The "Chilly" History of Ice

Ice wagon and woman licking ice

The beginning of the use of ice in the industry dates back to the 19th century. It was first discovered by John Gorrie that ice could be used for medical treatment when he attempted to find a way that could cool the rooms of those patients with yellow fever.

Before the 1800s, the ice did not have any particular purpose that it could serve and was only considered to be a nuisance in the winter season. In the 1800s, an American businessman, Frederic Tudor, began the ice trade in the world for which he later became known as the "Ice King".

Frederic Tudor inspired the idea of the consumption of cold beverages which was not widespread around the world at that time. The subsequent production of ice cream also resulted from the ice trade.

How did the discovery of ice come to be?

The idea of extraction of ice started from a simple conversation on a usual day between Tudor and his brother. The latter suggested Tudor about harvesting ice and selling it in the West Indies. He did not realize that what he had casually mumbled had captured Tudor’s attention. Tudor thought of the idea precisely and believed he could get rich by executing it.

He made a plan of his own and explained it to his brother who agreed to join him. They began by transporting ice from New England, the US to the Caribbean. Tudor bought a ship at his own expense and thus began his struggle to popularize ice in the Caribbean.

His success was not instant. His ideas did not work initially when nobody showed interest in buying ice. There were not any known uses of ice that could make it valuable enough to be bought.

However, in the later years, several merchants joined Tudor in ice extraction and its trade after he convinced some to work with him. Eventually, ice and its potential uses began to be recognized in other countries including Cuba, China, and the United States and trade subsequently expanded.

How was ice harvested?

Ice usually needs to have a thickness of at least 20 inches for its harvesting to begin. It was done from ponds, lakes, and rivers where water froze during low temperatures. Horse-drawn scrapers were used for preventing ice from being damaged by snowfall. This also allowed the ice to freeze to a greater depth which was later scrapped off by machines.

Horse-drawn scrapers on the iceIce harvesting using horse-drawn scrapers

If any ice found while harvesting was dirty, it was planed using machines with steel blades that cut the dirty ice and separated it from the clean one. The entire extraction process used more than just horse-drawn scrapers. Horse-drawn markers were required to mark the ice which was done by the hooves’ marks of the horses as they walked on the ice. Ice plows were used to further increase the depth of the marks left by horse hooves.

Other equipment needed for the completion of the ice harvest was planers to remove dirty ice and shovels to clear the path from where ice had been extracted. Ice harvesting required manual labor as well which provided employment opportunities in the country.

How was ice transported?

Transporting ice was not easy during the early years when the traders did not know how to keep it from melting. The percentage of loss in the trade of ice was quite high because the ice that reached the consumers had sometimes turned into water. 

The most commonly used medium of transporting ice was ship as the majority of the ice trade was foreign. Later, small-scale transportation within the country used barges, wagons, and railway transport.

Ice horse wagonIce horse wagon - early 1900

However, the problem that arose during the transport of ice cargo was that the water resulting from melted ice caused rust inside the ships. The water also resulted in the growth of dry rot in the ships.

Barges allowed the traders to carry up to 800 tonnes of ice at a time and had windmills that powered the bilge pumps in the barges. It was also an effective mode of transportation because barges could prevent ice from melting during its journey by water.

Railroads were constructed in many countries where trade was quite popular. Those rails that were meant to transport ice consisted of insulating materials for the ice and the equipment that was required to load ice cargoes.

Ice wagons were also used which transported ice in blocks of 25, 50, and 100 pounds. These ice wagons were moved by horses around towns to deliver ice to houses. The use of wagons was particularly limited to the local distribution of ice.

How was ice stored during summers back in time?

Many different techniques were used for the storage of ice in the early 19th century. The storage system was usually in the form of underground pits. The Americans used to have octagon-shaped pits with stone linings which minimized the heat loss from the stored ice.

Commercial ice houseHow the Ice House worked / Graphics by Leo Delauncey

Water from nearby bodies, containing ice, collected in these pits. This method allowed large scale storage of ice in the country.

Persians also used a similar method for the storage of ice. Their underground pits had dome-shaped buildings over them known as Yakchal with its height being equal to the depth of the ice pit.

The underground pit could also preserve food items such as meat, perishables, and frozen vegetables stored in ice like a refrigerator in modern times. The dome-shaped covering was made up of Sārooj which was a special mud resistant to both heat and water loss.

Commercial uses of ice throughout history

The use of ice was limited to the industry during the first years of the ice trade. Ice was considered to be a commodity utilized by the rich class only that could enjoy cold wine and frozen milk during the summers. However, its commercial uses were what increased its demand and value in the industry.


Cooling food in the iceboxIcebox - the predecessor of the refrigerator. Homeowners used large blocks of ice for cooling the food / The 1920s. (Courtesy of the Sloane Collection)

Ice has always been a major preservation tool. Back when refrigerators had not come into existence, ice was not a common preservative. Instead, techniques such as curing and smoking were used for storing food for a long period. 

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The availability of ice allowed large quantities of fruits and vegetables to be stored. These items could be bought and even transported in bulk as it was feasible to store them appropriately without worrying about them rotting. 


Ice was also used commercially by industries to produce chilled drinks. Access to cold beverages such as frozen milk and cold wine was considered to be available only to the elite. 

Ice was also used largely for producing drinks such as sherry-cobblers and mint juleps which was not possible before. Coldwater also became popular across the countries where the ice trade took place. 

Ice cream

The idea of the production of ice cream came in much later after the ice trade began. Still, the whole existence of ice cream originates from the time when Frederic Tudor put the idea of ice transportation into action. Ice, as today, was largely used in the manufacture of ice cream where salt was applied to ice mixtures in the process of making ice cream. 

Use of ice in refrigerator cars

Refrigerator car in Santa FeRefrigerator car - circa 1894 / Wikipedia

Ice also had a major use in the refrigerator cars that were also largely used in the trade of perishables in the early times. The invention of refrigerator cars allowed merchants to trade these items around the world increasing their profits. 

Refrigerator cars consisted of ice that played its role as a preservative to prevent spoiling of food items. The first refrigerator car was invented by William Davis who later sold them to an industrialist, George H. H Hammond. 

Refrigerator cars were often made up of wood and were up to 40 feet long. They could travel long distances on the rail but needed to be cleaned from the ice from time to time over the transportation journey. This was done at the railing stations where ice was harvested from the railway company’s lakes and ponds.

In case of an excess harvest, the stations also had storage facilities where the ice was kept along with proper insulation to avoid melting. This ice was then used by other cars that arrived at the station. Some years later, the railway stations also began to facilitate the production of artificial ice for these refrigerator cars. 


Ice has many uses in today’s world and we can't possibly imagine a life without it. It has uses in almost every industry, especially beverages, which would not be so successful today if it was not for the development that took place to transport ice and to harvest it. It would have been impossible to withstand the sweltering heat of the summers without the availability of cold water and drinks. 

Moreover, in the modern era, ice also serves many medical purposes including the preservation of dead bodies in the morgue. Unlike the old times, the means of harvesting and storing large amounts of ice is much easier than it was in the 19th century owing to the inventions that took place throughout history and made it possible to obtain ice easily.

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