Ice Work If You Can Get It

Girls deliver ice.Girls deliver ice. September 16, 1918 (Photo: NARA)

The first scene of Disney’s smash hit 2013 cartoon Frozen is an homage to an extinct American industry. Men sawing ice on frozen ponds, dividing it into blocks, and moving the blocks down pathways cut in the ice up onto sledges began in early nineteenth century New England. Some people could still make a living harvesting and selling ice as late as World War I.

The Boston merchant Frederic Tudor pioneered this business in 1806. By the 1830s, he was packing ice from New England ponds and streams and selling it as far away as India. He attracted competitors who shipped ice around the world, but the center of the international ice trade remained New England and the largest market was always in the United States. The United States has always been slightly mad for ice, as any foreigner who notices our almost unique predilection for popping ice cubes in our drinks will likely tell you.

While Frozen does a good job of quickly portraying the entire process of a New England ice harvest, there is one small detail that the movie gets wrong. At the end of the harvest, the cart full of ice blocks rides away from the lake. In the early nineteenth century, all the ice that got harvested would be stored in waterside icehouses until summertime. After all, New England then (like today) had plenty of ice during winter. The real market for ice was during summertime.

The New England ice industry depended upon the interplay between the seasons. Entrepreneurs like Tudor wished for long, cold winters that would yield tons of thick ice they could store away for later. They also wanted long, hot summers so that the product they stored would be in high demand. One good season was not enough for an industry that depended upon the weather. The natural ice industry required two.

During the late nineteenth century, other industrialists began to put the lessons of the New England natural ice industry to use for their own purposes. German immigrants bought huge blocks so that they could use the cold-brewing process required to make lager beer during summer for the first time. Lager remains America’s favorite kind of beer, yet its seasonal origins have been largely forgotten.

Another German immigrant, Augustus Swift, perfected the refrigerated rail car during this same era. That refrigerated car depended entirely upon ice as the source for its cold. This technology made it possible for meatpackers to concentrate their slaughtering operations in Chicago, and to ship dressed meat rather than whole cattle to the East Coast for consumption. By greatly increasing the packer’s efficiency, this lowered the price of fresh meat. For the first time, Americans at all income levels could afford beef. Since there was no way for consumers to see exactly how their meat arrived at their local markets, the contribution of the ice to the growth of this particular industry seldom got recognized.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the natural ice industry gradually gave way to mechanical refrigeration, with the ice created by machines weighing about five tons. If you drank a glass of natural ice water around 1880, you would expect to see dirt and sediment at the bottom of the glass after you finished. Artificial ice was a superior product because it was clean; it left nothing behind after you finished consuming it. It strengthened America’s love affair with ice.

Mechanical refrigeration also maintained the freshness of perishable food better than natural ice. Ice creates a wet cold, the kind of cold that can affect the texture of sensitive perishable foods like most fruits and vegetables. It can also damage meats upon contact, which is why Swift hung the dressed meat he shipped from a pole suspended down the middle of his railroad cars. Mechanical refrigeration made the meat shipping process far easier, and its popularity quickly spread throughout the industry.

This transition to mechanical refrigeration had a profound effect on how we think about seasonality. We know that apples are best in the fall yet we eat them year-round. Eggs once had seasons too. So did vegetables like cabbage and Brussels sprouts, which were among the only sorts of fresh vegetables that most people could get during the winter. Thanks to refrigeration, the change of seasons means much less to us than it did to people just 120 years ago.

Maybe that explains why Princess Elsa’s land of Arendelle resonates with so many viewers. While they live in endless winter, we live in an endless growing season. While they harvest ice, we can create our own winter in order to keep the products of our eternal harvest fresh. Understanding Arendelle’s connection to American history might be a good way to appreciate just how far we’ve come since the first ice harvesters unwittingly transformed the way we eat, think, and live.

About the Author

Jonathan Rees

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He is the author of Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances and Enterprise in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Refrigerator (Bloomsbury).

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1 Comment

  1. I am in the early stages of my historical fiction novel for kids. I am looking for any information on the kids who delivered ice in the 1900s. Any help would be appreciated.

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