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99% Invisible

The Ice King

In the mid-19th century, decades before home refrigeration became the norm, you could find ice clinking in glasses from India to the Caribbean, thanks to a global commodities industry that has since melted into obscurity: the frozen water trade.

In the cold Northeast of the United States, workers would cut ice from frozen ponds, haul it to port, put it on a ship and send it around the world on voyages that could last for months.

Ice harvesting at Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1852. The railroad line in the background was used to transport the ice. Image via Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion

Fourteen inches of ice was thick enough to support the team of workers and horses assembled for the harvest. These workers would clear off snow and debris then score the exposed surface to create a grid of squares.


A commercial U.S. ice house, early 20th century via The Book of Familiar Things, published 1918

They used giant handsaws and ice pikes to break up the squares of ice, then maneuver the chunks to conveyor belts that lifted the huge cubes to nearby “ice houses.” From there, the ice would be shipped by rail and sea across the world. At its peak, this was a huge industry across New England.


The ice trade in 1856 via Wikipedia

Frederic Tudor got the ball rolling (or the cube sliding, as it were) for the whole global network. He was convinced that the local ice industry had global potential beyond regional food preservation. His perseverance eventually earned him the nickname “Ice King.”

ice trade horses

Ice harvester via the University of Alberta

Tudor set up shop on the banks of Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just about two miles northwest of Harvard Square. He found that sawdust was a remarkably good insulator for storing and transporting the ice. It was remarkably cheap as well, a byproduct from lumber mills in Maine.

Though he was a self-taught expert at supply chain logistics, Tudor’s true genius was as a marketer. He had to convince consumers that they needed ice not just to store food but also to cool drinks. His marketing endeavors took him to bars, where he would give free samples and let patrons experience how refreshing a chilled beverage could be.

ice harvesting map

Tudor’s success did not go unnoticed, and as competitors swooped in and set up shop alongside him on Fresh Pond, a Harvard professor was conscripted to carve borders between competing ventures. The map above illustrates how ice rights evolved. Initially, they were tied to adjacent land ownership but rights were subsequently bought and sold separately on a secondary market. Even the property rights of ice that washed downstream became a source of disputes, thanks to the increased value of the commodity.

The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the “uptown trade” to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; image via F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, August 30th 1884

Decades later, the tide began to turn on the ice trade in America. Refrigerators began making their way into homes while ice-making factories offered an alternative to increasingly-polluted lake ice. As technology kept improving, fewer consumers opted to purchase natural ice scraped off the top of a frozen pond in favor of filtered frozen water from factories. A series of unusually warm winters, known as the “ice famine,” also contributed to the industry’s decline.

Today, regional hobbyists still try their hand at hacking huge cubes from frozen lakes, though such harvests are primarily for fun and festivals, providing material for local ice architects and sculptors. When it comes to chilling drinks, even ice harvest aficionados reach for their freezer.



Producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Gavin Weightman, author of The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story and Rick Smith, amateur historian of the American ice trade. Special thanks to Rosie Weinberg and Dylan Garrett Smith, who reached out to us about this story.

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