How did we move from suffering in the heat with room-temperature drinks to ice-harvesting capitalists and fanatical ice consumers?

America’s journey to ice obsession started right here in Boston with the enterprising Frederic Tudor, who envisioned something seemingly preposterous: bringing ice to the tropics.

The Tudors were one of the wealthiest families in Massachusetts. The family had servants who harvested large blocks of ice out of the lake on their estate, and an ice house to store that ice underground, where it could stay cool year-round.

"For about four centuries or so, the planet Earth was a lot colder than it is now ... lakes and rivers froze much deeper than they do now. So people could carve large blocks of ice out of those bodies of water for use in their everyday lives, such as cooking or medicine, what have you," Amy Brady, author of the book “Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks — A Cool History of a Hot Commodity,” explained on GBH's Under the Radar.

Frederic Tudor, in his early twenties, decided to try selling those ice blocks to people who lived in warm climates, where ice didn't form naturally. He determined that if he could make it to Cuba, he'd be a made man.

He charged 16.5 cents per pound and sold $50 worth of ice in two days before sales dried up. Frederic sat in his sweltering cabin, puzzling over why so few people were buying ice, when one of the ship's crewmen alerted him to an angry customer on the dock. Frederic wiped his sweaty brow, straightened the cuffs of his wool jacket, and met the man outside.

The Islander gestured at Frederic and then at the ice with anger.

"Il fond!" he shouted. "It melts!"

Bewildered, Frederic started to explain that, yes, of course ice melts, when a second customer appeared — this one as angry as the first. The second man explained that he'd put his ice in a tub of water to stave off the melting, but the water made it melt faster.

Frederic stood dumbfounded. He realized that for all his planning, he hadn't accounted for a simple fact: For the majority of people living in the tropics, a block of ice would have been as fanciful as a unicorn.
excerpt from "Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—A Cool History of a Hot Commodity"

But he was eventually successful in convincing people to use ice. Frederic even turned several port cities in the Southern U.S. into what he called "ice cities," and inspired a number of copycat entrepreneurs.

"Out West, the natural ice harvesting industry really took off quickly until about the 1860s, when the Civil War cut off the Southern ice supply from the North due to the wartime embargoes," Brady explained. "And so it was shortly after that, that mechanically made ice became popular, with ice-making plants cropping up along the south."

Even if the war hadn't occurred, Brady believes the natural ice industry would have met a similar fate.

"Lakes and rivers are the homes of many organic beings: the fish, of course, the plants and the microorganisms that live in there. And all of that was true in the 19th century, just as it's true now. And people would ingest that. ... So it wasn't uncommon for people to get very, very sick," she said.


Amy Brady, executive director and publisher of Orion Magazine, coeditor of "The World as We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate," and author of "Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—A Cool History of a Hot Commodity”