Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Crystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness
March 12, 2014 3:58 PM   Subscribe

"In 1805, a twenty-three year-old Bostonian called Frederic Tudor launched a new industry: the international frozen-water trade. Over the next fifty years, he and the men he worked with developed specialised ice harvesting tools, a global network of thermally engineered ice houses, and a business model that cleverly leveraged ballast-less ships, off-season farmers, and overheated Englishmen abroad. By the turn of the century, the industry employed 90,000 people and was worth $220 million in today’s terms. By 1930, it had disappeared, almost without trace, replaced by an artificial cryosphere of cold storage warehouses and domestic refrigerators."

Frederic Tudor, Ice King of the World, almost singlehandedly turned local ice harvesting into a massive international business shipping New England's ice to the world -- indeed, upper-class Victorian Britain enjoyed its artisinal American ice shipped from Lake Wenham at all the best dinner parties -- with a product so widely desired in the 1850s that shipping it was profitable even when 75% of it melted in transit.

From the frozen lake to the ice house, from the ice house to the ice box, commercial ice enabled the development of long-distance rail shipping of perishable foods and became less a special-occasion food for the wealthy and more a daily household need, helping the newly-urbanized to maintain a healthier, more diverse diet.

With the development of the refrigerator and universal electrification, the commercial ice industry collapsed and disappeared between World Wars I & II, as the one-time luxury for the wealthy harvested in the deepest cold of winter and shipped around the world in wooden brigs could now be effortlessly manufactured in every home.

Videos:
Frozen's "The Frozen Heart"
Pocono Manor Ice Harvest in 1919, amateur film
Traditional Ice Harvesting in Maine in 2008, at the museum that is the subject of the main link
Raquette Lake Ice Harvest 2013
Moment in History: Ice Harvesting


Previously on Metafilter: The Cold Chain
posted by Eyebrows McGee (46 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite

 
Eyebrows McGee, Educator. Thank you for all the work you put into this. Edifying.
posted by Danf at 4:16 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality that they're quarrying.
posted by gngstrMNKY at 4:22 PM on March 12 [6 favorites]


Cool.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:28 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


My father remembers that his first real achievement in life was when he earned his father's rare approval by drilling a hole in the floor of their third-floor apartment and rigging a drain hose out to the yard.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:37 PM on March 12


I'm looking forward to the massive retrospective like this on VHS tapes, and then DVDs. The rental shops, dedicated stores, massive shipping services like netflix, etc. It lived and died in about the same length of time

This, in and of itself, is fascinating though. good stuff.
posted by emptythought at 4:44 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality that they're quarrying.

Ruh?
posted by Thing at 4:51 PM on March 12


The rental shops, dedicated stores, massive shipping services like netflix, etc. It lived and died in about the same length of time

Well, no. 1805 to 1930 is far longer than all of those things have existed.


I lived in a place in the '70s that had an ice house in the yard and a big pond in back. All the insulation (sawdust, I believe) had disappeared, so it was just this square, windowless, double-walled little barn. It was in the coldest spot in MA. The main house had no insulation or central heat; we burned wood.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:58 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality that they're quarrying.

As recently as the 1960's, refrigerators were still regarded as a high end luxury good in the UK. We still had rationing up until the 50s, so I guess people had fuck all to keep cool.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:03 PM on March 12


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality...

20 years ago, a Cocktail Bar in Paris had one kitchen mixing bowl of ice for the whole enterprise. Precious silver tongs were used to carefully lay a single ice cube in each "gin fizz."
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:09 PM on March 12


220 million seems a little low for a global empire

cool story though
posted by edgeways at 5:09 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Previously: Ice harvesting still happens, and in Ecuador no less.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:10 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I'm totally getting deja vu over this post... I could swear I remember an FPP on the ice shipping industry, though not about this particular guy, but I can't find it despite strident Googlings and tag-spelunking. In any case, this is a great post on a fascinating topic.
posted by XMLicious at 5:10 PM on March 12


Carlo Gatti imported it to England from Norway too.
posted by unliteral at 5:12 PM on March 12


The English drink warm beer because Rover also makes refrigerators...
posted by shockingbluamp at 5:12 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


PeterMcDermott: We still had rationing up until the 50s, so I guess people had fuck all to keep cool.

If British food went bad, how would you know?
posted by dr_dank at 5:14 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


If British food went bad, how would you know?

Hallucinations. You would be poisoned and begin thinking that you were in the 1950s or 60s. A similar experience can be had when somebody rehashes outdated stereotypes from the same era.
posted by Thing at 5:26 PM on March 12 [25 favorites]


There are some really nice stereoscopic photos of ice harvesting, for instance those available from the NY Public Library of Ice Harvest in Minnesota by Whitney and Zimmerman. I experimented with making one of these into a line-interleaved stereo image, and it looked great on my 3D TV - beautiful semi-transparent giant icecubes. Flickr user depthandtime has also posted a red-green anaglyph ice harvest image.
posted by larrybob at 5:30 PM on March 12


You would be poisoned and begin thinking that you were in the 1950s or 60s. A similar experience can be had when somebody rehashes outdated stereotypes from the same era.

Walkers Cajun Squirrel potato crisps. I mean, Britain is far from the only place the stereotype can be applied to, but grotendous culinary monstrosities are not figments of the misty past in the UK. Britannia of the 21st century can readily and formidably meet the challenge of the latest Deep Fried Whatever On A Stick that U.S. county fairs can offer up, which probably wasn't refrigerated either.
posted by XMLicious at 5:51 PM on March 12


You do know that 1) Walker's is Lay's and not an English company, and 2) it's a publicity stunt they do every couple of years?
posted by Thing at 6:01 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I love this post. I have had ice harvesting on the brain since I went to Braintree's annual Ice Harvest Festival on the pond about ten miles up the road from me (and dragged along a chilly Dr. Wu and his family). We got to try hauling a block of ice out of a frozen lake and there were some curling rinks shoveled out for the kids. It was interesting to me both because I loved the book The Frozen Water Trade but also because I grew up in an old farmhouse and we had the last surviving ice house (in a town that went from being rural to being basically a bedroom community in the 128 beltway). My mom has taken some photos of it. They dissembled it and rebuilt it over at the town's farm museum.
posted by jessamyn at 6:07 PM on March 12


Walker's and Lay's might share a parent company (Pepsico) but they are quite distinct in texture and flavour, owing to the difference in cooking with Fahrenheit and centigrade and also to the denser, nuttier Lincoln potato.
posted by Flashman at 6:27 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Wonderful tales.
My father traveled with his father across Georgia & Florida -- his father being a railroad freight manager. Dad told me about the stations & platforms, where fresh oysters were displayed on barrels of ice.
posted by LonnieK at 6:30 PM on March 12


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality that they're quarrying.

British Car Joke Everyone Knows:

Q: Why do Englishmen drink warm beer?

A: Because Lucas makes fridges. too!
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:32 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I find stories like this fascinating. I feel like we're living in another era where progress just outmodes entire industries in the blink of an eye.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:41 PM on March 12


My great-grandfather was the "ice and coal" guy in his neighborhood. Winter, he'd be around in his truck with coal. Summer, it was ice.

Thanks for this.
posted by notsnot at 6:50 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


My grandmother grew up in rural 1930s Alabama and they regularly bought slabs of ice to use in their family icebox. I suspect in some parts of the U.S. the ice business kept going into the 1940s or 1950s.
posted by crapmatic at 6:55 PM on March 12


I loved seeing how they cut the ice and then got it into the barn. Building a structure that keeps ice around through to the summer is impressive.
posted by arcticseal at 7:09 PM on March 12


There's a community near here that still harvests ice. Come summer that ice is used for an ice cream festival.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:18 PM on March 12


My dad grew up in 1940s and 1950's Evanston and still calls the fridge the icebox. I think the whole endeavor is crazy interesting. Though apparently it was this industry that kept AC from being adopted sooner than it was.
posted by Carillon at 7:20 PM on March 12


In America to be considered a legitimate hotel you need at least one room with a door that closes and with some kind of surface to sleep on, and a working ice machine.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:53 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I live in Canada and right about now (and certainly a month ago), i can't help thinking that if i could somehow throw a tarp over the mountain of snow and ice in my backyard, i could get me cool, crisp air when it gets stupidly hot come July.
posted by storybored at 8:01 PM on March 12


If British food went bad, how would you know?

Ask an American, because they've probably eaten everything?
posted by pompomtom at 8:14 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


You do know that 1) Walker's is Lay's and not an English company, and 2) it's a publicity stunt they do every couple of years?

All I can say is that I really do not think I could tell if a jar of Marmite had gone bad, my English relatives will spread it on just about anything and will in fact eat odd things dipped in Marmite as a stunt or dare, and some other classic British foods I've had seem like they might have originated in a similar fashion, so none of this convinces me that the existence of Walkers Cajun Squirrel crisps is wildly atypical or that any of this is a transient phenomenon that got left behind in the mid-twentieth-century.

But as I said, getting outré with food is not some particular British thing; see the aforementioned deep-fried butter on a stick genre of American cuisine. Or, like, kimchi or salami or blue-veined cheese or other stuff that is essentially the result of letting food spoil so much that it goes all the way around and becomes palatable again.
posted by XMLicious at 8:51 PM on March 12


From the frozen lake to the ice house, from the ice house to the ice box, commercial ice enabled the development of long-distance rail shipping of perishable foods and became less a special-occasion food for the wealthy and more a daily household need, helping the newly-urbanized to maintain a healthier, more diverse diet.

With the development of the refrigerator and universal electrification, the commercial ice industry collapsed and disappeared between World Wars I & II, as the one-time luxury for the wealthy harvested in the deepest cold of winter and shipped around the world in wooden brigs could now be effortlessly manufactured in every home.


No, this is not correct. I have heard this all before and it's a myth.

My Grandfather worked for the USDA between WWI and II (and beyond) and his specialty was developing mass production methods for long distance shipping of meat by rail and truck. It made no difference if everyone had iceboxes or electric refrigerators, if you couldn't ship the product cost effectively to their door. Until WWII, most livestock was shipped by rail, live, and was locally slaughtered and distributed. During the war, most mass produced meat was shipped canned. This was pretty much unchanged through the 1950s.

Shipping meat in ice was a small scale, luxury operation. It was the commercial development of dry ice that made cross-country shipping of meat cost effective. Dry Ice is lightweight so it is cheap to haul, and it is cheap to produce.

Here is a scan of a Dry Ice Slide Rule I inherited from my Grandfather. It shows how much Dry Ice you need to pack in a rail car or truck trailer, in order to keep the contents frozen until it reached its destination.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:28 PM on March 12 [12 favorites]


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:47 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Charlie, that was about perishables generally, not meat. In fact several of the articles talk about how meat wasn't really the problem, as it could easily be salted; cooling dairy and produce to keep them fresher longer and enable shipment from farther away into city centers was the real excitement.

There is a cutaway illustration of a railcar with sides of meat to illustrate how ice cars worked, but there's not actually much in the articles about shipping meat.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:15 PM on March 12


Lucas. Thanks Slap*Happy. I never heard the joke told using Rover as a punchline, but it had been so long since I thought about it, I couldn't remember the company name which you provided. So now I do not have to rack my brain over this particular meaningless trivia!

If people were you know actually serious about climate change, this old idea has lots of potential for the present. if you could profitably transport New England pond ice to India a century ago, it can't be all that bad of a business model and probably even a competitive one once the 100 dollar per pint carbon tax on fuel is levied and the price of electricity begins to approach its real cost.
posted by three blind mice at 10:26 PM on March 12


Here is a scan of a Dry Ice Slide Rule

Bummer: Forbidden / You don't have permission to access /archives/dryice.jpg on this server. / Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:39 AM on March 13


Visiting England today, you'd still think ice was an exotic speciality...

Well yes. That is slowly changing.

There are several reasons for why English people apparently do not like ice. Domestically, we tend not to have much room for a large refrigerator, much less one that can make ice on demand. By contrast, I remember in my old Midtown apartment my tiny kitchen was dominated by a huge, empty fridge which I used almost exclusively for ice because there nobody bothered to cook.

Housing trends are towards smaller homes, so we're unlikely to switch en masse to ice-making fridges soon. I personally would love to have ice on demand but I've got the choice of either making it in silly little trays I have to balance around my freezer, filling up ice cube bags or I have to buy a bag of ice from the shop and fit it into my exotically small freezer around half used packs of raw chicken thighs I've forgotten about and bags of frozen peas and beans.

Commercially, soft drinks are expensive - it is not unusual for pubs to charge more for a pint of made_from_concentrate Coke than a pint of beer - and free refills are uncommon. People don't want drinks filled up with tons of ice if it means getting less of the thing we are actually paying for. Many older customers still see ice as "being ripped off."

Culturally, lots of people just don't like a lot of ice in their drinks. I know several people who make a point of asking for no ice when they order soft or alcholic drinks, and not just the hardcore whisky fans who think ice is for sassenachs and ladies. Most pubs still have an infuriating tendency to serve mixed drinks in crappy short tumblers with a crappy single shot and a crappy little bottle of mixer. So if you have tons of ice you get no space for your mixer.

In terms of the perceived need for ice: we get a super hot summer (by our standards) once a decade, and people remember them, often as times of great discomfort and disruption because our infrastructure is poorly suited to extremes of weather - years like 1976, 1983, 1989, 1995, 2006. The rest of the time it is pretty temperate with a few weeks of warm or hot weather we label "summer", sometimes more in hope than expectation. In Scotland, the standing joke is that summer is their favourite day of the year.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:59 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Mister Bijou: “Here is a scan of a Dry Ice Slide Rule

Bummer: Forbidden / You don't have permission to access /archives/dryice.jpg on this server. / Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.”
Just hit enter in address bar. The server is configured to block hot-linking from other referrers.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:53 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


There was also another "Ice King," Charles Morse, from Bath, Maine. Here's a good write-up:

It's Nice to be Ice (Part One)
It's Nice to be Ice (Part Two)
It's Nice to be Ice (Part Three)
It's Nice to be Ice (Part Four)
Charles W. Morse, King of New York

See also:

Ice: A Maine Commodity, from Maine History Online.

We lived on an old farmstead in S. Central Maine when I was a child. It wasn't a working farm anymore, but it did have a small ice house. We used to climb up on the roof and jump off into the snowbanks for fun.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:54 AM on March 13


The server is configured to block hot-linking from other referrers.

Sorry about that. I've been trying to block hot-linking and it doesn't work for me. So I'm glad to hear it works somewhere besides my local computer. But yeah, just hit enter on the URL line.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:10 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Terrific post. My mother lives in a small, well-preserved Vermont town where there's a little display about ice harvesting along with a sawdust-insulated icehouse at the one mansion (the home of Senator Justin Smith Morrill). It mentions some of these tools and markets, but I always thought the whole thing was an example of small-town Yankee ingenuity; I never realized it was such an integrated industry. And then there's this.
posted by texorama at 6:25 AM on March 13


Nowadays, I can't imagine wanting to drink anything with pond water in it. Even accounting for much less polluted waters in the past, I still wouldn't want to drink water that fish, frogs, leeches, turtles, and water fowl lived and crapped in. How did people who drank iced drinks avoid getting sick? Were their immune systems that much better than ours?
posted by marsha56 at 7:31 PM on March 13


Nowadays, I can't imagine wanting to drink anything with pond water in it. Even accounting for much less polluted waters in the past, I still wouldn't want to drink water that fish, frogs, leeches, turtles, and water fowl lived and crapped in. How did people who drank iced drinks avoid getting sick? Were their immune systems that much better than ours?

As water freezes the impurities are forced out. In The Rising Curve of Binding Energy, John McPhee describes a water purification system in northern Quebec designed by Ted Taylor.

The water supply had been contaminated by industrial pollution. In the winter months, water was frozen in ponds. The ice was collected, melted and frozen again. After six cycles or so, the resulting water was said to be as pure as distilled water.
posted by rochrobbb at 1:01 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


One of the weird saws I've got in my till is a 27" ice cutting hand saw. I guess for trimming/sectioning blocks for use out of the ice house.

Here is a another set of pictures showing the process; this time with a sledge and horses.
posted by Mitheral at 6:53 PM on March 17


« Older Bennett Foddy (of QWOP fame) explains why some mul...  |  SXSW Mario Kart... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments