Ice Importing as a business.

Not many of us get to learn about the ice trade in our history lessons – which is a shame, as it was an interesting and innovative 19th Century industry that actually had a key part to play in shaping the modern world, as it allowed Americans and others across the world to revolutionise their food industry.

Frederic Tudor & the Origins of the Ice Trade

The story begins in 1803, with an entrepreneur from New England: Frederic Tudor. His idea was to take ice from those lucky enough to afford ‘ice houses’, and export it to rich buyers in Southern America and the West Indies.

Although those around him considered this to be an eccentric waste of time, Tudor proved to be right, and the ice trade became both incredibly useful and incredibly lucrative. Many more people followed in his footsteps, and soon they were ready to start trading to wider markets…

Nathanial Wyeth & Globalisation

In 1825, Tudor chose to partner up with Nathanial Wyeth, and between them they brought new innovations to the industry – such as more efficient techniques for cutting the ice – and, moving into the 1830s, decided to find a larger market.

Ice proved to be a popular commodity for those interested in exporting fresh vegetables and fish, as well as for anybody in need of refrigeration options either at home or for a business. This need proved itself to be universal, meaning that New England ice traders were able to start opening up trade routes across the globe, to countries as widespread as New Zealand and England.

Artificial Ice and the Calcutta Ice Association

This trade remained relatively stable for several decades, until artificial ice began to change the market, thanks to a plant created by James Harrison. This new so called ‘plant ice’ was used extensively by a group of merchants known collectively as the Calcutta Ice Association and, between them, they began to drive natural ice out of the industry.

Despite the commercial introduction of artificial ice as early as the 1850s, it wasn’t until the early 20th Century that the trade died away entirely – replaced by refrigerators which bared a much closer resemblance to what we now use today.

Although these have undoubtedly been more convenient, it is still important to remember the ice traders who once travelled the oceans making it possible for countries such as England and America to trade and preserve their food and other produce!


Why do we use refrigeration and what did we do before it

These days, refrigeration is a necessity. From the hotels of Hollywood to the dives of Doncaster, the refrigerator is king of the kitchen. Standing proud, back to the wall, it towers above the worktops and dwarfs the other appliances. Between it and the freezer, they provide a safe, sanitary, but more importantly, cool space to store food. Today, this is basic. This is one of the most fundamental functions of the modern kitchen. For most of us, it would be difficult to imagine life without them, but it wasn’t always this way.

Of course, without refrigerators, foods like meat, fish and cheese, even fruit and vegetables given long enough, would spoil in warm climates. This has always been the case, but modern refrigeration and the modern refrigerator are 20th century appliances, so what did people do before refrigerators?

Well, refrigeration, in the broader sense of creating a cool environment within a warmer one, has been around for thousands of years. The Hebrews, the Greeks and the Romans all insulated snow in large quantities in which they could preserve foods or cool a drink. Fast forward to the mid-19th century, and you find the first mechanical ‘refrigerators’, where ammonia would act as the cooling agent. However you look at it, man has always insisted on pushing the boundaries of what is achievable and what is not.

But once upon a time, and for vast populations of mankind, refrigeration would have been simply impossible. Man responded with the development of different preservation tactics, techniques and ideas. The seasons would dictate what was on offer and when. When it was freezing, of course, man could preserve his foods for as long as ice remained. When it was warm, it was not so simple. For the more delicate and impatient of foods, for instance butter and milk, a place in cellars or a spot on outdoor window-sills was often the call of duty. The craftier among us sometimes even sought riverbeds where the water ran cool in the summer. But even still, spoilage ran amok and ‘summer complaint’ was a common cause of death when the weather improved.

The staple of almost all human diets has always been meat and meat didn’t keep well under water. History’s main methods of meat preservation still hold firm today. Techniques like salting and spicing date back thousands of years. The method of smoking foods began with fish and is still common practice today. Pickling would have given the longevity to foods that otherwise wouldn’t last, i.e. onions, eggs and anything that wanted preserving. Fruits and vegetables, being seasonal pickings, would have only been available seasonally. Fruits were therefore dried with heat from a fire and jam was made using sugar as a preservation tactic. These tried-and-tested methods kept untold numbers of people alive through the ages but, evidently, refrigeration has revolutionised the way we eat and the way we store food.

Ultimately, man sought to conquer temperature, but his innovation would hold him in good stead in the meantime.