A Brief History of Ice

Using ice to cool drinks dates back to the ancient Egyptians, Athenians, and Mesopotamians who put ice or snow into their wine or water. The Roman emperor Nero placed ice around his wine glass to cool it, preferring not to taint his wine. During the Turkish Empire, people put ice into fruit drinks. This practice was adopted by the Italians, which evolved into Italian ice and sherbets enjoyed by wealthy Neapolitans of the late 17th century. Wealthy Italians kept their ice delights in vaults, commonly at the foot of a mountain. Prior to the 19th century, only the very rich enjoyed the luxury of ice. But the assiduous efforts of Frederic Tudor changed everything—putting ice on the map for nearly everyone in the early 19th century.

An entrepreneurial young man, Frederic Tudor was driven by his obsession to become rich from harvesting ice from local ponds in Massachusetts. The idea came from an off-handed comment at a family picnic. Frederic and his brother William joked that chilled beverages and ice cream were the envy of colonists in the West Indies. A few years later, in 1806, the brothers exported their first shipment of ice to Martinique in the West Indies, cut from the pond on the family’s country estate near Boston. Since they couldn’t find a local cargo ship interested in their venture, the brothers bought a ship for $5,000. But when the ice arrived in Martinique, there were no takers. Shortly thereafter, a two-year trade embargo put the Caribbean off limits, so Frederic turned his sights elsewhere—to Havana.

William helped Frederic launch his business, the Tudor Ice Company, and in time they tapped ponds and rivers all over New England, including Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. In the winter of 1846, Thoreau’s solitude was disrupted temporarily as he watched 100 Irish immigrants cut 10,000 tons of ice from his pond. “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well,” he wrote in Walden. “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges,” he wrote in his diary.

Frederic Tudor’s story is one of financial ups and downs, perseverance, and ultimately, enormous success. The times he lived in brought the Embargo Act of 1807, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Although the Tudor Ice Company saw profits in 1810, Tudor wound up in debtors’ prison three times between 1809 and 1813 because of war, weather, and providing for impoverished relatives.

But Tudor never lost sight of his original vision: that ice would make him rich. His business acumen enabled him to devise myriad marketing schemes to get people on board with ice—to the point where they could not live without it. For instance, while living in a South Carolina boarding house, he brought chilled beverages to dinner. At first the boarders resisted the idea, but eventually they loved it. Tudor also persuaded barkeeps around the country to offer chilled drinks and regular drinks at the same price in the hopes that chilled drinks would win out. Tapping every conceivable market he could think of, Tudor taught restaurant staff how to make ice cream and convinced doctors and hospitals that ice was the perfect antidote for feverish patients.

Tudor’s business blossomed with strong markets in Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans and Havana. He also experimented with various methods of insulating the ice, using wood shavings, sawdust, or rice shaff. He built icehouses in tropical countries and created a demand there for chilled beverages. But the difficulty of cutting large blocks of ice by hand limited his business. In 1826, Tudor hired Nathaniel Wyeth, who invented a horse-drawn ice plow to cut the ice. The invention tripled Tudor’s business, and Wyeth continued to streamline the company’s operations. He developed an assembly process and laborers sawed off blocks of ice and floated them downstream. A conveyor belt then elevated ice blocks from the water up to icehouses where the blocks were stacked up to 80 feet high. Wyeth also insulated buildings above ground to preserve ice in summer and into the following harvesting season.

English landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries also built icehouses to accompany their mansions. They consisted of massive double-walled brick cellars. City dwellers, on the other hand, depended on ice boxes instead of icehouses and relied on icemen to make deliveries. 

The Tudor Ice Company shipped ice to Jamaica, Brazil, and India. In 1833, Tudor’s shipment of 180 tons of ice to British colonists in Calcutta cemented his reputation as “Ice King” and made him very rich. He made an estimated $220,000 in profits from this lucrative market. And this effort reopened trade routes between India and Boston.

Others followed suit and soon the ice trade became the second-largest crop by weight (behind cotton) transported by train and ships. The ice trade formed the basis for New England commerce in the 19th century. By 1856, about 150,000 tons of ice was shipped from Boston to 43 countries. The Tudor Ice Company prospered in the 1860s, a competitive period of ice harvesting in America. At the turn of the century, nearly everyone had an icebox. The American ice trade thrived well into the early 20th century until the arrival of electric freezers and refrigerators in the 1930s.

William Henry Howe founded the Howe Corporation in 1912. His grandson Richard joined the company after World War II and bought the designs for a basic ice flaker. He worked for five years and totally redesigned the ice flaker, which culminated in the company’s leading small industrial machine, the Rapid Freeze Flake Ice Machine. This machine produces true flake ice, which is sub-cooled and dry. Flake ice is still the best form of cooling for many applications and is used by a wide variety of industries.