SO A GUY FROM Boston walks into a bar and offers to sell the owner a chunk of ice. To modern ears, that sounds like the opening line of a joke. But 250 years ago, it would have sounded like science fiction—especially if it was summer, when no one in the bar had seen frozen water in months.
In fact, it’s history. The ice guy was sent by a 20-something by the name of Frederic Tudor, born in 1783 and known by the mid-19th century as the “Ice King of the World.” What he had done was figure out a way to harvest ice from local ponds, and keep it frozen long enough to ship halfway around the world.
Today, the New England ice trade, which Tudor started in Boston’s backyard in 1806, sounds cartoonishly old-fashioned. The work of ice-harvesting, which involved cutting massive chunks out of frozen bodies of water, packing them in sawdust for storage and transport, and selling them near and far, seems as archaic as the job of town crier.
But scholars in recent years have suggested that we’re missing something. In fact, they say, the ice trade was a catalyst for a transformation in daily life so powerful that the mark it left can still be seen on our cultural habits even today. Tudor’s big idea ended up altering the course of history, making it possible not only to serve barflies cool mint juleps in the dead of summer, but to dramatically extend the shelf life and reach of food. Suddenly people could eat perishable fruits, vegetables, and meat produced far from their homes. Ice built a new kind of infrastructure that would ultimately become the cold, shiny basis for the entire modern food industry.
As winter gathers strength, turning New England’s swimming holes into skating rinks and rainwater into foot-long icicles, the idea of making a fortune by selling solid chunks of pond seems absurd. We will not be the first to laugh: In 1806, as Tudor prepared for his maiden voyage as an ice dealer, a Boston-area newspaper published a story under the headline, “No Joke, Ship Full of Ice Sets Sail for Martinique.” Subhed: “Let’s Hope This Doesn’t Prove to be a Slippery Speculation!”
Though the 130 tons of ice that Tudor took to Martinique that year melted before anyone could do anything useful with it, the lasting ripples caused by his eventual success serve as a reminder: What seems ridiculous today didn’t necessarily used to be, and it might not be tomorrow. Though the ice trade is one of the most definitively obsolete industries ever to make a man rich, in many ways we are still living in Tudor’s world.
The advertisement was simple and direct, in the style of the time. “Today, March 7, and during three consecutive days, there will be put up for sale in small amounts a cargo of ice, brought into this port very well preserved, from Boston....This sale will take place immediately and will last three days only, the brig having to proceed at that time to another island. The price is ten cents a pound. It is necessary to bring a wool cloth or a piece of covering to wrap the ice; this means preserves it much longer.”
So read the hand bill that Frederic Tudor circulated around Martinique, according to records housed at Harvard University’s Baker Library and excavated by a group of researchers specializing in the history of accounting.
Tudor had cut ice out of a lake in Lynn and packed it below the ship’s water line, using a mixture of sawdust and hay as insulation. An impressive amount of the ice survived the 20-day journey over the Atlantic Ocean. But because there was no place to store it in Martinique, much of it turned into worthless liquid before it could be sold. Tudor lost a small fortune, but also solved the problem. The following year, when he took his business to Havana, he first worked out a deal with the local authorities to construct an icehouse before he arrived. After some more trial and error, Tudor began to turn a profit, and with that, the ice industry was off to the races.
By the middle of the century, ice harvested by Tudor and his associate, Nathaniel Wyeth, was reaching the shores of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Calcutta. Copycats with dollar signs in their eyes rushed into the business, and the ice industry quickly expanded; at its height, during the 1850s, roughly 140,000 tons of ice were leaving Massachusetts every year, headed for more than 50 cities around the world.
Today, refrigeration is indispensable to our food economy, which is based on the movement of perishable goods across thousands of so-called food miles. Natural ice harvested from ponds and lakes was the first innovation to make that possible. In her book “Fresh: A Perishable History,” Dartmouth College professor of geography Susanne Freidberg credits Tudor with setting the stage for the refrigeration revolution; as she sees it, the very concept of freshness was turned upside down by the world that Tudor made possible.
Before ice, people’s dietary options were much narrower. Each fruit or vegetable made an appearance during harvest and then vanished; foods soured and spoiled quickly during the summer, and simply weren’t available in winter unless they’d been salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved. Tudor took some of the first steps toward exploding those limitations. At various points during his career, he packed his ships with apples, butter, cheese, salmon, and lobster.
“Tudor pioneered the idea of [shipping] perishable foods,” said Jonathan Rees, a historian at Colorado State University-Pueblo and the author of the 2013 book “Refrigeration Nation.” “I don’t think anybody would have imagined such a thing was possible before he started experimenting with it.”
Tudor’s innovation changed the game when it came to shipping meat, too, and in the process gave rise to a major new industry. Chicago’s immense 19th-century meat business would never have been possible without an ice infrastructure. “Before ice, perishability placed strict limits on the scale of meatpacking,” Freidberg said in a talk delivered at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Plants had to close down during the hot summer months, to rely on raw materials that could walk themselves to market, and to throw out potentially useful byproducts simply for lack of means to store them.”
Today the infrastructure that has grown up around the shipping of perishable food is known as the “cold chain,” a phrase that refers to a series of containers, trucks, and rooms stretching across our commercial landscape and ensuring that, whether it’s fresh or frozen, food can survive to reach consumers. It’s not much of a stretch to say the whole system has Tudor’s fingerprints all over it.
So does your whiskey on the rocks. To this day, Europeans rarely put ice in their drinks, but Americans do. Thanks to the low price of ice in the United States, Rees said, people here “developed a taste for cold drinks faster and stronger than anyone else.” This required active involvement from Tudor, who sent operatives to go from bar to bar trying to convince owners to incorporate his product into drinks. To make the sale, Tudor committed to giving some bartenders free ice for a year, figuring that customers would so enjoy the clink in their glasses that other local bars would feel pressure to put in orders. “The object is to make the whole population use cold drinks instead of warm or tepid,” Tudor wrote in his diary. “A single conspicuous bar keeper...selling steadily his liquors all cold without an increase in price, render it absolutely necessary that the others come to it or lose their customers.” According to Gavin Weightman, who wrote a 2003 book about the New England ice trade, Tudor was celebrated for half a century after his death by scholars at the Harvard Business School, who “admired him for creating a demand where it didn’t exist before.”
If its dramatic impact on food can be seen in every kitchen in America, the ice trade has left less tangible, but still substantial, traces in the realm of ideas. A notable federal court decision in Massachusetts involved Tudor’s associate Nathaniel Wyeth, who sued a competitor over copying his design for an ice harvesting machine. The case, in which a judge ruled that a patent claim must describe the mechanism by which the object in question actually works, not just what it does, has had a durable afterlife in the legal system. Mark Janis, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington who specializes in intellectual property, says he teaches the case to students as part of an introduction to the hotly contested area of software patent law.
Another scholar has made a newer argument that the ice trade contains lessons on how to apportion property rights when different people lay claim to a natural resource. In a recent working paper, Ferris State University assistant professor of economics David Hebert tells the story of what happened when landowners with homes abutting Fresh Pond realized that the frozen water in their backyards could be worth significant money. The realization set off a self-defeating feeding frenzy, causing a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which everyone was racing everyone else to the ice. As a result, none of the harvesters—including Tudor—could wait long enough for the ice to freeze to the desired thickness. (The thicker the block of ice, the longer it takes to melt.)
Hebert writes admiringly of the grass-roots approach by which the locals resolved the problem, by devising an agreement in 1840 that gave individual residents around the pond jurisdiction over a slice of water proportionate to the length of shoreline they controlled. Allowing the locals to reach the arrangement themselves, without interference from the state, should be a model in situations where property rights are conflicted, he says. One place where such a system is currently needed, according to Hebert, is Washington State, where hunters, miners, and lumberjacks are getting in each other’s way while pursuing the various natural resources contained in public forestland.
There is something beguiling about identifying the ghostly fingerprints of long-evaporated eras on our own lives: the way albums still clock in at just under 80 minutes, just because that’s how much music can fit on a compact disc, or the way our early port cities remain more cosmopolitan and globally connected, long after their actual shipping industries moved elsewhere.
In a story called “The Undertakers,” Rudyard Kipling captured the impact of the New England ice trade on the rest of the world by way of a scavenger stork, who tells the tale of seeing a ship unloading “great pieces of white stuff” and grabbing a chunk of it in its beak when it breaks off. “Never have I felt such cold,” the stork recalls. “I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my breath, and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of the world.” As the men from the boat laugh at the stork, the thing in its beak seems, mysteriously, to disappear.
Ice melts: It’s one of the first things we learn about the natural world when we are children. But it’s not until we hear a story like Frederic Tudor’s—and then sip a cold Coca-Cola, or open a fridge full of crisp produce from thousands of miles away—that we realize just how much it leaves behind.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the reason albums clock in under 80 minutes.