A Long, Cool Drink

Several years ago, I was on the hunt for water bottles that would keep ice water cold for long periods of time. My search carried me to a local hiking/biking/climbing store. When I told a store clerk about my dilemma, he told me that the body better absorbs the benefits of the water if the water temperature approximates that of the human body. My jaw dropped to the floor. While he may have been right, the last thing I want during a hike is 98.6-degree water. I think most people would side with me on the question.

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Our ancestors were no different. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans enjoyed ice-cold beverages whenever they could get their hands on ice. Yes, I’m talking about the wealthy and powerful ancient ones.

Fast forward to 1850 America, and ice had become the United States’ second leading export, thanks in large part to the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor of Massachusetts. The wealthy had had access to ice long before Tudor arrived on the scene. Initially, in 1806, he focused on making deliveries to the Caribbean. He continued to export ice around the world, but by 1830, he devised the infrastructure within the eastern United States to make ice available to people of modest means.

In the East, the ice was harvested in New York and New England. In the West, Californians got their ice exclusively from Alaska until the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada and added the mountain lakes as another resource.

Tudor established ice houses, which served as supply houses (analogize to gasoline tank farms that fuel gasoline delivery trucks). By the late 1800’s, many ice houses were warehouse-size.

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

The “ice man” drove his wagon to an ice house and loaded the ice for distribution in 25-100 pound blocks to his customers. The ice man chipped the ice to fit his customers’ ice boxes. Ice was used for many purposes other than cooling beverages and as an essential ingredient in ice cream. It also was used to preserve certain foods and medicines.

Ice was exported abroad, sometimes used as ballast in the ships making the deliveries. Saw dust was often used to insulate the ice, both on ships and in the ice houses.

Twentieth century refrigeration brought an end to the large-scale ice business. But each time we go to our “ice box” for a few cubes of ice or a cold beverage, we should realize that our ancestors did not just wait around for the invention of the refrigerator. They knew where to find the ice, and Frederic Tudor devised the means to meet the demand.

And, yes, I found water bottles that fit the bill (novara 24-ounce insulated bottles). I pack them with ice and put them in an insulated Igloo Maxcold pack, which I stuff in my backpack before heading out on an all-day hike. Even after refilling them once in a river or a creek, I always have some ice remaining at the end of the day. No, it’s not 98.6, thank goodness. And, like our ancestors, I’m not waiting around for someone to invent a power backpack to keep the water cold.

The video below is silent but shows how the ice harvesting process worked

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Filed under 1800s, history

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