Before the refrigerator, there was the icebox. Centuries before the icebox, there were cellars, lakes and ice caves. For example, Persian engineers stored ice harvested on mountains “in large, thick-walled containers [stored] underground and naturally cooled” as long ago as 400 B.C.E.
But in general, until the 19th century, food preservation centered on “salting, spicing, smoking, pickling and drying.”
Then in the early 1800s, Frederic Tudor (the “Ice King”) envisioned and then created an international market in harvested ice. His product, huge blocks of ice, was initially “free” but for cost of extraction. The sawdust he used for insulation was free because in the 19th century sawmills viewed it as waste. He also needed a ship that could preserve the ice in transit. And sailors.
Family and friends thought he was nuts to try.
Tudor, who was from Boston, initially supplied ice from Massachusetts to the southern United States and the Caribbean. On 10 February 1806, the Boston Gazette reported that Tudor’s ship (a $5,000 investment) had left port, headed to Martinique. Its cargo? 80 tons of ice.
Although the ice arrived in Martinique in perfect condition, no one wanted to buy it. Tudor desperately explained how the cold blocks of ice could be used in the stifling Caribbean heat, but islanders weren’t convinced.
Think about that for a moment. What are the odds that in 1806 a native of Martinique (latitude 14.6415° N) had ever seen ice? Much less be able to imagine its use?
Although he had no competition, Tudor faced a challenge familiar to all innovators: can I survive long enough to iron out the bugs in production and distribution?
Initially, the answer was a resounding “no.” Tudor needed to create a market for his harvested ice, in addition to becoming an efficient manufacturer (well, ice harvester) and distributor willing to experiment to reduce ice melt. He was the R&D department for a new industry.
He pioneered “try before you buy,” the mainstay of almost any software today and first cousin of the online retail slogan, “try it for 30 days, money back!” Plus he focused on geography where snow was rare but heat, common.
While living in a South Carolina boarding house in 1819, Tudor made a habit of bringing a cooler of chilled beverages to the dinner table. His fellow boarders always scoffed at the sight, but after a sip or two, they’d inevitably fall in love with his ice. Tudor traveled around the country and convinced barkeeps to offer chilled drinks at the same price as regular drinks—to see which would become more popular. He also taught restaurants how to make ice cream, and reached out to doctors and hospitals to convince them that ice was the perfect way to cool feverish patients. The truth is that people never knew they needed ice until Tudor made them try it. Once they did, they couldn’t live without it.
Ten years after that first venture, Tudor had regular and profitable shipments to Cuba. His focus on streamlining harvesting, improving insulation and getting to ports more quickly paid off.
He collaborated with Samuel Austin and William Rogers for his next adventure: India.
In a letter to his family in England, dated May 1833, Daniel Wilson, the fifth Bishop of Calcutta, had described the extreme the heat: “The weather is perfectly suffocating. None can pity us but those who know our suffering.” Today, the average temperature in May is 96ºF (35ºC).
In 1833, the Tuscany sailed halfway around the world — 14,000 (or 16,000, sources differ) miles — en route to Calcutta (West Bengal), India. She crossed the equator twice.
The Tuscany arrived in Calcutta on 13 September 1933 with about 100 tons of ice in her hold; about 80 tons had melted. Trips to the Caribbean took 10-15 days. The trip to India: four months and seven days.
Rumours had ensured that hoards of Indians were there to receive the ship. But no one caught sight of the cargo till sunset when all the papers were processed and the ship’s captain Clement Littlefield was finally allowed to unload the consignment. It was ice. The people of Calcutta had never seen something like that. Even the government was ecstatic at the sight of the huge blocks of ice. It immediately allowed the ice to be landed duty free and permitted free import from anywhere in the world.
Within three days of the ship’s arrival, Calcutta’s British residents raised enough money to set up an ice house to preserve the precious cargo. Every day proprietors would display a huge block of shimmering ice to the passersby from behind a glass window and replace it every now and then with fresh ice.
British residents were ecstatic! They “threw parties serving claret and beer chilled with his New England ice.”
The ponds from which the Boston ice is cut, are situated within ten miles of the city; it is also procured from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers, in the state of Maine where it is deposited in ice-houses on the banks and shipped from thence to the capital. A peculiar machine is used to cut it from the ponds in blocks of two feet square, and from one foot to eighteen inches thick, varying according to the intensity of the season. If the winter does not produce enough to freeze the water to a convenient thickness, the square slabs are laid again over the sheet ice, until consolidated and so recut. The ice is stored in warehouses constructed for the purpose at Boston.
Ever the businessman, Tudor recognized he was creating an attractive market. So he secured the rights to ice in New York and New England; and he developed a network of ships, icehouses and distribution agencies.
In 1847, Tudor shipped 22,591 tons of ice to foreign ports, including three in India: Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. He shipped another 51,889 tons of ice domestically.
The Sunbury American wrote: “There is scarcely a nook or corner of the civilized world where Ice has not become an essential if not common article of trade.”
Consequently, in unseasonably warm winters, “ice harvesters would sail to the Arctic and make up the shortfall by chopping up icebergs.”
Queen Victoria reportedly continued to get her ice from Massachusetts even after Britain had artificial ice.
In 1890, the domestic harvested ice industry peaked at 10 million tons of ice sold. The New York Times and other papers reported on ice supplies like other commodities; ice received “as much attention as the growth of wheat and cotton.”