of course.   Some of the claims even went to court, prompting Thayer to admit his authorship.  And, being wealthy and somewhat tired of the whole Casey business, eventually signed over the rights to Hopper.  Many towns also laid claim to being the “real” Mudville, including Stockton, California and Holliston, Massachusetts. Stockton was once called Mudville and in 1888 (when Thayer was living in the state) was home to a professional ball club. Holliston had a neighborhood called Mudville and Thayer grew up only a few miles away in Worcester, MA. And is family owned a textile mill in the town very close to the Mudville baseball field.

Not surprisingly, several players including Boston shortstop Tim Casey and Philadelphia pitcher Daniel Michael Casey, claimed they were Thayer’s inspiration (the latter Casey even hit the vaudeville circuit as the “real” Casey).  Many others, not necessarily named Casey also claimed the honor, including famed slugger Mike “King” Kelly.

Finally in 1935, almost a half century after the poem’s publication, Thayer revealed that his inspiration for the fictional Casey had come from a high school classmate, a “big Irishman” named Daniel H. Casey who once threatened to beat him up for making fun of him in the pages of the school newspaper of which he was editor.

Apart from this reference, wrote Thayer, “the poem has absolutely no basis in fact. The verses owe their existence to my enthusiasm for college baseball.”  As for the subsequent fame of the poem, he remained at a loss to explain it.  “Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable and it would be hard to say if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance.”

Thayer’s decision to make his hero an Irishman may also have been influenced by the simple

Mike "King" Kelly was one of the many Irish American stars in the early days of professional baseball.

Mike “King” Kelly was one of the many Irish American stars in the early days of professional baseball.

fact that many of the most famous players in the early days of professional baseball were Irishmen.  The aforementioned Mike “King” Kelly, for example, helped the Chicago Nationals win five championships in the 1880s.  He led the league in batting in 1884 and 1886 and was a legendary base stealer, giving rise to the expression, “slide, Kelly, slide.” “Big” Ed Delahanty (one of five brothers who made the big leagues) posted a whopping career batting average of .346 and even hit four home runs in a single game.  Roger Connor was the home run king of the so-called “deadball era,” with 192 round trippers over his career to go with twelve seasons with a batting average over .300.   Joe Kelley was a standout left fielder for Baltimore in the 1890s, hitting over .300 in twelve consecutive seasons, including .391 in 1894.  Pitcher Tim Keefe won 342 games in fourteen seasons, twice winning more than 40 games in a single season.  Bud Galvin became baseball’s first 300-game winner and pitched more innings (5,959) and complete games (641) than anyone but Cy Young.

Ernest L. Thayer died in 1940, followed by Dewolf Hopper five years later.  “Casey at the Bat,” however, just kept going.  Actors such as Chuck Connors, Vincent Price, and Jackie Gleason recited it, Disney transformed it into a cartoon, the Post Office issued a “Mighty Casey” stamp (1996), Saturday Night Live parodied it, and magicians Penn and Teller used it in one of their acts – to name just a few of its latter-day incarnations.  Today, a quick search at Amazon.com shows no less than 18 versions of the poem in print.

One reading (aloud, of course) leaves no doubt why.

Casey at the Bat
By Ernest L. Thayer (a.k.a. Phin)
San Francisco Examiner – June 3, 1888

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that -
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat;
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt.
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped -
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted some one on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer has fled from Casey’s lip, the teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

The Declaration of Independence was Originally No Big Deal?

No document in U.S. history, except perhaps the Constitution, is more revered than the Declaration of Independence.  Indeed, most Americans can recite (if not word for word) its prosaic lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence was not originally considered a sacred founding document.

But today’s reverence for the Declaration obscures two important and fascinating details regarding the document’s early history:

1. Few, if any, Americans in 1776 cared about the beautiful and uplifting words from the Declaration quoted above. They understood the document for what it was: a practical DECLARATION OF WAR and not a lofty proclamation universal equality and human rights

2. It took years—decades, actually—for the Declaration of Independence to be considered a sacred text of the Founding era.

So let’s examine these two points in some detail. Why didn’t most Americans in 1776 care about the beautiful opening section to the Declaration of Independence that modern Americans hold so dear? The answer is simple. They saw it as a flowery introduction and were far more concerned with what followed: the list of grievances against King George III that justified independence. This section took up about two-thirds of the Declaration and included more than two dozen complaints directed specifically against George III.

The Declaration of Independence targeted George III and his violation of American liberties as the cause of the American Revolution.

Here are a few representative examples:

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

So, to Americans in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was inspirational only in so far as it made the case to the world for breaking with the Mother Country and defending that decision with arms. Later generations of Americans, long after the Revolutionary War’s successful conclusion, would care far less about this indictment of George III and far more about the Declaration’s vivid articulation of the ideals of universal equality and human rights.

So when did this happen? Certainly not right away. Indeed, for the first few decades after July 4, 1776 few Americans considered the Declaration a great document.  When they celebrate the Fourth of July, they celebrated the act of declaring, not the document itself

Originally, few people knew that Thomas Jefferson had penned the Declaration. Only when its significance grew did Jefferson and his supporters proclaim this fact.

So when did Americans come to revere the Declaration as one of the nations most sacred texts? It began in the 1790s. That decade was dominated by Federalists (Adams, Hamilton, etc) who downplayed the significance of the Declaration because they disliked its anti-British tone and found alarming the similarity of its language with Revolutionary France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” In contrast, their emerging political opposition, the Jeffersonian Republicans, came to see themselves as defending the “Spirit of 1776” and the Revolution against Federalists whom they viewed as not only pro-British but also pro-monarchy.  As a result, Republicans in the 1790s began reading Declaration of Independence at July 4th celebrations and quoting it in speeches. They also took to celebrating the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson. In so doing, they emphasized the Declaration as a Founding document that condemned monarchy and privilege, and celebrated liberty and equality.  So when the Jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1801, they saw to it that the Declaration of Independence became firmly enshrined as the nation’s great founding document. With each passing year, the reputation of and reverence for the Declaration grew.

By the1820s Jefferson himself came to realize that the Declaration was the centerpiece of his legacy.  So when he arranged for the inscription on his tombstone, he decided it would read: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Then, just in case anyone doubted the importance of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on its 50th anniversary: July 4, 1826. And for good measure, Pres. James Monroe died five years later on July 4, 1831. You can’t make this stuff up!

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and presented it to the first women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls in 1848.

But, the evolution of the Declaration’s meaning and significance continued long after Jefferson’s death. Women’s Rights activists at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, for example, created the “Declaration of Sentiments” which said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

Similarly, abolitionists, labor activists, and other reformers invoked the Declaration to justify their demands.

President Abraham Lincoln played a key role in the transformation of the Declaration into a sacred document.  In his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 he invoked the Declaration: “Four score and seven years ago [1776] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Rev. Martin Luther Kin invoked the Declaration of Independence in making his claim for equality for all Americans regardless of race.

A century later, in his stirring call for civil rights in his “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ … And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…”

Although it was not his primary intention back in July 1776, Jefferson gave voice to the radical idea that we all have rights.  Since that time it’s been left it to succeeding generations, and the democratic process, to define, secure, and protect them.

Happy Independence Day!

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (1995)

Philip S. Foner, ed., We, the Other People: Alternative Declarations of Independence by Labor Groups, Farmers, Woman’s Rights Advocates, Socialists, and Blacks, 1829-1975

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997)

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992)

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991).

America’s Last Ice Age (more recent than you think)

InThePastLane                     January 13, 2013                        Edward T. O’Donnell

Headlines warning of an impending “ice famine” were common in the 19th and early 20th century during warm winters (NYT Feb 2, 1906)

What on earth is an “ice famine”? Well, if you were alive in the nineteenth century and the U.S. was experiencing winter as mild as this one in 2012-2013, the newspapers would be full of stories about a potential “ice famine.” The problem was not a shortage of ice in January and February, but rather in the coming summer because Americans, especially city dwellers, had come to depend on massive winter harvests of natural ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers to cope with summer heat and preserve their food. The creation of this ice industry is one of the more fascinating stories of American entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of a remarkable transformation of the American diet.

In an age of ubiquitous air-conditioning and refrigeration, it’s hard to comprehend just how much 19th-century Americanss depended on ice. By the 18th century, icehouses were standard features on most estates in Europe and even Colonial America, but for the common man and woman, especially in cities, ice in warm weather was as rare and expensive a commodity as caviar.

Frederic Tudor, the man known as the “Ice King” for his role in creating the American commercial ice industry.

That began to change a little over 200 years ago when, on Aug. 5, 1805, an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s first commercial ice industry. A charismatic scion of a wealthy family, a tall, balding man with a gaze of hawklike intensity, Tudor possessed an almost evangelical commitment to the enterprise. “People believe me not when I tell them I am going to carry ice to the West Indies,” he confided in his diary the following winter. “Let those laugh who win.” Seven months later, a ship filled with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond arrived in the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Plagued by what he called “a villainous train of events,” Tudor struggled for nearly three decades, but his perseverance finally paid off. Along with his workers, the man who became known as the Ice King developed equipment and techniques that would allow ice to be harvested, transported and stored for commercial sale; by the 1830’s, Tudor was shipping his product to the West Indies, India and even Australia. Indeed, if you ever want to win a history trivia contest, here’s a question no one will guess correctly: What was the #2 (after cotton) U.S. export by weight in the 1850s? Yup, it was ice.

Tudor and his competitors soon discovered, however, that the greatest demand for ice came from American cities, especially New York. “I do not imagine,” the English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope observed in her 1832 treatise, “Domestic Manners of the Americas,” referring to a recent stay in Manhattan, “there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” Demand for ice grew so rapidly that by 1855 New Yorkers of all classes were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.

As demand for ice in the U.S. surged, many companies formed that developed ice harvesting operations in rural areas throughout the Northeast and Midwest. During the winter months it employed thousands of men, many of them workers in the lumber industry who normally lacked work in winter months. Using special equipment pulled by horses they cut huge blocks of ice and hauled them to large ice warehouses. When the warm weather set in, barges then carried the product to urban markets where it was then distributed to customers via ice wagons.

The availability of cheap and plentiful ice meant more than cool drinks in the summer; it changed Americans’ basic diet. Butchers, fishmongers and dairymen began to use ice to preserve their stocks, leading to significant improvement in food quality and public health. Ice also greatly increased the diversity of culinary offerings available to Americans as importers found ways to preserve previously exotic delights like freshwater fish. Ice cream, once the rarest of treats, became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity. Ice likewise made possible cold beer and other alcoholic drinks. Temperance advocates, however, countered with “Moderation Fountains” during heat waves that provided free ice water as an alternative to the offerings of a city’s countless saloons.

Ice also delivered an impressive array of medical benefits. Doctors at hospitals soon discovered that ice could save lives and began prescribing it as a means of lowering the body temperature of fever victims, especially the young. During the summer, city hospitals issued free ice tickets to the poor, and crowds often grew so anxious outside free ice depots during heat waves that free-for-alls known as ice riots erupted. According to an account in The New York Times of one incident in July 1906, “a woman pulled a man’s mustache and another woman hit a man with a dishpan,” and within minutes, “the ice was scattered on the sidewalk and hundreds were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight.”

N. Calyo’s painting, “Ice Wagon,” depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

By the 1880’s, about 1,500 ice wagons plied the streets of New York City every day. The burly, typically Italian iceman, a huge block of ice slung over his back and gripped with a pair of tongs, became as familiar a fixture on the urban landscape as the Irish beat cop.

During a typical week in the 1880’s, an iceman might deliver as much as 80 tons of ice, much of it carted up multiple flights of narrow and rickety stairs. The iceman’s daily interactions with housewives gave rise to countless bawdy jokes, an occurrence immortalized in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1912.

While urban Americans clearly loved their ice—Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879 (more than a quarter of the national market)—they often loathed the companies that provided it, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s, a rising chorus of critics charged firms with price gouging and monopolistic practices. Ice companies tried to blamed summer price increases on mild winters that produced insufficient stocks–the aforementioned “ice famines.”

That claim didn’t work in 1896 when in New York City the city’s ice firms were absorbed into a massive national ice trust called the Consolidated Ice Company. Prices jumped 33 percent that spring, and more than doubled by midsummer. Hardest hit were the poor, who could afford to buy their ice, like their winter coal, only in small quantities.

Anger against ice companies persisted after 1901. Here an ice baron sits in an ice house wearing a hat labeled “Ice Trust” and writing, “Owing to the mild winter, we regret to say that ice next summer will be dearer than ever.”

Popular outrage reached new heights four years later in 1901 when investigative journalists revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and other city officials had conspired to create a virtual monopoly for Consolidated. As the price of ice doubled, new revelations showed that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in Consolidated stock. The investigations produced no convictions, but the mayor, hounded by catcalls of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” whenever he appeared in public, was soundly defeated by a reform ticket in the election of 1901.

America’s ice age, however, was brought to a close not by reformers but by inventors who developed refrigeration and ice-making machinery. As early as the 1870s large brewers had begun to rely on mechanical refrigeration. Soon the meatpacking industry joined them. By 1900 refrigeration machinery was widely available. So, too, was ice making machinery. The final step came with the introduction of electric home refrigerators. By 1950 the iceman had been become as much a relic of a long-ago age as the blacksmith and the lamplighter.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, The Cold Chain: A History of Ice and Refrigeration in America and the World, forthcoming, John Hopkins University Press.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)