Free Enterprise…An Industry From Solid Water…Ice!

I will bet that even though it’s uses have changed dramatically, the consumption of ice is way, way up from the time written about in this entertaining article.  This interesting economic tidbit from

In today’s excerpt – in the early 1800s, before the invention of modern refrigeration, one of America’s biggest and most envied businesses was making, selling, and exporting ice:

“What was desperately needed was a way of keeping foods safe and fresh for longer periods than nature allowed. … So when in the early 1840s a miracle product came along that promised to transform matters, there was a great deal of excitement. The product was an unexpectedly familiar one: ice. …

“Lake ice was a marvelous product. It created itself at no cost to the producer, was clean, renewable, and infinite in supply. The only drawbacks were that there was no infrastructure to produce and store it, and no market to sell it to. In order to make the ice industry exist, it was necessary to work out ways to cut and lift ice on a large scale, build storehouses, secure trading rights, and engage a reliable chain of shippers and agents. Above all, the producer had to create a demand for ice in places where ice had seldom or never been seen and was most assuredly not something anyone was predisposed to pay for. The man who did all this was a Bostonian of good birth and challenging disposition named Frederic Tudor. Making ice a commercial proposition became his overweening obsession.

“The notion of shipping ice from New England to distant ports was considered completely mad – ‘the vagary of a disordered brain,’ in the words of one of his contemporaries. The first shipment of ice to Britain so puzzled customs officials as to how to classify it that all three hundred tons of it melted away before it could be moved off the docks. Shipowners were highly reluctant to accept it as cargo. They didn’t relish the humiliation of arriving in a port with a holdful of useless water, but they were also wary of the very real danger of tons of shifting ice and sloshing meltwater making their ships unstable. These were men, after all, whose nautical instincts were based entirely on the idea of keeping water outside the ship, so they were loath to take on such an eccentric risk when there wasn’t even a certain market at the end of it all. …

“[But] gradually it caught on and eventually it made Tudor and many others rich. For several decades, ice was America’s second biggest crop, measured by weight. If securely insulated, ice could last a surprisingly long while. It could even survive the 16,000-mile, 130-day trip from Boston to Bombay – or at least
about two-thirds of it could, enough to make the long trip profitable. Ice went to the farthest corners of South America and from New England to California via Cape Horn. Sawdust, a product previously without any value at all, proved to be an excellent insulator, providing useful extra income for Maine lumber mills. …

“[Though much ice was exported,] the real market, it turned out, was in America itself. As Gavin Weightman notes in his history of the business, The Frozen-Water Trade, Americans appreciated ice as no people had before. They
used it to chill beer and wine, to make delectable icy cocktails, to soothe fevers, and to create a vast range of frozen treats. Ice cream became popular – and startlingly inventive, too. At Delmonico’s, the celebrated New York restaurant, customers could order pumpernickel rye ice cream and asparagus ice cream, among many other unexpected flavors. Manhattan alone consumed nearly 1 million tons of ice a year, while Brooklyn sucked down 334,000 tons, Boston 380,000, and Philadelphia 377,000. Americans grew immensely proud of the civilizing conveniences of ice. ‘Whenever you hear America abused,’ one American told Sarah Maury, a visiting Briton, ‘remember the ice.’

“Where ice really came into its own was in the refrigeration of railway cars, which allowed the transport of meat and other perishables from coast to coast. Chicago became the epicenter of the railway industry in part because it could generate and keep huge quantities of ice. Individual ice houses in Chicago held up to 250,000 tons of ice. Before ice, in hot weather milk (which came out of the cow warm, of course) could be kept for only an hour or two before it began to spoil. Chicken had to be eaten on the day of plucking. Fresh meat was seldom safe for more than a day. Now food could be kept longer locally, but it could also be sold in distant markets. Chicago got its first lobster in 1842, brought in from the East Coast in a refrigerated railway car. Chicagoans came to stare at it as if it had arrived from a distant planet. For the first time in history food didn’t have to be consumed close to where it was produced. Farmers on the boundless plains of the American Midwest could not only produce food more cheaply and abundantly than anywhere else but also sell it almost anywhere.”

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: At Home
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2010 by Bill Bryson
Pages: 70-74

Leave a Reply