Selling Ice


(This 1038th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 13, 2011.)


Winter is usually defined by snow, but ice played an even more important role in New York and New England until about 1940. It formed the basis for a major industry here. Three examples: in 1890 over 5000 men were employed (at $2.00 or less a day) harvesting ice from Lake Champlain, more than a million tons of ice were consumed annually in Manhattan, and the average annual use of ice in those days was 2/3 ton per person.


Two recent books tell various aspects of the story of ice: Caperton Tissot's "Adirondack Ice" (Snowy Owl Press) and Bill Bryson's "At Home" (Doubleday). I have drawn on those excellent resources for this column.


It will probably be difficult for most readers to understand the historical importance of ice. We have become so accustomed to our electric refrigerators and freezers that we forget how until the 1930s iceboxes were where food was preserved. My family's icebox was a wooden cabinet with thick walls. It had one door into which the ice block was placed and two others next to it where food was stored. An icebox was restocked weekly with ice bought in blocks of about two cubic feet from a delivery wagon and later a truck that patrolled our neighborhood. By the time of the delivery and despite dire warnings from my father to "keep that door shut", last week's ice block had mostly melted. The new block cost about a quarter.


We children would beg the iceman for chips to suck on, as he used his ice pick to break off the blocks in perfect sizes.


Bill Bryson reminds us, "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 had arrived from a distant planet."


Tissot points out that ice storage "led dietary choices to shift toward healthier nutrition. It was revolutionizing to find that ice cooling allowed the preservation of, for instance, concord grapes for two to four months, green corn for two to four weeks, cabbage and turnips for eight to nine months and potatoes for sometimes several years."


Ice is a remarkable commodity. You don't have to plant or nurture it. It simply grows on its own in lakes or rivers during cold weather. In fact, it comes in immeasurable supply. All you have to do is harvest, store and deliver it. It was those activities, of course, that constituted the ice trade.


During the summer of 1844, each day a block of ice from Wenham Lake in Massachusetts was exhibited in a London display window. Through the clear ice gawkers could read the newspaper mounted behind it. The display drew crowds and was a national sensation. A market for ice in England was created on the spot.


But how do you get ice to distant markets in large quantities? The idea was first considered absurd. After all, as Bryson points out, sailors were concerned with keeping water out of their ships, not in. Ice shipment finally caught on, however, and ships carried ice as far as India. (Of course, one-third of it melted enroute.)


One aspect of ice storage created another market. Sawdust provides an excellent insulator and the lumber industry was happy to see what had been a waste product become an income-producing commodity.


The most important aspect of ice-based refrigeration was, however, not felt nearly as much in the Northeast. The Midwest and South gained a great deal by their ability to market products by delivering them by railroads that used thousands of refrigerator cars.


No story of ice is complete without a few words about ice cream. Although iced desserts had been used since at least 400 BCE, ice cream as we know it was invented early in the 18th century in England and introduced to this country by Quakers. Ice not only contributed to the production of ice cream but to its storage as well.