Thomas Jefferson was a fan of ice.
He attributed his good health to his habit of soaking his feet in ice water every morning, and during his stint as George Washington’s Secretary of State in often-steamy Philadelphia—temporarily deprived of ice—he subscribed to an ice service. The ice, which cost a shilling a day, came from James Oeller’s hotel on Chestnut Street where ice harvested in winter from local rivers was stored in an insulated underground pit. At the hotel, the ice was used to chill butter, meat, and salad veggies, and (highly popular) to provide ice chunks for glasses of cold alcoholic punch.
Jefferson has two ice houses of his own at Monticello, and—during his first term as president—had an ice house built for the White House in Washington, D.C. It was located under what is now the West Wing—a 16-foot-deep brick-lined well, connected to the main house by a covered walkway. Jefferson used it, among other things, for cooling the presidential wine.
The practice of harvesting and storing winter ice has been around since ancient times. The first to have tried it were the Chinese, who described the practice in 1100 BCE in the Shih Ching or Book of Odes. Alexander the Great, besieging the (hot) city of Petra in the 4th century CE, is said to have had ice brought from the mountains and buried in insulated pits for the refreshment of his officers; and the Emperor Nero, fond of summer sherbet, had relays of runners to transport ice and snow from the Apennines. (He seems not to have stored it; and at least once, when the entire cold cargo melted en route, he had the general in charge of the operation executed.)
Louis XIV had two insulated ice houses to supply his palace at Versailles, each capable of holding 40,000 cubic feet of ice. (Sweltering French courtiers were said to require a minimum of five pounds of ice a day.) Early American colonists—confronted with appalling New-World summers in which meat spoiled, milk soured, and butter melted into slimy puddles—struggled to keep things cool. Excavations of brick storage pits at Jamestown indicate that settlers were harvesting and stockpiling ice by the mid-17th century.
Ice to Meet You, Mr. Tudor
Ice was a necessity. Food preservation, prior to the advent of mechanical refrigeration, was an ongoing problem—with failures often leading to deaths due to “summer complaint,” diarrhea brought on by enteric bacteria. (A Philadelphia medical report of 1838 lists “summer complaint” as the city’s second most frequent cause of death, topped only by consumption.) Lacking ice, the best most people could do to preserve fresh chicken, fish, milk, and butter was to store it in a springhouse, where cool water from a stream or spring trickled under shelves of crocks and pans. This helped, but generally it simply didn’t keep food cool enough. Cautious period cookbooks recommended that chickens be killed just before dinner, and that milk—until you were ready to drink it—be safely kept in the cow.
In the 19th century, ice—which New England had a lot of—was big business. The idea of selling ice to the uncomfortably hot tropics was the inspiration of a 22-year-old Bostonian named Frederic Tudor who, in 1806, loaded a ship with 130 tons of Massachusetts ice and dispatched it to Martinique in the West Indies. The initial venture was less than successful: not only did a good deal of Tudor’s ice melt in transit but, there being no ice houses in Martinique, the recipients of the remaining ice had no place to store it. (Tudor, unhelpfully, suggested they take it home and wrap it in blankets.)
However, Tudor persisted. (“In the manner of a drug pusher, he set out to create a taste for cold that would get his customers hooked,” wrote Gavin Weightman in his history of the ice business, The Frozen-Water Trade.) Over the next decades he improved on ice preservation techniques, such that less of his frozen cargo melted en route, and erected massive ice houses in Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, and throughout the Caribbean, from Cuba to Jamaica, Barbadoes, and Trinidad. In 1833, he managed to ship ice to Calcutta—a four-month-long journey—where the broiling British were thrilled. By the 1840s, Tudor’s ice was traveling as far afield as Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Rio de Janeiro, and Tudor was known world-wide as the “Ice King.”
Refrigerators Change America
Ice, at the height of the ice trade, rivaled cotton and grain in economic importance. The first official report on the ice industry (belatedly commissioned by the government in 1879) estimated an annual national harvest of eight million to 10 million tons, of which the lion’s share—nearly a million tons a year—went to cool down New York City. (Prime consumers were the breweries.) Chicago, where ice was in demand for the meat-packing industry, used an annual 580,000 tons; Boston and Philadelphia each just under 400,000 tons. By mid-century, 135 commercial ice houses lined the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. Almost every town had its own ice house, from which ice was delivered daily to customers, who stored the dripping blocks in ice boxes, also known as “refrigerators.”
The home refrigerator was first introduced to the American public in 1803. In its first incarnation, this was an early American version of the picnic cooler: a cedar box, lined with tin and insulated with rabbit fur. It was intended for farmers ferrying butter to market. Later versions were larger, usually made of mahogany or teak, lined with zinc and padded with flannel, cork, or green baize. (“The Ice-Chest,” wrote an admiring journalist, is a “handsome item of domestic furniture,” now “almost as indispensible as the sofa or the side-board.”) The average ice-chest-equipped 19th-century family used about three hundred 100-pound blocks of ice a year.
The natural-ice industry survived well into the 20th century, when it was displaced, first by “mechanical ice”—mechanical ice-making plants—and next, even more definitively, by the modern electric refrigerator. Which is why, nowadays, we take ice for granted. We have ice at the drop of a hat for our lemonade and iced tea, Scotch comes on the rocks, everybody eats ice cream, and summer complaint no longer does us in.
But there was a time when we weren’t so lucky.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.