It’s that time of year — temperatures are rising and people want to stay cool. Many of us have the luxury of climate control — turn a dial and cool air fills our home or office. But what did people do before air conditioning?1
Avoiding Heat. For most of history, the only way to keep cool was to avoid heat — stay in the shade, start work before sunrise, sleep outside on a porch or city fire escape. Kids could always retreat to the local swimming hole. Buildings were designed with awnings to shield windows from the sun and high ceilings so hot air could rise. Helpful, but when it’s really hot, the only real relief is to lower the temperature.
Getting Cool. Great idea, but how? Fire is a readily available source of heat, but what provides a similar source of coldness?
People living near mountains could bring snow down from the peaks in summer. Elsewhere wealthy people built ice houses to store winter ice for summer use. George Washington had one so he could enjoy ice cream, his favorite dessert, year-round. But the tropics have no natural ice or snow. A fortune was waiting for anyone who could get it there.
The Ice King. A young Bostonian, Frederic Tudor, experienced tropical heat while visiting Havana in 1801. He came from a prosperous Boston family, his father served with George Washington in the Revolution. As a boy Tudor enjoyed year-round ice from the ice house on the family farm in Lynn. Remembering what it was like in Havana, Tudor came up with the crazy idea of shipping ice to the Caribbean.
No vessel would take his cargo so Tudor had to buy a ship. He couldn’t get insurance and sailors were reluctant to sign on. A story in the Boston Gazette expresses the prevailing skepticism:
“No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of Ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”
The ship and cargo made it to Martinique, but without insulated storage facilities much of the merchandise melted shortly after purchase. Tudor lost money, but the voyage proved that ice could be transported.
Tudor also saw that a distribution system was needed. It took years and dogged determination, but eventually he built one. In 1833 he opened an extremely lucrative route to Calcutta, a journey of 14,000 miles and over 100 days. The ice was enthusiastically received. New England shipped ice to India for 40 years.
As demand grew ice was harvested from ponds throughout New England, including Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Spy Pond in Arlington and Jamaica Pond in Boston. Seeing ice harvested at Walden, Thoreau noted that “it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”5
A Luxury Becomes Essential. Brilliant marketing made what once was a luxury into a necessity. To introduce customers to the pleasures of chilled drinks, Tudor employed agents to distribute free ice to bars and taverns. His Wenham Lake Ice Company opened a shop on the Strand in London and displayed a fresh block of New England ice in its window to entice sweltering passersby. Wenham received the coveted royal warrant as ice purveyor to Queen Victoria.
Moreover a reliable supply spawned uses for ice that Tudor could never have foreseen. It enabled Chicago to supply meat to the nation and brewing to become a year-round industry.
Ice also changed the domestic kitchen. Refrigeration meant butter, eggs and meat could be stored without spoiling. The ice wagon making its deliveries was a regular fixture on residential streets for generations.
Ice became so important that when winters were warm people feared “ice famines.” Prices rose and entrepreneurs anxious to supply desperate clients sometimes sent ships to the Arctic to harvest icebergs. As late as 1906, the New York Times ran an article warning of an ice famine unless a cold front arrived.
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Today the ice trade is largely forgotten, but the changes it wrought effect our lives daily. Like all true innovations, it created opportunities its founders never could have envisioned.
- Information for this article comes from the following sources: Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade, Hyperion, New York (2003); Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now, Chapter 2 “Cold,” Riverhead Books, New York (2014); Wikipedia article on Ice Trade.
- Photo of the White House from Keeping Cool in the White House on the web site of The White House Historical Association.
- Detail from hand-colored photograph by Frederick Fiebig, The Ice House Calcutta (1851), in the collection of the British Library. Image from Wikipedia.
- Image from The Illustrated London News, p. 316 (May 17, 1845).
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p. 295, Walter Scott, London (1886). Available on-line at Google Books.
- Iceman and helper with Jamaica Pond Ice Co. wagon. Photo by Charles Currier (c1890). Image from Library of Congress.
- New York Times, February 2, 1906.
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