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two men stand on the ices holding ice saws propped on the ground with cut marks in the ice where the blocks of ice were to be cut; one man pushes a rectangular section that is pushed slightly out of place ready to be harvested
Men harvesting ice, between 1900 and 1906. (Detroit Publishing Co. Collection/Library of Congress)

Ice Cold: The Business of Ice

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Do you like a cold soft drink or iced tea? Or do you like your cocktail on the rocks? If so, ice is a necessity.

While Mother Nature may provide ice some of the time, a constant, controllable supply is more convenient. Modern Americans may have ice trays, ice makers, and ice machines, but the ice business is older. It was during the Gilded Age that commercially made artificial ice first drew the attention of inventors and businessmen who would go on to make commercial ice manufacturing a major industry.

Before artificially made ice, there was ice harvesting. Frederic Tudor, of Boston, was one merchant closely associated with the ice harvesting industry in the U.S. He worked with Nathaniel Wyeth, an inventor and businessman who improved the ice harvesting process, and the Tudor Ice Company was born. Tudor’s acumen and the improved harvesting techniques caused the business to grow so much, that he became known as the Ice King. His business even went international as the company began exporting ice to the Caribbean and India.

Ice proved a popular commodity, and people began looking for ways to satisfy demand by making it artificially. In 1851, patent US8080A was issued to John Gorrie, of New Orleans, but other inventors, such as Ferdinand Carré, followed suit with their own machines. It was the Carré machine and later modified versions of it that would prove most successful as ice factories opened in cities all over America in the following decade. Ice was so important during the Civil War that ice contracts even came up during Congress’ investigation into the war, warranting attention in the Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (volume 3).

In places like Washington, D.C., people wanted something cold to drink, particularly in the summer, and many considered ice in their drink a necessity. Ice proved especially popular in New Orleans, where citizens liked their cocktails and liked them cold. Not only were early patents connected to the city but, in 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, new companies like the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company were founded.

While natural ice was still being harvested, it was artificial ice that eventually dominated the industry. As the desire for ice grew, so too did the number of businesses producing it. Then, the industry went through an intense period of consolidation.

interior image of a two story building with windows along the back wall and a flat bed of the ice making machine with a slab of ice on top with three men at the head of the ice manning the ice cutter one at the middle center of the photo the other two along the right side
Christian Heurich Brewing Company in Washington, D.C., 1919 or 1920 (National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress)

Enter Charles W. Morse. Morse, who, like the earlier Frederic Tudor, earned the moniker “Ice King,” founded the Consolidated Ice Company in 1897. The company went on to become the American Ice Company and was known as the “ice trust” even though the company didn’t control all of the ice business. Morse was a busy man who was also involved with other ventures, including shipping and banking. His career was filled with ups and downs. By 1906, his ice company was found to have been in violation of anti-trust laws. It would then be at the center of the Panic of 1907. Morse was convicted of violating federal banking laws, tricked his way into a pardon by feigning “illness,” and eventually made his way back to Wall Street. In 1911, the company was once again under investigation, though it managed to hang on under new management.

cobbled street with a woman facing left on the left bottom side with telephone poles along the side of the street and the plant property running from the middle of the far left of the photo to the center of the photo
American Ice Company plant, Washington, D.C., ca1901 (D.C. Street Survey Collection/Library of Congress)

Chronicling America* has some great articles on the American Ice Company, Morse, and the ice trust. Here are a few articles you might find intriguing, which I wanted to highlight:

  • An 1878 article provides insight on the industry as it existed in 1878.
  • An 1880 article discusses the differences between artificial and natural ice.
  • An article, published by the Evening Star in 1906, describes the ice trust and how it worked.
  • A 1915 article on ice houses features drawings of a combined ice house and refrigerator.
man stands in a short coat and cap on the back of an ice wagon facing the camera with one hand olding the truck and the other a block of ice with houses in the background
The ice man, c1923 (Prints and Photographs Division)

Of course, if you are really interested in looking at the industry’s history, the Library has quite a bit more that may be of interest! There are journals like Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal, The Refrigerating World, Industrial Refrigeration/Ice & Refrigeration, and Merchandising Ice, as well as convention proceedings from the National Ice Association. The Library collections include  books as well, a few of which are listed below:

Lastly, Business Reference has a guide, We Scream for Ice Cream: An Industry Guide, if you are more interested in that related industry.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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