Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On ice: a business that has melted away

Presented to the Club by Albert E. Easton on May 3, 2004

I don’t know about you, but I like my scotch poured over a good sized pile of ice. I drink ice water at the table when it’s available, and I like cold beverages all year round. Red wine is about the only thing I drink at room temperature. I’m not sure why we like our beverages cold, but we do. It wasn’t too long ago, though, that cold beverages were much more difficult to obtain during warm weather in our climate, and not available at all in many parts of the world. The production of ice is now a simple matter with artificial refrigerating equipment, but was once much more complicated.

For most of mankind’s history, natural ice from lakes, ponds and glaciers furnished all the available ice at all times of the year. During the summers, in places where the weather was warm and the ice had melted, ice was often brought in from mountain areas where glaciers persisted throughout the year. The Medici in sixteenth century Florence are said to have enjoyed ice from the alps. It has been said that the ice in Ice Glen, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, used to last late into the summer, but I tend to discount this. I have visited Ice Glen on Memorial Day, and saw no sign of any natural ice. It may be that ice lasted there late into May some years, but probably not into the summer. If there were any natural sources of summer ice in the Berkshires, they were more likely to have been on Mount Greylock than in Stockbridge.

As the interest in having summer ice increased, ways of storing winter ice to prevent it from melting began to be explored. The first ice houses were usually built as much as 20 or 30 feet into the ground in as shady a spot as was available in the area where ice was to be saved. A drain at the bottom carried away the melt. Building ice houses into the ground was a result of faulty science. The original theoretical reason for burying ice derived from the belief that ice was a compound of two elements – water and earth, and surrounding the ice with earth was the best way to keep it cold. Practical observation also showed that a freshly dug hole is usually somewhat cooler at the bottom than the surface temperature. As we now know, however, air is a much poorer conductor than earth, so raising the floor of the ice house above ground level will actually preserve the ice longer. This was discovered in the nineteenth century, and the large commercial ice houses built in that time tended to be built on this better plan.

The first ice houses were intended only for the owner. Large estates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often had an ice house as an outbuilding, with the ice harvested from a nearby pond. Even some small farms of the nineteenth and early twentieth century have such an outbuilding. As the taste for ice began to expand to a larger and larger middle class, ice began to be harvested commercially, and large ice houses were built both near ponds where the ice was harvested, and in large cities where the ice could be stored for delivery to customers.

Between New York and Albany, there were 135 ice houses on the Hudson River in the late 1800s, and even this was not enough to supply the needs of the New York City, which also relied on imports from as far away as Maine. The ice houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were quite different, of course from the small estate ice house of earlier years. They were huge wooden affairs, built not into the ground, but above it, to get the benefit a layer of insulating air between the earth and the floor with ice on it. The walls were often insulated with saw dust, which must have made these structures anything but fireproof. They were not built to last, and not the kind of structure that appeals to antiquarians, so it would be difficult to find any trace of one today. I remember on a small pond in Rhode Island that lasted into the 1950s, although it was not in use for its original purpose any time after 1945. A housing development now stands in the spot where it was.

I can even remember living in summer houses (this was in the 1940s) where delivery of ice was a necessity several times a week. Although the houses had electricity, they were rentals with ice boxes instead of refrigerators, and the ice man made his deliveries based on a card in the window, turned one way for 50 pounds, the other for 25. By the 1940s, ice boxes, which were large wooden cabinets with insulated sides, were considered very old fashioned, and even a little quaint, but they did a reasonable job of keeping food fresh, and for ice in your drink, you could chip off a few pieces with an ice pick. Ice picks, and ice tongs, for lifting the ice, were standard equipment in a house with an ice box. There was a difference of opinion over whether to wrap the ice in newspaper. This was said to make the ice last longer, but it left the food not quite as cold. In any case, we never bothered. The 50 pound block usually had a little left over when the next delivery was made, so it didn’t seem necessary. Melt from the ice drained into a small pan that had to be emptied periodically, and that was often my job.

Before any ice could be stored in ice houses or ice boxes, it had to be harvested. The ice harvest took place late in the winter, after ice had frozen to its maximum thickness, but before any substantial melt had begun. After a week or so of subzero temperatures, soundings would be taken to check the thickness of the ice. If it had frozen to a depth of eighteen inches or more, it was ready – strong enough to support the weight of dozens of men and horses, and thick enough to yield good-sized cubes of ice.

Local farm workers were usually joined by migrant workers to make up teams of ice harvesters. The horses were shod with special spiked shoes for traction. The men wore boots with cork soles and wrapped their lags in layers of cloth to protect them from the cold. The weather was very important. Warm weather could spell disaster as the ice melted, and snow delayed the harvest while it was cleared with a horse drawn scraper. Often they worked at night by torchlight to take advantage of favorable weather. Ice was valuable, and competing companies working on the same pond had to observe boundaries. Ownership was established by buying sections of shoreline, with every owner having a piece of pie to the middle of the pond.

Once a favorable section of ice had been determined, and the snow cleared to reveal the crystal surface of the ice, it could be marked out. This was done by men who drove teams of horses drawing iron cutters in parallel lines across the ice, and then again at right angles to the first cut, so that the whole area was divided up into a series of squares. The size of the cubes varied according to the ultimate market for the ice, but the standard “New York” cut was 22 inches square. I calculate that, depending on thickness, a block of ice that size would weigh around 150 to 200 pounds.

When the surface had been marked out, horse drawn plows with metal teeth sawed the channel between blocks deeper. This enabled men with long handled chisels to pry the blocks free. The giant ice cubes were then floated down the channel of free water to a mechanical conveyor that lifted them into the lakeside ice house. Loading was from the top, with blocks sliding down a chute from which they were hauled into regular stacks, and insulated with sawdust. In a good ice house, blocks stacked like that could last through several summers, re-freezing every winter.

Ice from American ponds was crystal clear, and considered clean enough to put directly into drinks, a custom that was novel to Europeans. Before the civil war, the mint juleps of New Orleans and other southern cities were made with ice shipped down from Boston. The abundance of natural ice that could be delivered daily also made possible another American treat – ice cream. In fact, ice cream has become so identified with America that Mussolini is said to have banned ice cream in Italy for that reason.

Americans cannot lay claim to the origination of ice cream, however. That honor seems to belong to the Chinese who enjoyed the treat as early as the seventh century AD. Eighteenth century Americans, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are known to have enjoyed it. Freezing ice cream requires adding salt to chipped ice so that the temperature of the cream and sugar mixture gets cold enough to freeze the mixture of sugar, cream, and whatever flavor is added. As an asaide, the “Peoples Choice” ice cream store in Schodack offers ice cream without flavor added as one of their choices, but I’ve tried it and don’t recommend it.

As I mentioned, ice was a valuable commodity in the nineteenth century. Here are some quotes from the 1890 price card of the Knickerbocker Ice Company in Philadelphia: 5 pounds daily, 35 cents per week, 12 pounds daily 63 cents per week, 25 pounds daily $1.05 per week - “Pure imported ice delivered daily to all parts of the city. Ice served on Saturday afternoon for Sunday”. We needed about 25 pounds daily in our ice box in 1948, although we got it every other day in 50 pound blocks, so the normal supply for a family would have cost over a dollar a week in 1890 Philadelphia. This was a fair amount at that time, but probably justified by the amount of labor, transportation cost and capital investment needed to make the ice available.

With this much money to be made, you may be sure that there were Yankee entrepreneurs who developed the ice trade. Frederic Tudor of Boston was one of the first and in some ways the most successful. His enterprise began in 1805 when he visited the island of Martinique to arrange for ice sales there. It became necessary for him to purchase his own boat (at a cost of $4,000) to transport the ice, since other captains of the time who normally transported goods for hire considered the enterprise folly. Only 21 days were required to sail from Boston to Martinique, and he arrived in March 1806 and began selling ice for 16 cents a pound, directly from the ship. He was offered $4,000 for the entire cargo of 80 tons, but he had calculated that his cargo was worth $10,000. So he decided not to take the $4,000 offer, and instead to sell ice in small quantities in hopes of building up a trade. Since there were no ice boxes in Martinique, and most of the islanders had never seen ice before, they had little idea of what to do with it, and business was sluggish. His best trade was in making ice cream, and this he did with some success, but overall the loss from this first venture was about $2,000 – a substantial part of his original capital.

In 1807 he had somewhat better luck, selling a 180 ton shipment in Havana for about $6,000. But by the end of 1807, President Jefferson had placed an embargo on shipping from United States ports to help maintain U. S. neutrality in the European conflicts that eventually led to the war of 1812. This put Tudor out of the “frozen water trade” as it was called, until 1815, when he built a new ice house in Havana. This house was built upon the plan that eventually came to be adopted universally, with walls and floor insulated with sawdust and peat. He began offering free ice to bartenders on condition that they offer customers cold drinks, at no extra charge. His theory was: “A man who has drunk his drinks cold for one week can never be presented with them warm again.”

As years went on, he expended his sales to many ports in the southern states, including Savannah, Charlotte, and New Orleans. His business began to expend past the point where he could get a large enough supply at Whenham Lake, where he owned property, and he began to buy ice from other lakes and ponds in the Boston area. His crowning achievement came in 1833 when he loaded a ship called the Tuscany with 180 tons of ice for Calcutta, then the headquarters of the British East India Company.

The Tuscany departed Boston on May 4, and arrived in Calcutta over four months later on September 6. News of its impending arrival had reached Calcutta much earlier, and was eagerly anticipated by the sweltering Brits. Over 120 tons of the ice had survived the journey and found a ready market. It was unloaded from the ship as quickly as possible, and after paying all expenses, Tudor realized a profit of over $3,000 on this first shipment. After some discussion, the British voted to grant Tudor a monopoly, and to erect a substantial ice house for him. He sold ice there by placing a 100 pound block on display behind glass – replacing the block each morning with a fresh one to make up for whatever had melted the previous night.

Nineteenth century America, to a much greater extent than Europe, considered ice more necessity than a luxury. Ice wagons were a familiar sight in the summer, as was the ice man, carrying his cargo up stairs and into doorways with his ice tongs. Water was almost always drunk chilled, and just as Frederic had predicted, once people had tried chilled drinks, they were hooked. I quote briefly from a travelogue written by an English lady in 1840: “of all the luxuries in America, I most enjoyed ice. Its use was then rare and expensive in England. It is customary, when you pay a visit, for the attendant to present you immediately with a glass of iced water or iced lemonade.”

The earliest City Directory of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Athenaeum is for 1868, and I found just two ice dealers listed in that directory, both located in town, one on Depot Street, and one on McKay Street. Both were also dealers in coal and wood, which partly explains the fact that they were located near the railroad depot, where the supply of coal could be conveniently unloaded and stored. The combination of coal with ice was a natural, since both required frequent deliveries in a heavy cart, and they were seasonally complimentary. (Although I’m not sure how they cleaned up the coal cart for delivery of ice.)

While looking at ads for ice, I also kept an eye out for ice cream parlors, of which there were 3 in 1868. The number grew slowly to 6 in 1895 through 1910. I would like to have visited one of those turn-of-the-century parlors. They advertise all kinds of candy and confections as well as ace cream. The number suddenly exploded to 13 in 1920, probably a result of prohibition. Then it slowly began to shrink. Are there any ice cream parlors left? Or just restaurants that serve ice cream?

F. Guilds, one of the ice dealers who advertised in 1868, continued in business at least until 1890, when he advertises “Ice and Sawdust at wholesale”. But at the same address, 21 Depot Street, we also find W F Francis Coal, which advertises: “Established 1848 by G Guilds”. Is this a buy out? Or has a son-in-law taken over the business? Read and Burns, probably the successor to Root and Burns, who advertised in 1868, has moved slightly from McKay Street to 3 West Street, and they advertise: “Silver and Onota Lake Ice”. The advertisement for the same firm in 1895 only mentions Onota Lake ice, so probably even in the 1890’s Silver lake was a little too close to the sources of pollution for its ice to be appealing. Also in 1890 we have an advertisement for ice from Augustus Bruey, who lists his address as “West Street beyond Jason Street”, which I take to mean “further out West Street than people usually go. Probably this represents the first instance of ice being offered from an ice house actually on the lake from which it came. Later on we find ads from The Onota Lake Ice Company, located on Pecks Road. Also, in 1910 we find ads for the Pontoosuc Ice Company, 173 North Street, and “Pure Spring Water Ice” from the Moorewood Lake Ice Company, 24 North Street. So it appears that ice harvesting occurred on all four of Pittsfield’s Lakes at some time.

By 1930, we find The Berkshire Sanitary Ice Company on Curtis Street, The Gaylord Ice company on Pecks Road, George Miller on Circular Avenue, and the Southern New England Ice Company, Frank Smith Manager at the Pecks Road address formerly occupied by the Onota Lake Ice Company. All four are still listed in 1940, and the City Ice and Fuel Company also was added in 1940 – with three addresses – 208 New West street, 219 Elm and 519 Fenn. It is reasonable to suppose that at least the Berkshire Sanitary Ice Company was relying by this time, primarily on artificial ice, although in 1930 the Southern New England Ice Company proudly advertises: “Distributors of Natural Ice.”

The decline in the natural ice trade was caused more by concerns about pollution than by competition from artificial manufacturers. Growth in the cities caused the rivers and lakes from which ice was cut to be less and less clean, and there were health scares. By 1920, the authorities reported that the Hudson River was an open sewer, yet ice from it ended up in drinks served in New York hotels. The realization that diseases such as typhoid were not killed of in frozen water added to the urgency of finding safer forms of refrigeration. Almost all of the ice houses are gone now, many burned, since they were fire traps, others torn down to take better advantage of waterfront property or simply decayed. Every so often, a young diving enthusiast emerges from a lake or river with a strange implement – a plow or chisel or saw, with no real idea of how it came to be at the lake bottom.

Photo from americanartmuseum under Creative Commons License

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