Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

‘Ice King’ Frederic Tudor was one cool character

Globe staff photo illustration

It’s five o’clock somewhere, so can we raise a glass and remember Frederic Tudor?

In the event you don’t remember Tudor, he was the Boston entrepreneur who put the frozen cubes into your Cuba Libre. You know, the Ice King.

Tudor didn’t invent ice. He just invented a way to distribute it worldwide and drummed up demand for ice cream in Martinique and frosty gin-and-tonics in Mumbai. He was one of the best marketers and supply chain builders Boston has ever seen.

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Tudor was “the classic archetype of an inventor — he had an idea, and he pursued it even though people thought it was crazy and he lost money on his early attempts,” Gavin Kleespies of the Massachusetts Historical Society says. “He stuck with it, and it eventually paid off for him and changed the world.” Like many entrepreneurs, says Robert Krim, a professor and innovation historian at Framingham State University, “he failed his way to success,” losing scads of money over his first three decades in business, going bankrupt, and landing in debtor’s prison — twice.

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Tudor didn’t exactly start from nothing. He was born to a Brahmin family, his father a well-off attorney who had served as a legal adviser to George Washington during the Revolution. In 1796, a grandfather left Tudor $40,000, and a few years later, he quit his job at an accounting firm. In 1806, he harvested his first ice from a pond on the family farm in Saugus, loaded 130 tons of it onto a ship in Charlestown, and sent it to the Caribbean. Much of the ice melted on the way, and Tudor lost money on that initial voyage.

Men used heavy handsaws, much like those used by lumberjacks, to cut ice.
Globe staff/File 1953
Men used heavy handsaws, much like those used by lumberjacks, to cut ice.

“He relies on family networks and social networks to push forward his cause,” says Andrew Robichaud, a history professor at Boston University. “He gets a lot of breaks along the way because of who he is and who he is connected to.”

Tudor figured out how to better preserve ice in the era before refrigeration, packing it in sawdust or hay. He ultimately discovered that ventilation in the hold of the ship was important, Robichaud says, as a way of keeping warm and humid air from surrounding the ice and melting it.

“Tudor conducted a number of empirical studies on the ‘decay rate’ of ice [at a storage facility in Havana], measuring the amount of run-off using different forms and methods of insulation,” MIT professor emeritus James Utterback writes in his book “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation.” “His own ice elevator on Fresh Pond boasted of being able to store ice for upwards of three years. Improved methods permitted Tudor to bring down the price of his product and expand its distribution.” In Charleston, S.C., the price of a ton of ice dropped from $166 in 1817 to $25 in 1834.

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There were also technological developments that enabled more-efficient harvesting of ice from the ponds around Boston, using new kinds of horse-drawn cutting plows. The inventor was Nathaniel Wyeth, a Cambridge hotel owner. Tudor was a customer at first but quickly got Wyeth working for him.

Tudor hustled to secure exclusive supplier contracts with the governments of Caribbean colonies to keep competitors out, and he built a network of ice houses around the world to store his merchandise. He also created one of the first railroad lines in the Boston area, Krim says, running from Fresh Pond in Cambridge to a wharf in Charlestown, to keep his heavy ice-laden wagons from getting stuck in the mud of Mass. Ave.

In addition to all that, Tudor also “had to create a market where one didn’t exist,” Kleespies says, “so he had to convince people in the American South or the Caribbean that they wanted ice when they had little or no personal experience with ice.” One tactic was teaching people how to make ice cream. He offered bartenders free ice for a year and schooled them in the art of the cocktail.

“Once he started shipping ice to India in the 1830s, the gin and tonic became a symbol of British power,” Kleespies says. (The drink may have been invented earlier that century, but Tudor added those vital rocks.) It was also not until the 1830s that Tudor finally figured out how to run the business profitably, Robichaud says. By the 1840s, he was supplying ice to Queen Victoria. The Tudor Ice Company’s ships bore names like Iceberg, Iceland, and Ice King.

Tudor didn’t live long enough to see the advent of refrigeration disrupt his empire. He died a millionaire in 1864, at age 80. (By 1889, Utterback writes, the number of ice production plants was starting to spike, with 222 of them in existence, mainly in the South.) Tudor’s later years were dedicated to preserving his legacy as the pioneer of the frozen water trade.

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These days, it’s much tougher to earn a living selling ice. In 2014, a Miami company began promoting a single-serving plastic package filled with purified water. Throw it in a freezer, and it would turn into the perfect ice cube for your highball glass. The brand name? Tudor Ice. The company didn’t have Frederick Tudor’s luck — or perseverance — and it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015.

Even though Frederick Tudor’s home on Beacon Hill was demolished, it can be easy to find traces of Tudor in Boston today — if you know where to look. His summer residence on Nahant, built in 1825, is now the Nahant Country Club. The Residence Inn in Charlestown sits on Tudor Wharf, where Tudor’s ships once docked to load up on ice.

And his grave is in the back of the King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston. The rules of the cemetery, sadly, prohibit consumption of booze there. But you can order the beverage of your choice a few steps away, at Ruth’s Chris or The Last Hurrah at the Omni Parker House. Get something on the rocks, and raise a glass to Frederic Tudor, the Ice King.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.