The Ice King

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Picture with me, if you will, India during British colonial rule. Let’s say in the year 1865. Picture a government office in Bombay, as the city was then known, two British officers are discussing an uprising that has been challenging Britain’s sovereignty over the sub-continent. It’s May, the hottest month in India. Temperatures have soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The officers are sweating. There’s no air conditioning of course, but they have a servant who brings them two ice-cold drinks. The officers take sips of their drinks and swirl the ice in their glasses and at this moment, these cold drinks, dripping with condensation, feel like a small miracle to these colonialist wankers.

Sam Greenspan:
But actually, the ice was a kind of miracle.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own little miracle, Sam Greenspan.

Sam Greenspan:
Because in 1865, no one had refrigerators. It wouldn’t be for another half-century until they started appearing in the US, let alone India. Think about the ice in those officer’s glasses. If you were to zoom out from those glasses, and out, and out, and then zoom in on the United States, on Boston, on a frozen lake in the dead of winter, there you’d find men working.

Rick Smith:
You see a lot of men and horses and a lot of activity going on. And then you’ll see horse-drawn plows, pikes, and pusher bars or poles.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Rick Smith, amateur historian of the American ice trade.

Rick Smith:
So all of these people together were on the lake harvesting ice.

Sam Greenspan:
Workers would cut ice out of a frozen pond, haul it to port, put it on a ship, and send it on a four-month journey to India.

Roman Mars:
Any ice that British officers in colonial India would have had in their drinks, would have started out on the top of a pond in Massachusetts. The tools of the ice trade varied by location, but generally, it went like this.

Rick Smith:
So the first step is to measure the ice. There’s a small drill hole that’s drilled in and a measurement taken of how thick the ice is because it had to be at least 14 inches thick.

Sam Greenspan:
Fourteen inches of ice was thick enough to hold the team of workers and horses that would be assembled starting usually the day after Christmas. The workers would come out onto the ice, clear off snow and debris, and then…

Rick Smith:
The horse-drawn ice plows would start to score the ice.

Sam Greenspan:
And they would do this all over the ice until they had made a grid.

Rick Smith:
A grid on the ice. They could make a checkerboard, let’s say.

Roman Mars:
Workers would use giant handsaws and ice pikes, basically big sticks with sharp ends, to break up the squares of ice so that they were floating in the water.

Sam Greenspan:
A steam-powered conveyor belt would haul these cakes of out of the water and they would go through a planer, so each cake would become smooth and uniform. Then they’d be stacked in a nearby ice house, a large wooden structure that would hold tons of ice. Ice houses often had a railroad siding so the ice could be loaded up onto a train and freighted off to the city.

Roman Mars:
If you’ve seen the Disney movie Frozen, the ice harvesting scene is actually pretty accurate.

Sam Greenspan:
At its peak, ice harvesting happened on lakes all over New England, New York, Michigan. In the Poconos region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, it was at one time the major industry.

Rick Smith:
My father actually worked on the ice harvesting back in the 1930s and 40s and even into the 50s. This entire area of the Poconos, that was pretty much the only thing that you could do in the wintertime for work.

Sam Greenspan:
But now it’s gone.

Gavin Weightman:
It just disappeared entirely. It’s a bit sad in a way that an industry melted away as it were.

Sam Greenspan:
Here to also remember the natural ice industry is Gavin Weightman?

Gavin Weightman:
I’m Gavin Weightman. I live in London and I write social history books mainly and one of my most successful books was called ‘The Frozen Water Trade’.

Sam Greenspan:
One edition of the book is actually titled ‘The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story’.

Roman Mars:
Maybe because even Gavin’s publishers thought the prospect of cutting frozen water out of American lakes and shipping it overseas sounded made up.

Sam Greenspan:
But that is exactly what happened. Ice was being harvested from all over the American Northeast, packed onto railroad cars and ships and sent out to the Southern US, the Caribbean, and British colonists in India.

Sam Greenspan:
The development of the international ice trade can be traced back to one person, a man who by the end of his life would come to be known as the ‘Ice King’. A guy named Frederick Tudor.

Gavin Weightman:
He was the son of a moderately well-off Boston family. I think he’d be a very odd bloke. Sorry, I shouldn’t use the word bloke, it’s an English term. I think he’d be a pretty eccentric bloke.

Sam Greenspan:
Now, Tudor did not invent the idea of moving frozen water from one place to another. The practice actually began in Europe and South America well before Tudor’s time. People would go up to the mountains and bring down ice and snow.

Roman Mars:
Although Tudor might not have known about this, but he did know that New Englanders had a local tradition of cutting ice out of local lakes and using it to keep food cool.

Gavin Weightman:
When Frederick Tudor was a young man, farmers certainly did keep ice, which they collected in the winter and then when they were taking say, buses to markets in the summer, they would take a bit of this ice in order to prevent it from melting. So it was used on a small scale in that way, but it wasn’t put into drinks, that sort of thing, and it was very localized.

Sam Greenspan:
When Tudor was in his early twenties he and his brother William took a trip to the Caribbean.

Roman Mars:
And he thought these people need ice.

Gavin Weightman:
Tudor’s idea was that he was going to make his fortune because ice was a frozen asset of New England, but it wasn’t being used. And he felt he could sell it, particularly to countries, which were very hot and could have no ice unless he delivered it to them from Boston lakes and ponds. And Bostonians thought he was absolutely crazy.

Sam Greenspan:
But Tudor was convinced that this could work. Cocky, even. He wrote that selling ice would make him quote “inevitably and unavoidably rich.”

Roman Mars:
Tudor set up shop on the banks of a pond called Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just about two miles Northwest of Harvard Square.

Sam Greenspan:
And after he learned how to get ice out of the lake, Tudor started looking for new ways to keep ice frozen.

Roman Mars:
Frederick Tudor experimented with all sorts of insulating materials because remember, this was more than a hundred years before refrigerators began appearing in people’s houses. He discovered that sawdust was a remarkably good insulator and he could get it for next to nothing from lumber mills in Maine.

Sam Greenspan:
Kept inside of a dry ice house and packed with sawdust. Tudor would eventually discover that he could keep ice stable for years.

Roman Mars:
So all Tudor had to do was get the ice onto a ship and send it to hotter climates.

Gavin Weightman:
His first attempt to sell ice outside Boston was made with the little shipment to Martinique. Shippers didn’t want to ship ice. It seems the most ridiculous cargo. So he fitted out a ship himself.

Sam Greenspan:
The ice made it to the Caribbean, no problem, but Martinique was not equipped to deal with a temperature-sensitive product that literally melts into something worthless without the right infrastructure.

Gavin Weightman:
It was a bit of a failure really because when it got to Martinique, no one knew how to keep ice. He wrote a rather amusing entry in his diary about the fact that people wrap their piece of ice in blankets and waddled off and wondered why that disappeared when they got home.

Roman Mars:
The newspapers ridiculed Tudor.

Sam Greenspan:
But Tudor would not be discouraged. He went back to the Caribbean and to the Southern United States and showed people there how to build more effective ice houses, and it worked.

Roman Mars:
Frozen water carved out of lakes and ponds was being transported hundreds to thousands of miles.

Gavin Weightman:
He had a rough time getting it going. He went bankrupt a couple of times, but he did manage it in the end.

Sam Greenspan:
But for all of Tudor’s innovation and insulation and supply chain logistics, his true genius was as a marketer. Before Tudor, ice had mostly just been used to preserve foodstuffs. Frederick Tudor pioneered the radical idea of putting ice into beverages.

Gavin Weightman:
When you first drink a cold drink like that when you are not used to it, it’s quite a shock actually. So you had to persuade people that what he was selling was a luxury and worth paying for. Tudor would tout his around to bars and so on. Offer it for free, say look, try this, try that. He had to persuade people that what he was selling was a guide to improve their lives. It wasn’t self-evident to them.

Roman Mars:
The first one, as they say, is always free. Tudor wrote once people had tried chilled drinks, they were hooked and would no longer tolerate tepid water.

Gavin Weightman:
He was a bit like a sort of a drug pusher.

Sam Greenspan:
And like any drug pusher, Tudor soon found himself with a lot of competition. Rival ice companies set up shop on Tudor’s Fresh Pond and staked to claim to it. In fact, they had to go get a Harvard professor to devise a map, carving up boundaries for the ice rights of different parties all on the same lake.

Roman Mars:
And of course, it wasn’t just Fresh Pond because now any body of water that was frozen thick enough to support the weight of an ice harvesting crew was a hot commodity. Ice began to get harvested all over New England and New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada.

Sam Greenspan:
One of Tudor’s competitors, the Wenham Lake Ice Company based out of Wenham Lake about 30 miles North of Boston, somehow they managed to persuade their buyers that their ice was premium product.

Gavin Weightman:
Ice from Wenham Lake would be sold as especially pure. It was nonsense really, but it was a way of marketing. You know, our ice is better than yours.

Sam Greenspan:
Legend has it that Queen Victoria would only use Wenham Lake ice.

Roman Mars:
And maybe you’re thinking, why would England need to import ice all the way from North America when there are plenty of really cold places that are closer?

Sam Greenspan:
Norway wondered the same thing. Norwegian businessmen tried breaking into the ice biz, even going so far as to rename one of their lakes Wenham Lake in an attempt to profit from the Wenham Lake Ice Company’s prestige and name recognition.

Roman Mars:
Frederick Tudor’s company never made a play for the UK ice market, which turned out to be a pretty good business move because ice never really took off in England. Even in the 20th century, American GIs and England were shocked to find nothing but warm beer.

Gavin Weightman:
And there were several in the Air Force who said they would put their drinks in the back of a plane and fly it to about 25,000 feet where it would chill. Chill a little bit, at least.

Sam Greenspan:
But there’s one place where Brits could not get enough ice. India.

Gavin Weightman:
So this is three months in the hold of a ship, twice across the equator. So it was quite a remarkable survival rate for the ice, which was eventually unloaded in Bombay as it was called then, Madras and Calcutta.

Sam Greenspan:
Despite all this, Frederick Tudor never really became inevitably an unavoidably rich like he’d predicted. His whole life, he was in and out of debt and debtor’s prisons.

Gavin Weightman:
And he eventually became, not particularly wealthy, but well enough off. And he bought an estate outside Boston and lived the rural life.

Sam Greenspan:
But still, it wouldn’t be until 40 years after Tudor’s death, squarely in the 20th century, that the natural ice industry began to shift.

Roman Mars:
The earliest refrigerators started appearing in the 19-teens, but the early models broke all the time. The physics of cooling proved much harder to master than heating, and of course, you had to have electricity, which most homes in the US didn’t have until the 1920s.

Sam Greenspan:
Slowly but surely, the technology kept improving and consumers began to have a choice of getting natural ice scraped off the top of a frozen pond or ice made in a factory where the water can be better controlled and filtered, which started to get more important because…

Gavin Weightman:
As the towns grew, as buildings grew up around Fresh Pond and the other lakes that were used for supply, sewage would get into them. It became a health hazard. This became a great problem for the natural ice industry.

Sam Greenspan:
And to make matters worse for the naturalized trade, the Northeast experienced a spate of unusually warm winters.

Roman Mars:
The ponds that have been supplying the world’s ice weren’t freezing as well. The newspapers were calling it an ice famine.

Sam Greenspan:
The supply region shifted northward, towards Maine, where the climate was colder and the water less polluted. But by then, the writing was on the wall.

Roman Mars:
The natural ice trade was on its way out in the 1920s but hung on in some places, especially in rural places, until as late as the 1950s.

Sam Greenspan:
And ice harvests still happen in some places. There’s a renewed interest in the tradition. In Pennsylvania and all over New England, there are some ice harvest revivals, but you know, with some updated tools and it’s all more for heritage value. It’s not like people are still putting frozen pond water in their drinks.

Roman Mars:
But as for the actual site where all of this started, Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the ice trade might as well have never existed.

Gavin Weightman:
When I was researching the story, I stayed up in Cambridge and I went out to Fresh Pond. People were jogging around the lake and they were confronted by me, this completely mad Englishman saying, “Excuse me, do you know that this ice used to be transported to India from this pond?” And they looked at me as if I was completely mad.

Rick Smith:
So at Fresh Pond, there’s no plaque or anything?

Gavin Weightman:
No, no.

Roman Mars:
Cambridge, Massachusetts has finally found something to not commemorate with a plaque.

Credits

Production

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.

  1. Moritz

    Nice song-choice under the comparison of the ice king to a drug dealer.
    Curtis Mayfield – Pusher man.

  2. Tim Cowen

    The Ice King is excellent. I love your podcast. The content and storytelling are excellent and you have built up a strong degree of trust in the quality of your research.

    I did, however, find one thing in The Ice King really jarring and a bit disappointing. The episode starts with a description of two fictional British colonial officers being served a cold drink by an Indian servant. Then suddenly Roman Mars describes them as “wankers”. Where did that come from? Certainly the British behaved badly in India and colonialism was not a great moral enterprise. I also appreciate that this was a fictional story and you were not insulting any specific person. But the sudden expletive (which had little to do with the rest of the episode) was strikingly unprofessional and gratuitous. Not up to your usual high journalistic standard of jovial sobriety.

    The odd thing is that your many historically based stories feature all kinds of crooks and villains and dictators. I don’t remember you describing any of them as wankers. Why all of a sudden pick on two fictional British colonial officers? Most of world history involves ordinary people carrying on lives which we wold now regard as being based on a morally reprehensible basis. Are you going to describe all of them as “wankers” too?

  3. Tim Cowen

    I have some feedback on your episode, The Ice King. I love your podcast. The content and storytelling are excellent and you have built up a strong degree of trust in the quality of your research.

    I did, however, find one thing in The Ice King really jarring and a bit disappointing. The episode starts with a description of two fictional British colonial officers being served a cold drink by an Indian servant. Then suddenly Roman Mars describes them as “w***ers”. Where did that come from? Certainly the British behaved badly in India and colonialism was not a great moral enterprise. I also appreciate that this was a fictional story and you were not insulting any specific person. But the sudden expletive (which had little to do with the rest of the episode) was strikingly unprofessional and gratuitous. Not up to your usual high journalistic standard of jovial sobriety.

    The odd thing is that your many historically based stories feature all kinds of crooks and villains and dictators. I don’t remember you describing any of them as w***ers. Why all of a sudden pick on two fictional British colonial officers? Most of world history involves ordinary people carrying on lives which we wold now regard as being based on a morally reprehensible basis. Are you going to describe all of them as “w***ers” too?

    1. Daniel Barkalow

      If you’d done this episode in the summer instead of the winter, I’d have been writing this comment while drinking iced coffee made with ice from Fresh Pond. These days, they don’t sell it pre-frozen, but people make it themselves because the tap water in Cambridge comes from Fresh Pond. Of course, it now goes through a water treatment plant before being used, so chopping up the frozen pond for drinks wouldn’t be a good idea.

  4. In Northeastern Pennsylvania there’s a very small town called Eagle’s Mere. It’s reason for existence was first lumber, as was most of rural PA; then, ice harvesting. In the cool summers many wealthy Philadelphians would ride the railroad to their Victorian summer homes, many of which are still standing, and quite remarkable.

    The town is shaped like a horseshoe around a lake. Every winter the local volunteer fire company hosts its annual fundraiser, the Eagles Mere Toboggan Slide. Ice is harvested from the lake, and hauled up the hill through town. Special grooves are carved into the blocks, stacked by the hundreds up the hill, beginning right on the lake. Toboggans with corresponding runners are available to rent, and speeds reach 40+ miles per hour.

    Unfortunately, again this year the weather there has been too warm to allow sufficient ice thickness (8″ is needed) so the event is cancelled for 2016, but it’s a real throwback commemoration of local history.

  5. The railroad in the Spy Pond picture is probably now the Minuteman Trail, a “rails-to-trails” path used by runners, walkers, and cyclists.

  6. Jada

    Pretty disappointed in this piece. Although it was interesting, there was no mention of the Arabs who were able to gather and store ice in the desert over 2000 years ago. Instead the emphasis was on how white people brought miracles to colonized India. Whether accidental or on purpose, this continues minimizing the strengths and achievements of people of colour while perpetuating the Eurocentric perspective.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakhchal

    1. Dave

      Great insight and a great lesson in history! I suspect that 99PI skipped over the Yakhchal (which were fascinating!) for two reasons:

      1) The story was specifically about Tudor, not all forms of producing ice or all peoples who had ever produced ice. As another example, China had managed to make ice and store it (almost) year round in 1100 BC during the Zhou dynasty, which also wasn’t mentioned.

      2) Frankly, the Yakhchal just weren’t all that good at actually making ice. Storing it, sure, they were ok I guess, but nowhere near as good as Tudor’s above ground ice houses and significantly more expensive to construct. Plus, with a Yakhchal, you’d better hope that you built it large enough at the start because expanding it is damn near impossible!

      In the end, even though Arabs in the desert could make their own ice, they ended up buying Tudor’s ice because even after all the cost of shipping it around the horn of Africa, Tudor’s ice was not only cheaper than local ice, but it was also much higher quality. So while you’re right to point out that there were “Arabs who were able to gather and store ice in the desert over 2000 years ago,” the truth is that they really just weren’t that good at it.

  7. Erik

    Fabulous episode! One of my new favorites! It’s great to hear about such common and important aspects of life that have fallen into relative obscurity.

  8. Jada

    Just wanted to say that this episode, although quite interesting, was disappointing.
    a) It continues the suppression of contributions made by people of colour throughout history, continuing to promote a Eurocentric point of view.
    b) It continues to frame people of European descent as superior (in this case, the Americans and the British) and people of colour (in this case Indians) as inferior by displaying the colonial relationship as one that brought miracles to the lives of Indians who would be lost without them.

    One example of the contributions of people of colour regarding Ice Storage and transport comes from Iran. The practice of transporting and storing ice in the desert has been around for over 2000 years. Look into the Yakhchal.

  9. As life would have it, the ice trade has come full circle, as the very infrastructure which killed the original ice trade now begins to age and deteriorate the need for a new consistent ice option has arisen. A new market has been established for consumers looking to eliminate the variances associated with locally produced ice, and this often overlooked commodity is experiencing a new renaissance.

  10. Ernst Schnell

    I am still catching up and have been for a while. So this is coming late. First of all, in keeping with Radiotopia, I am also catching up on the Memory Palace, who also has an episode on the New England ice trade. Both very good pieces, and very interesting to see the different takes.

    However, I cannot believe that as design fans, you have missed to mention (or honor with an own episode, at least until here) the Yakchal , or the Persian ice house(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakhch%C4%81l or just type “Persian Ice House” into your favourite search engine), an antique architectural structure that allows you to make ice in what is today Iran, not a place known for its frosty climate. Maybe you want to have a look?

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