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May 5th, 2015

The American Ice Age

BY Christian Ford

Travelers to the US have long noted the American predisposition toward — perhaps obsession with — ice.  Cold beer, iced tea, even the crushed-ice cocktail (originally and sometimes still called a “smash”) all originated in the US.

Now, long before the invention of artificial refrigeration, there had always been ice houses for storing ice harvested from wintertime lakes and rivers.  But it was small and local, a regional custom, something you either had or didn’t.

All that changed in the first half of the 19th Century, and the reason was a driven, diminutive and humorless man by the name of Frederic Tudor.  Author Gavin Weightman has done some historical archaeology in recovering Tudor’s forgotten role and he’s laid it all down in a  very useful book, The Frozen Water Trade.

Tudor was, in many ways, a kind of New England stereotype, determined, business-oriented and employing all his wits to turn almost nothing into cash.  His notion was to take something that had zero value in New England — ice from the frozen “ponds” — and ship it to where it was hot.  What’s more, he would use a waste-product from New England’s booming lumber industry — sawdust — as the insulator.  And, in his final stroke of economic judo, he took advantage of the fact that Yankee vessels were generally light when they were outbound from the States, carrying stone as ballast, stone which they would discard while loading foreign cargo to return to Boston.  Tudor’s notion was that carrying ice as ballast would convert the useless stone into a valuable product that the ship owners would be happy to carry.

He was wrong.  Ship owners assumed the ice would all melt away during the long voyages and leave their ships dangerously top-heavy, and so they refused him.  But Tudor was nothing if not persistent, and he bought his own ship to begin sales of ice to the West Indies, while sending his brothers to establish a commercial foothold there in advance of the inaugural shipment.

But there were unforeseen problems, Boston’s weather for one. That first winter, in 1806, the temperature zig-zagged above and below freezing in such a way that either the ice on the ponds melted away, or that it became so cold that when ice was successfully harvested, the harbor was frozen in and no ships were sailing.

When he finally did get his first shipment out to sea, the Boston Gazette voiced the derision of the wharves:  “No joke.  A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out of this port for Martinique.”

No matter, Tudor kept at his plan for over a decade, tangling with Caribbean politics, dodging creditors on the streets of Boston, trying and abandoning markets, refining his iceman’s wisdom even as he consistently lost money.  In the end, the place that turned around his ill-fortune, the first enthusiastic market for his product, turned out to be the American South, Charleston in particular.  Mint julep, anyone?

(As a side note, the mint julep was in iceless existence in the American South in the late 17th Century, but by 1840 ice had become part of the essential recipe.)

Little by little, the ice trade turned from a butt of jokes to the kind of thing that competitors were trying to get in on.  Along the way, a man named Nathaniel Wyeth become one of Tudor’s suppliers.  He operated a hotel on the shores of a lake near to Boston, and in the winters, he’d harvest ice for extra income.  But in the early 1820s, ice harvest was an onerous and haphazard business using pickaxes to hack chunks out of the ice and then sawing them to shape with two-man bucksaws borrowed from the timber industry.  It was slow, wasteful and exhausting and what it produced were various sizes of ice block that were troublesome to move and store.

Wyeth’s solution was to scale up a kind of wood plane used to carve moldings until it was big enough to be pulled by horses across the ice.  The horses didn’t care much — they were used to wearing spiked shoes in the New England winter.  What Wyeth’s invention did was to fundamentally transform Tudor’s business.  Now ice could come right off the water already cut into standardized blocks at a much higher rate of speed.  (Curiously enough, if you want to get an image of what this might be like, the opening sequence of Disney’s Frozen will show it to you, only with more singing.)

It was Wyeth’s invention, rather than Tudor’s shipping model, that turned the United States, by 1850, into the first refrigerated society.  Within a decade of the first ice plough, eastern seaboard cities all had their local ice industries, complete with ice wagons delivering block ice to households which now had “iceboxes.”  Farmers, too, were making use of ice, saving dairy farmers from having to travel to market in the dead of night to prevent the butter from melting before it could be sold.

Frederic Tudor even ended up as ice vendor to the British Raj, delivering the frozen skin of New England’s lakes and rivers to India, a half year voyage away from Boston. He became a very rich man, with an estate in Nahant and a very young wife.

It is, in all, a remarkable story of determination and what strikes me most about it is the way in which cleverness can substitute for raw power.  Between them, Tudor and Wyeth executed a remarkable alchemy, transforming something worthless — ice in the New England winter — into something of value by shifting it in both place and time.  What’s more, they used other worthlessnesses, like sawdust, unballasted ships and the labor of farmers idled by winter, to make their endeavor possible.  (Once captains saw that Tudor’s ice didn’t melt away during the voyage, they were happy to take his ice aboard, instead of dredging ballast stones out of Boston harbor.)

But just because something starts a certain way doesn’t mean it stays there.  The American hunger for ice grew beyond chilling wet things (drinks, dairy, meats and fish) to cooling dry things, like the air itself and that’s a very different proposition because air is a terrible conductor of temperature.  Never mind, the age of Universal Air Conditioning is now the rule and Dutch trickster/starchitect Rem Koolhaas has made an inescapable argument that the cornerstones of contemporary American culture (shopping, eating, driving and warfare) are all air-conditioning dependent.

Where Tudor used the immense forces of the solar powered engine that is the global atmosphere to manufacture his product, we replicate the thermodynamics of that in miniature in every kitchen (and mall) and power the whole thing with electricity which, if we are lucky, is solar powered but is most likely coming from burning coal.  There’s an obvious irony about how our love of la vie en froid is fueling a world without ice, but there’s something else lurking beneath the what we’ve made of Frederic Tudor’s cleverness.

When Tudor was young, before he set out to become the Ice King, he went traveling with  his brother to Havana.  At first, it was exotic.  Then it was just hellishly hot.  Sitting sweating and doing his best to fend off the mosquitoes, Tudor wished he was back in his temperate home.  Of course, he couldn’t do that.  He couldn’t rearrange the seasons or transport himself thousands of miles on a whim.  But what he eventually came to realize was that he might be able to create a taste of that, a refreshingly cold drink on an insufferable day.

It was an accommodation, a good-enough, a hint, but it was enough to breathe respite into the beleaguered resident of a tropic clime.  It was, effectively, a symbolic solution.

But between Tudor and today, symbolic amelioration stopped being good enough and the drive for cooling became an issue of very literal control — climate control, but not the kind we need.  The modern food system that supplies the grocery stores is nothing but climate control — “cold chain” they call it — and it begins at harvest, where the produce is quickly chilled to remove “field heat” and then kept cold so that the foods can retain a simulacrum of freshness and some degree of their nutrition as they are transported in air conditioned comfort to grocery aisles, far, far away.

It’s an over-reaction that seems to stem from fundamental human dissatisfaction with our lot here on earth.  Maybe it comes from countless generations watching their loved ones drop dead for no apparent reason, even when the Red and Black Horsemen were (temporarily) busy in the next valley over.  Maybe it’s just a result of being a thinking animal up to our necks in a biophysical system that we didn’t order and which has no particular love for us.  For a long time, the response was religious, with Christianity promising its followers better times later on and buddhism just distilling everything down to “life is suffering.”

But by the time of Frederic Tudor, revolt was brewing in the form of the steam engine and stuff to make it go.  Suddenly, we had power and with it, we began to grow impatient with our symbolic solutions and small ameliorations and instead we dreamt of real control, of taking charge or our long-standing grievances against nature.  At first, it was a welcome change.  But if there’s one thing that history teaches about revolutions and revolutionaries, it’s that they don’t know when to stop.  In other words, you can’t control the notion of “control” which finally brings you to the place where we are now, where the notion of control underlies and overlays just about everything.  Everything, that is, except the nature that we set out to control in the first place.

It’s enough to make you want to just sit down with a nice, cold drink.


Ice Plough by Dwight Sipler
Ice Harvest with Ploughs via Library of Congress
Ice Harvest with Saws via Library of Congress
Ice Cream in Havana via Library of Congress
The Ice Wagon via Library of Congress
Chennai Ice House by Sunish Sebastian