The practice of harvesting and storing winter ice began in ancient times, all the way back to 1100 BC in China. Alexander the Great is said to have had ice brought from the mountains and buried in insulated pits for the refreshment of his officers; and the Emperor Nero, fond of summer sherbet, had relays of runners to transport ice and snow from the Apennines. Louis XIV had two insulated ice houses to supply his palace at Versailles, each capable of holding 40,000 cubic feet of ice. (Sweltering French courtiers were said to require a minimum of five pounds of ice a day.) Early American colonists, confronted with appalling New-World summers in which meat spoiled, milk soured, and butter melted into slimy puddles, struggled to keep things cool. Excavations of brick storage pits at Jamestown indicate that settlers were harvesting and stockpiling ice by the mid-17th century.
Even Thomas Jefferson had two ice houses of his own at Monticello, and during his first term as president had one built for the White House. It was located under what is now the West Wing—a 16-foot-deep brick-lined well, connected to the main house by a covered walkway. Jefferson used it to keep his wines cool.
For the common folk ice was a necessity. Food preservation prior to the advent of mechanical refrigeration was an ongoing problem, with spoilage often leading to deaths due to “summer complaint,” diarrhea brought on by enteric bacteria. (A Philadelphia medical report of 1838 lists “summer complaint” as the city’s second most frequent cause of death, second only to consumption.) Lacking ice, the best most people could do to preserve fresh chicken, fish, milk, and butter was to store it in a spring house, where cool water from a stream or spring trickled under shelves of crocks and pans. This helped, but generally it didn’t keep food cool enough. Cookbooks of the period recommended that chickens be killed just before dinner, and that milk, until you were ready to drink it, be safely kept in the cow.
One day in 1800, 17-year-old Frederic Tudor, son of a wealthy Boston Lawyer, was sent on business to the Caribbean. As he suffered through the inescapable humidity of the tropics in the full regalia of a 19th Century gentleman, young Frederic got a radical idea. If he could somehow transport ice from the frozen north to the West Indies, there would be an immense market for it.
He immediately ran into a couple of snarls. First, nobody, including his own family, could see the potential, and second, no ship was willing to undertake such a cargo. So, Frederic spent $4,750 (around $100,000 today) of his own money and bought his own ship. In 1806 he set sail for Martinique with 130 tons of ice cut from a pond on the family estate outside Boston.
The initial voyage ended in failure; not only did a good deal of the ice melt in transit but, there being no ice houses in Martinique, the recipients of the remaining ice had no place to store it. (Plus there was another problem. The local populace had never seen ice, and simply didn’t know what to do with it.)
However, Tudor persisted. Over the next decades he improved on ice preservation techniques. His greatest discovery was that sawdust, rather than the hay he was using was a much better insulator, so much less of his frozen cargo melted en route. He also erected massive ice houses in Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, and throughout the Caribbean, from Cuba to Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad. In 1833, he managed to ship ice to Calcutta—a four-month-long journey—where the broiling British were thrilled. By the 1840s, Tudor’s ice was traveling as far afield as Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Rio de Janeiro, and Tudor was known world-wide as the “Ice King.”
At the height of the ice trade, ice rivaled cotton and grain in economic importance. By the mid 19th century, 135 commercial ice houses lined the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. Almost every town had its own ice house, from which ice was delivered daily to customers, who stored the dripping blocks in ice boxes.
The ice industry survived (usually delivered by horse and wagon) until the end of WWII, when it was finally displaced by the modern electric refrigerator, which took its own faltering steps as far back as 1911.
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