Ice is an essential for many of us during the long, hot summer. But just how did people in the 19th century enjoy cool drinks in an age before electricity and freezers? Here, Colette Lefebvre-Davis tells us about ice harvesting…


As winter creeps, the ponds begin to freeze. As they freeze winter sports enthusiasts begin to dust off their ice skates and ice fishing utensils. Suddenly, it is time to play and ice makes a great place for skating. In the past, it was time to harvest ponds and lakes. In the modern world ice harvesting is no longer practiced. Ice can be made now with electric refrigerators, food is easily preserved with the cold. But not so long ago it was a cash crop. Prominent men and women craved it in the summer months, and once a drink was enjoyed cool and not tepid, it was a necessity for those that could afford it. Of course it was only the wealthy who could afford to buy or keep the ice. 

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of  Harper's Weekly .

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of Harper's Weekly.

American Forefathers had to have Cold Butter!

Thomas Jefferson had a problem with his self-designed ice house around 1806, namely keeping his ice house dry and filled. ”About a third is lost to melting.”[1] Thereafter, it was imperative to catch the water that was in the ice house. Jefferson filled the ice house with snow to insulate the ice and keep it from melting, and still men were employed to empty it.  Jefferson wrote to his overseer, to harvest from the nearby Rivanna River.  Being who he was, a philanthropist, and knowledge seeker Jefferson no doubt waited patiently for his experiment to unfold. He wasn’t around when the first ice house on his property was built; rather he monitored the progress from Philadelphia in 1803. Yet letters were constant between himself and the people at his estate, because he knew that the harvest of ice would allow him to have cold drinks in the summer as well as cool desserts. Cold, heavy, backbreaking work - ice was worth it not only for the famous American President and creator of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson also built an ice house at the President’s house in Philadelphia. It has been excavated in recent years and is on display. For Jefferson there was no other method to nicely preserve his butter and meat. Ice was for those with money at that time. During heat waves, while others sipped tepid water, those who were able to drank cool drinks.

Even, Benjamin Franklin is credited with cooling off the palates of the delegates of the constitutional convention while idle one evening. He secured cream from a neighbor’s cow, and used his ice from the storehouse. There were satisfied palates, and certainly cooler tempers.


The Hazards of Ice Harvests

Harvesting ice was a cash crop, a winter crop. In New England, just as the ice grew thicker during plunging temperatures, a harvest was pending. Men of the early twentieth century and before slipped on their shoes, tightened their belts and prepared their horses for a harvest at a local pond.  In their inventory were the necessary utensils for harvesting which included an ice gaff, ice pick, ice tongs and ice saw. It was hard, laborious, cold, dangerous and rewarding. People were excited to go to work, to come together as a community of workers, despite the dangers that harvesting presented. Despite cold conditions, accidents and frostbite the harvest was a much looked forward to event.

Now, ice harvest festivals remain, as a fun reminder of the past. Communities gather over ice-covered ponds and snow banks to watch local historians as they demonstrate 19th and 18th century harvesting techniques. Some audience members are invited to participate, carrying large chunks of ice to a sled where it is pulled by a horse to an ice house - if one is available.

But it was made into a lucrative business when Fredric Tudor decided to make money from old fashioned New England winters. Tudor, born in 1783 in Boston, Massachusetts would be known as the “Ice King”. Now, Boston in 1783 was just recovering from the American Revolution. For most it was a depressed and poor place. The population that had once thrived was small; most had left during the revolution to escape the ravages of war and military takeovers. The population was 10,000 in 1780 and many were struggling to make money. Tudor was by no means poor himself though; in fact he had the opportunity to go to Harvard. It wasn’t his destiny; instead he and his brother hunted, fished, practiced courting rituals, and learned the life of the privileged. It was a passing comment at a summer picnic that drove him to think of their pond as a possibility to make money. It not only would change the Caribbean, with ice being shipped from Boston to Martinique, but it would also change the United States. 

Tudor decided that hot climates like Martinique were the best place to start. So he sent his brother out to forge the path for their soon to be booming ice trade. Yes, he was crazy, and if anybody had asked people in Boston, they would have said that it was preposterous to send ice to the warmer climates safely and then once there store it away. 

But ice harvesting became popular, and with a few tweaks in shipping it and preserving it, people began to ask for it. Competition began to sprout up in Maine along the rivers, and other ice companies emerged as the demand grew.


How to Harvest Ice

Step 1: First scrape the snow off the ice, it should be six to thirty inches (however to transport it needs to be at least eight inches).

Step 2: Measure grids on the ice and bring horses along to help with the measurements.

Step 3: The next step was to cut through the grooves on the grid, until the blocks break off and float down the cleared channel to the chute where they were hauled up and into the ice house.

Step 4:  Men used breaking off bars and one-handed crosscuts on the ice which they gloated or poled down like a raft to the ice house.

Step 5: Each block was moved up the chute with hooks to various levels as the ice house filled with layers of ice separated and surrounded by layers of sawdust supplied by lumber mills as an insulator.


Ice created American Cuisine

Ice harvesting changed the way in which Americans ate. Soon after Mr. Tudor suggested ice in drinks, it became more and more necessary to have it. Newspapers of the time would report that ice harvests were either plentiful or hardly there at all. In the latter case, men would be commissioned to take a voyage to the Arctic, to chip pieces of ice from huge icebergs to satisfy the need back home.

It was an easier way to keep meat and dairy products longer. It sure beat the time it took to preserve with canning or salting. The flavors were reportedly fresher, and that was all the public needed to know. While the ice business boomed, so too did inventors who strove to create ice.

In the 1920s, ice consumers purchased ice boxes lined with zinc or lead to preserve their foods. There were magical, icy cold drinks, ice box cookies, cakes, and pies. The iceman was soon a staple person in most American cities and towns. He would drive in on a horse drawn ice wagon, and simply unload a nicely squared piece with ice hooks, haul it into a person's home and lift it into the ice box. The ice boxes or cold closets as they were also known were created as pieces of furniture, admired and handsome. They were made with trays to catch the water at the bottom, and once they melted the ice man soon came again.

Leftovers were preserved longer, most likely to the chagrin of the children in a home, and around the same time inventors were working on creating American frozen food meals. Refrigeration techniques had been utilized by breweries and then spread to Chicago’s meat packing industry. They were using refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride which were harmfully impacting people who were exposed to it. That type of refrigeration was not going to be placed in homes. In 1884 it was reported that almost every home but the poorest had ice boxes. It became normal for homes to post a sign in the window whenever they needed more ice. However up until the 1930s these meals were mushy, frozen with ice shards, and not very appetizing. Regardless of the early pitfalls of frozen foods, there was still a lot to benefit from in having a home ice box.



For now, the last remnants of ice harvesting are exhibits produced in museums, and small sects of those who are bent on living off-grid sustainable lives. The rest of the world relies on refrigeration for ice. Americans, who scoffed at the initial idea of an ice trade, instantly became hooked when they were shown the advantages of using it. Fredric Tudor, the “Ice King”, went bankrupt many times, but leaves an enduring legacy.


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[1] Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 11:439.