Skip to content

The Man Who Brought Ice to the Masses

By Hardy Green


A True Story

By Gavin Weightman

Hyperion -- 254pp -- $23.95

At Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-47, Henry David Thoreau observed how "a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakesand these, being sledded to the shore, were rapidly hauled off.Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well."

Thoreau's tableau was but a fragment of a once-thriving and now largely forgotten U.S. business, the natural ice industry. Out-of-season ice sheltered in icehouses was once a luxury known only to the rich. But by the mid-19th century, Americans from all walks of life were accustomed to using it--preserving perishable food, chilling drinks, and making ice cream. Even more amazingly, the trade was global from the start. Taken from New York's Hudson River and the lakes and streams of New England, ice was transported around the world in insulated ships. In the winter of 1879-80 alone, between 8 million and 10 million tons were harvested, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, employing thousands of workers.

The U.S. ice industry and the way of life it spawned are profiled in the engaging, compact The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story by Gavin Weightman, a London-based writer and filmmaker. The volume is part of the burgeoning genre some are calling microhistories--stories about forgotten people and underappreciated phenomena that, their authors assert, transformed the planet. Like Dava Sobel's 1995, genre-defining Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and several other books, The Frozen Water Trade stars a visionary pioneer. In this case, it is Frederick Tudor, a 19th century Boston-area entrepreneur without whom, Weightman asserts, the ice industry might not have existed.

A school dropout and indifferent apprentice at a Boston shipping company, the 22-year-old Tudor in 1805 hit upon the notion of shipping New England ice to the tropics. He sought out financial backers, but the idea met only with ridicule. So he and his brother William set out for Martinique, where, with the help of a timely bribe, they won a state-sanctioned monopoly. In 1806, they made their first shipment--130 tons--but with no icehouse in which to store the product, they lost between $3,000 and $4,000.

The brothers remained determined and made several ice shipments to Cuba. Then came hard times, as two U.S. government embargoes on shipping--the result of conflicts with European powers--threatened to destroy the project. Twice, in 1809 and 1812, Frederick was arrested and jailed in Boston for nonpayment of debts. But he managed to build two large icehouses, one in Havana and one in Charleston, S.C., and in the process learned much about the little-understood physics of heat and cold. And soon, Tudor began to see that his best markets would be in the American South. By 1822, his business was flourishing in Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.

The extraction of lake or river ice was a grueling chore: Large chunks had to be broken away with pickaxes and sawed into manageable pieces on shore. Then, in 1825, came the first of several key innovations, the ice plow. One of Tudor's suppliers, Nathaniel Wyeth, fabricated a device that, pulled by spike-shoed horses, would cut deep grooves in the ice, allowing regular cubes to be prized out. The plow facilitated large-scale ice harvests. What's more, the blocks could be stacked efficiently in icehouses, and they melted more slowly than irregular bits. Weightman says that this innovation, together with pulley mechanisms also concocted by Wyeth, would "transform America into the first refrigerated society, and make New England a major exporter of ice to countries as far away as India."

India? Despite the odds, Tudor continued to feel the pull of exotic markets. There was also low-cost opportunity, since ships often traveled to India loaded only with ballast. The 1833 delivery of 100 tons was a sensation in Calcutta, where the British soon granted Tudor a monopoly. By the late 1840s, they had become his best customers.

The Frozen Water Trade has its shortcomings: Even though the book runs to only 254 pages, there's more about Frederick Tudor--his island estate, his late-in-life romance--than we really care to know. Meanwhile, one longs to learn more about the industry, which, after all, continued to exist well into the 20th century. For example, the Midwest was harvesting huge amounts of ice by the 1880s to supply several soon-to-be-legendary U.S. companies. Milwaukee's Pabst lager beer, which became a leading national brand, had to be stored in near-freezing temperatures. And Chicago's Swift & Co. grew into a meatpacking behemoth by combining assembly-line abattoirs with refrigerated railcars to undercut East Coast butchers. Weightman devotes only a few paragraphs to those developments.

From the mid-19th century, inventors made artificial ice using steam power, and by the 1880s, both the American South and India had largely switched to the manufactured stuff. The trade in Eastern cities remained strong until the 1920s, at which time there were mounting public worries about pollution. Meanwhile, such companies as General Electric Co. (GE ) began using new, small-motor technology to make electric refrigerators, 3 million of which were in U.S. homes by 1937. By the 1950s, no more would the iceman cometh.

Green is Books Editor

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE