CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS

January 17, 2009

ICE HARVESTING: BIG BUSINESS IN EARLY AMERICA

Filed under: FEATURE STORIES — carolyncholland @ 4:02 am

CAROLYN’S COMPOSITIONS

ICE HARVESTING: BIG BUSINESS IN EARLY AMERICA

    

     “The ice man’s here!”
     I’m old enough to recall the days when ice, probably manufactured, was delivered to the coastal New England home of my grandparents, Albert and Mabel Briskay, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This early 1950s memory is revived each year when Ligonier (PA) has its winter Ice Fest celebrations, where individuals with chain saws sculpt 300-pound ice blocks, made from pure water, into historical depictions, hearts, ducks or whatever their creative aspirations lead them to design.
     The ice for these sculptures is manufactured.
     Household and commercial ice was not always manufactured ice—that is, ice frozen from community water supplies. It was once harvested from frozen lakes, ponds and rivers.
     Ice and frozen snow, considered luxuries as far back as history is recorded, were items that few beyond the

wealthiest could indulge in. Gathered during cold winter months, it was preserved for summer use or immediately transported to countries in warmer climates. Before that, the methods of gathering and preserving ice in intensely hot climates were primitive, often involving great labor and cost. In parts of Asia, snow from high in the mountains was gathered in sacks and transported to the principal cities by mules. Persian engineers, as early as 400 BC, had mastered the technique of storing ice throughout the summer months.  The ice gathered from the mountains during the winter was preserved by being packed between layers of straw and stored in large, specially designed, naturally cooled underground “refrigerators” that had six-foot thick walls of special insulating mortar.
     In ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in India, artificial ice was only produced in small quantities.
     In 1875 the ice trade was in its infancy, according to an article written by John Forbes and published in that year’s Scribner’s Magazine. At that time, the principal points on the Atlantic seaboard where ice was shipped and cut included New York from Rockland Lake and the Hudson River; Philadelphia from the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers; Baltimore, from the Patapsco and Susquehanna Rivers; Boston from Fresh Pond. Ice was also cut on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine. The top three producers of ice were Maine, New York and Pennsylvania.
     The thriving, major industry and the fact that natural ice was a staple of American life between the early 1800s until the mid 1950s supported the notion that “Ice was King.” By 1876, when the industry peaked at twenty-five million tons of ice harvested in the United states and it was at the height of its royalty, it ranked next to cotton and frequently exceeded grain with its revenue. It employed thousands of workers during their idle winter months; it involved millions of dollars; its application to the preservation of meats, fruits and vegetables produced a revolution in the domestic economy system; and it brought relief those in hospitals and in pestilence-stricken cities.
     About two centuries earlier, ice was considered an unfortunate side effect of winter. In the early 1800s Frederic Tudor, a creative entrepreneur, envisioned the New England winter ice as a product that could be valuable to countries with hot climates, and managed to create “a thirst people never realized they had.”
     “It is astonishing to what an extent an article, once regarded as a simple luxury in non-producing countries, and in the northern latitudes as an article of no computed practical value, has become recognized in the commerce of the world,” noted Forbes about the natural product of northern climates, that, combined with that era’s ease of moving it about, had redefined the nation’s food supply by expanding its ability to preserve food and brew beer and ale.   
    By 1850, the “icebox” enabled persons with moderate incomes to store ice in their home. The design of a system patented in 1856 had ice placed on top of a wooden box with a natural air draft circulating around it. Dozens of companies manufactured these devices. By the 1860s and ’70s, New York’s dependency on ice was documented in major newspaper stories that reported on the state of the ice harvest. The mid-winter articles detailed the success of the New England ice harvest, and informed readers about the summer supplies. Summer reports indicated how well the store of ice was holding out.
     At the turn of the 20th century, nearly every family, grocer, and barkeep in America had an icebox, and American society became increasingly accustomed to fresh meat, milk, and fruit. However, the icebox didn’t diminish the demand for farmed ice. Neither did the coming of manufactured ice threaten the farming of natural ice, since companies could not compete with Mother Nature in supplying sufficient quantities of ice at an affordable price.
     However, Mother Nature can be fickle. Farmed ice had one drawback—unseasonably mild weather could produce “ice famines.” When the Hudson River failed to produce its crop of ice during the warm winter in 1860, the ice trade centered on Maine’s Kennebec River. In 1870 the ice crop failed south of Boston.
     Ice farming began its decline at the beginning of the 20th century, when nature’s water bodies became increasingly polluted by the country’s expanding cities. Added to this was a concern about typhus outbreaks.
     Ultimately, it became cost-effective to make artificial ice, a process in which water was frozen by steam-driven artificial refrigeration. A battle between the sale of artificial (manufactured) ice and harvested ice ran neck-and-neck until the 1920s, when inventors miniaturized refrigeration by using electric motors. As refrigerators, which offered convenient and inexpensive ice at a moment’s notice, became standard in every home, the need for ice farming declined.

Return to read a “HOW TO” article on ice harvesting and storage.

Sources for this post:
http://knol.google.com/k/charles-rosenberg/harvesting-ice-on-jamaica-pond/1gh4qfhia2omp/4#
http://www.iceharvestingusa.com/demorest/scribners1.html
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/20311
http://www.penobscotbayhistory.org/section/show_page/75
http://www.mapcenter.org/community/bcv-history2.html
http://www.failuremag.com/arch_history_cool_customer.html

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1 Comment »

  1. I accidentally deleted a comment.

    It was: Is this really true???

    Yes, this story is historically accurate.

    Carolyn C. Holland

    Comment by carolyncholland — January 17, 2009 @ 4:07 pm | Reply


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