Many a fortune in hard, cold cash was made in ice harvesting during the 19th century. One of the most colorful of the ice harvesters, and certainly a man whose genius advanced his own fortune as well as many others, was Frederic Tudor Esq. (1783-1834) of Boston -- known, warmly, as the Ice King.
Few heads turned when Frederic Tudor's three-masted Madagascar pulled into the port of Rio de Janeiro one summer's day in 1834. During the evening, however, a small sensation erupted during a party held for government officials on board the ship. Trays of drinks tinkling with chips of ice were passed around. Never before had icy glasses, cold and slippery with condensation, been held by Rio hands.
``How is this possible?'' the excited guests asked. Osgood Carney, who worked for Mr. Tudor at the time, took the slack-jawed guests on a tour of the ship's cargo.
Hatches were snapped open to reveal 180 tons of ice in 200-pound blocks brought all the way from Boston. A dessert of ice cream was all that was needed to seal an ice trade with the Brazilian city. Other ice markets opened in Havana, St. Thomas, Peru, and Kingston, Jamaica.
But what was new to Rio was becoming old hat to Frederic Tudor, who, as a young visionary of 22, had begun experimenting with the packing and shipping of ice. Tudor's Boston seafaring cronies thought him quite mad -- or, at the very least, eccentric. Ice, they had concluded, would simply melt down in the hull of a ship, swamp it, and sink it like a stone.
Tudor continued undaunted, experimenting with packing ice in rice, in wheat chaff, even in coal dust and bark. Finally he found the perfect medium -- pine sawdust. And ships, he discovered, needed to be double-sheathed to keep the ice from melting.
Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, who managed Tudor's ice company, was a creative genius in his own right. He helped Tudor revolutionize the business by developing an ice cutter consisting of two parallel iron runners 20 inches apart and drawn by a horse. Each runner was notched with sawed teeth. As the device was pulled repeatedly over the ice, it etched a checkerboard pattern. Men with iron bars then pried the cubes apart, setting them free to float down a channel. Wyeth also invented a hoist that easily lifted the frozen blocks out of the water at the channel's end.
These inventions helped reduce the price of harvesting from 30 cents to 10 cents a ton. Wyeth also erected icehouses, built near the lakes and ponds. Before this, ice was usually stored in subterranean vaults, generally located some distance from the shore.
Even Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., felt the weight of an onslaught of ice cutters, prompting Thoreau to write in ``Walden'': ``It appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.'' He went on to observe, ``The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.''
By 1833, Tudor had sent a cool cargo of 180 tons of ice to Calcutta -- farther than ice had ever traveled before. From the 1830s to the 1850s Boston ice journeyed to all the major ports in South America and across to the Far East. As Tudor prospered, so did many others in New England who picked up the trade.
Where ice traveled, so did architectural plans for icehouses and iceboxes -- and, of course, recipes for ice cream. Unfortunately for the ice traders, however, the discovery of electricity and the invention of the refrigerator eventually dissolved the thriving industry like an ice cube in the sun.
-- J. E. Y.