March 2, 2011
One of my first winters after moving from L.A. to the East Coast, I made the astonishing discovery that I didn’t have to rush my perishable groceries home if it was cold enough outside. Obvious, I know, but old habits die hard. The liberating effect this epiphany had on my errand schedule almost made up for winter inconveniences like having to scrape ice and snow off the car—the other day I even had to get in on the passenger side because my driver’s-side door lock was frozen.
In 1805, a wealthy Boston man, while sipping a refreshing beverage cooled with ice cut from a frozen pond months earlier, had his own thermodynamic physics a-ha moment, one that changed a lot more than his errand schedule. I dare say it changed the world. Frederic Tudor invented the commercial ice industry, cementing his place alongside the bottlers of Evian, the brand that started the imported water craze, and Russ Williams, a pioneer of the modern self-storage industry, in the Things We Didn’t Know We Needed Hall of Fame.
Unlike the “need” manufactured by those later innovations—self-storage wouldn’t really be necessary if we didn’t have too much stuff to begin with—Tudor’s idea truly improved lives. Can you imagine what summers were like before cold lemonade or ice cream? Just thinking about it gives me shivers. Imagine college parties without shot luges! Even more importantly, access to year-round ice meant food could be stored longer before spoiling.
Tudor didn’t come up with the idea of harvesting ice and storing it for warm-weather use himself; according to a 2005 article in The New York Times, by the 18th century icehouses were a standard feature of European and Colonial American estates. But no one before him had thought to ship the stuff to the places with warmer climates that could really use it.
At least he thought they could use it, if only they knew what they were missing. As Linda Rodriguez writes in Mental Floss, frozen water was a hard sell at first. None of the shippers in Boston wanted any part of Tudor’s ice follies; he had to buy his own ship to transport tons of pond quarry to the Caribbean island of Martinique. When the shipment finally arrived, no one was buying.
But Tudor persevered, writing in his journal, “Let those laugh who win.” Within five years he was laughing all the way to the bank—and then to debtors’ prison, and then to the bank again—as his audacious enterprise proceeded in fits and starts. Tudor honed his sales pitch, improved his production methods and soon was shipping his cold commodity halfway around the world to sweltering British colonists in Calcutta. The Ice King, as he became known, died a rich man in 1864.
By the end of the 19th century, ice harvesting was a booming business—5,000 men worked on Lake Champlain alone—and iceboxes became standard features of even city apartments. That all changed with the advent of electricity and the means to produce ice without the help of Mother Nature. Today blocks of ice are still cut from frozen lakes near where I live, but mostly for building ice castles during the winter carnival.
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