Ice: The Old Fashioned Way

Image via the Boston Public Library Flickr. 

Image via the Boston Public Library Flickr. 

It’s sort of unbelievable to think about now, but in the 1800s, ice harvesting was a booming industry, complete with international trade, raging demand, robber barons and foolhardy businessmen.

Before the 1800’s ice was pretty much reserved for the wealthy who could afford to keep ice houses on their land, stocked with ice harvested from local ponds.

But the increase in population in New York led one man, Frederic Tudor, to build an industry of harvesting and shipping ice to New York, Charleston and Havana. Tudor was an overleveraged businessman who made bad bets on coffee futures and thought ice would redeem him. It did.

I grew up near a lake in Massachusetts that was used for ice harvesting back in the day. Of course there were no modern machines to help in the process, so men used draft horses to cut up the ice. This description is from wikipedia:

“Ice was harvested as follows. A crew of 100 men and 30 to 40 horses was required. Only in temperatures below freezing, the crew waited for a foot of black ice to form. Snow was swept off and snow-ice was scraped off by horse-drawn vehicles if necessary. Then a horse-drawn cutting tool, the marker, scored a grid 2-3 inches deep forming 21-inch squares over 2-3 acres of ice. Men with saws cut along a line one direction while men with ice spades knocked the blocks free from the strip. Another crew with ice hooks drew the ice onto platforms over ramps. Full platforms were slid onto sledges for transport to ice houses on the shore. An ice house was built of pine walls filled with sawdust to the thickness of two feet. The blocks were packed in sawdust for transport, moved to the train in special wagons and brought directly to a wharf in Boston. They arrived within an hour of cutting with no loss. Transport to Britain by ship lost about a third of the ice.”

It’s sort of astounding to me that ice was shipped to England and the Caribbean. Ice is heavy and costly to transport, and of course, it melts. It seems so foolish, but of course we have a very close equivalent today... water.

Water, shipped from Fiji and Calgary won’t melt or spoil but transport costs must be near the same as shipping ice. And I'm willing to bet in a hundred years, someone will be musing over the grand water trade of the 21st century. 

Image via Boston Public Library Flickr

Image via Boston Public Library Flickr

Even if it seems ridiculous now though, the shipping of ice led to genuine innovation. Ice reduced food spoilage which had legitimate social, health and environmental benefits, but more importantly is also made gin and tonics cold. Praise you Mr. Tudor.

And the increased demand for cold cocktails and unspoiled food led to the creation of refrigeration and cooling systems in the early 1900s, which is basically when ice harvesting as an industry, completely melted.