InThePastLane January 13, 2013 Edward T. O’Donnell
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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)