Its commercial use dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when an almost crazed American named Frederic Tudor come up with the idea in 1806 to cut up the ice from his families farm in Saugus, Massachusetts and ship it to the Caribbean island of Martinique. He was certain it would assure his fortune. More than half of the ice melted and the islanders did not know what to make of it. Eventually he built a market in Cuba, but his mearger income was overshadowed by his sizable debt. By 1812 he was in debtors prison.
Undaunted, he somehow managed to secure a loan of $2100 in 1815 to build an ice house in Havana and his profits started to raise. For the next few years he experimented with different kinds of insulation, settling on saw dust, another resource of New England that was abundant and cheap. Meanwhile, his foreman Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, harnessed horses to a saw blades to cut the ice, increasing output by some 300%. Now with the ability to produce more ice than he could sell, Tudor took up an offer from a Boston merchant to sell ice in India. 100 tons of ice sailed up the Ganges in September of 1833. It was an immediate hit.
From American Heritage: Cold Mine.
"How many Calcutta tables glittered that morning with lumps of ice! The butter dishes were filled; the goblets of water were converted into miniature Arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon, that people might rush about to pay each other congratulatory visits, and devise means for perpetuating the ice-supply. Everybody invited everybody to dinner, to taste of claret and beer cooled by the American importation. …”
Some of the ice that made it to India was cut from Walden’s pond prompting Thoreau to write, "The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well ... The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
In 1844 Tudor's Wenham Ice Company, named after the lake on his families farm, open shop in the Strand in London. In the front window they placed a block of ice. Behind it they propped up a newspaper to prove how pure their ice was. It was a sensation, sort of along the lines of people staring a T. V.s in shop windows in the early 1950's, but ice sales were slow to catch on in England with only the upper echelons of society embracing it. By the time it did start selling, most of the ice in England was from Norway, who cleverly renamed lake Oppegaard, outside of Oslo, lake Wenham. (It almost seems out of character for the Norwegians, but – there it is.)
Nowhere in the world did ice take off like it did in America. Even today drinks in England are not likely to be served with ice. A Coke will be served chilled, but not with ice floating in it. Americans chilled everything with New England ice in the 19th century. By 1870 Delmonico was serving a dozen flavors of ice cream including the somewhat dubious asparagus, truffle and pumpernickel rye bread flavors. Manhattan alone was consuming 1 million tons of ice per year.
But it was not iced tea and ice cream where ice made its biggest impact on America. It was the refrigerated train car that changed our nation. Until the 1860's pigs were only butchered in winter and salted and cured, or shipped as lard. Milk, warm from the cow, might last two hours before spoiling. Cattle were shipped on the hoof, which is to say live, and butchered locally, but by the time they made it to your local butcher, they were little more than skin and bones. Food had to be eaten where it was produced and almost immediately.
In part due to the demand of the Union Army during the Civil War, enterprising Chicagoans came up with the idea of cutting ice from Lake Michigan and packed butchered beef into train cars filled with the lake ice. By 1871 Swift and Company were shipping an average of 3,000 carcasses a week to Boston alone.
Stepping back to the Civil War for a moment, during the war the South was cut off from its ice supplies. It may not sound like a big deal, but consider this quote from The American Civil War
In the wake of the Seven Days Battles, Richmond was overwhelmed with wounded men. The Daily Dispatch issued a plea for ice, a precious commodity often imported to the South from the northeast.
--We renew our solicitations for ice on behalf of the unfortunate wounded. The repulse of the Yankees has given us access to a large portion of the lower country, in which there are numerous ice houses packed with this indispensable. We ask, in the name of our suffering wounded, that these supplies be immediately forwarded to the city, and distributed ad libitum to every hospital. Much misery may be alleviated and numbers of lives saved by its use. Let this be done at once. If those who claim to be owners of the ice in the counties below will not disgorge at the appeal of patriotism, let those who are in authority take it, nulens volens.
It was not just meat. Fish from the coast could be sent to the Midwest. When lobsters first made it to Chicago, the locals looked at it as if it were an alien creature from another planet. Most had never seen one before. Fruits from California, packed in train cars cooled by ice, could be shipped to New York. A peach grown in Georgia could be eaten in Minneapolis. American butter was shipped to England. For the first time in the history of the world, food did not have to be consumed in the same place it was produced.
It changed everything.
Someday you will thank me when you are on Jeopardy and buzz in with, “Who was Frederic Tudor?”
[Edited to correct a typo, I am indebted to BobB in the comments, and that is not debatable.]
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