Icehouses were the answer to our ancestors’ food storage and other problems during early homesteading days, long before the modern refrigerator.
Reaching into the fridge for milk, leftovers, or a tall, cold drink is something we can, for the most part, take for granted these days. The modern electric refrigerator enables us to store fresh food safer and better than our ancestors did, and for much longer. It is a rare modern household that does not have at least one refrigerator. But in the long history of food preservation, the refrigerator we are used to owes its existence to a time-tested next of kin: the icehouse.
The origins of icehouses are lost in the mists of antiquity. There is no doubt that ancient peoples had a fundamental understanding of the benefits and methods of cooling things down, even if their process did appear to be more rooted in magic than science. An 18th-century B.C. text from the Sumerian city of Terqa makes reference to hauling ice from a site some 20 miles away, with clear instructions for how to keep it clean and “free of twigs and dung and dirt.” Records uncovered during excavations in the early 20th century indicate cooling with ice was well established in ancient Persia, and along the banks of the Euphrates, where it seems to mainly have been used to cool wine.
And even though ice was a notoriously scarce commodity for them, ancient Egyptian pharaohs were able to enjoy cool wine, courtesy of slaves that lugged moistened amphora full of wine up to the palace roof, fanning it through the night if the expected breeze failed. As the moisture evaporated from the earthenware jars, it pulled the residual heat from the jug out and away, thereby chilling the beverage.
Persia, however, with its climate of freezing winter nights and hot summer days, soon became the leader in cooling methods at the time. Persian cooling houses, called badgirs, or windcatchers, used the natural airflow and prevailing winds to move air through the building, forcing it up and out, and thereby pulling the warm air with it. Some were created with steps cut into the sides that allowed straw to be placed on the sides during the day to insulate from the sun’s rays, and removed at night to allow more heat to radiate out into the night.
Yakhchals, or ice pits, were wood-lined pits used to store ice, and the word remains the Farsi word for refrigerator to this day. But the true stars of the system were the qanats. These underground tunnels for water were complex, hand-dug systems for channeling water from source to city, minimizing evaporation. The wealthiest had private reservoirs connected to the channels, providing fresh water and, coupled with a personal household badgir, the means to cool the rooms in their houses as well.
As trade progressed throughout the world, the ideas and methods caught on, and through the centuries, were ultimately passed from the Middle East through Spain, and in due course to England.
The early icehouses were simple underground structures, usually lined with wood and often loaded through the top. No estate of the landed gentry was considered complete without one, and icehouses soon dotted the English landscape. As time wore on, they became more elaborate and ornate, but still the basic principles were the same.
These early icehouses were rooted in the belief that the coldest conditions were below ground, and while this did generally enhance the cool factor, care had to be taken to make sure they drained well, or else the melted water would increase the rate at which the rest of the ice would melt, and ironically, as the ice would melt, the heat generated by that thermodynamic change could not escape as well from below ground, and that would also increase the rate of evaporation.
While icehouses were common in Europe, and the idea and technology also immigrated to the Americas, these were as a general rule, small-scale affairs. It took an enterprising American by the name of Frederic Tudor to take the icehouse to a global scale.
Son of a well-to-do judge in the Americas, Tudor became obsessed with the idea that ice could make him rich. All he had to do was figure out how to get it from where it was plentiful to where it was unheard of: The Carribean. Oh, and also convince folks that they couldn’t live without something they had never before seen.
In 1805, Tudor loaded his first ship with ice headed for the tropics. This was largely regarded as a superb joke by his contemporaries, and was recorded as such. Tudor’s early efforts met with limited success. Early shipments to the islands lacked the infrastructure to maintain ice stores, and his first load pretty much melted on the spot. In debt, but undaunted, Tudor continued his quest to bring cold to warm-temperature areas. He gained the approval of the governor to hold the rights to import ice, and ultimately his ventures proved successful, although not quite in the way he intended. Rather than using ice to store food or chill beverages, using it to make ice cream was what convinced people they couldn’t live without the ice.
By the 1820s, folks had begun to believe that Tudor may not have been crazy after all, and the booming ice trade began. Then, a tremendous amount of competition sprang up to not only ship the ice, but also in the harvesting and gathering. Tudor in the end made and lost his fortune several times over, was in and out of debtor’s prison, but ultimately retired wealthy.
Global competition between companies claiming to have the purest, cleanest, or coldest ice raged. Ultimately, the purity of ice became a real issue, as pollution from settlements and cites became more common, and people rightly feared getting tainted ice. In London, ice from Wenham Lake near Salem, Massachusetts, was regarded as the best, cleanest ice in the world, and a lake in Norway was renamed Wenham to capitalize on that reputation.
The ice trade was on, and would forever change the landscape of food storage.
Harvesting ice could be a hazardous job. The ice had to be thick enough to support the weight of humans and ultimately horses, and blocks of slippery stuff weighing hundreds of pounds presented major challenges in handling. “Ice knee,” or bruises created from pushing the heavy blocks with the knees, was a common complaint among ice harvesters.
Early ice was simply cut or broken from frozen slabs in rivers or ponds, but in 1825, Nathaniel Wyett, originally one of Tudor’s ice suppliers, invented a saw that could be drawn by horse across the frozen surface of the lake or pond. This consisted of a toothed blade, with each successive tooth deepening the cut, making a clean straight edge as it drew deeper into the ice.
The blade was drawn back and forth across the ice, both across and up and down, thereby notching the ice into a grid. This grid could then be broken apart by men with long pike poles, and then floated to the edge and drawn out by draft animal power. The square, consistently shaped block, usually weighing around 300 pounds, could be handled, stacked, and stored more easily, allowing the ice to be packed more densely and thereby slowing down melting as well.
The horses used in the ice-cutting process were fitted with special spiked shoes to keep them from slipping. And when horses did what horses invariably do, there were boys with the job title of “shine boy” who were given the enviable task of cleaning up after the horses, and rinsing the ice with ammonia to remove any traces of the inevitable.
Ice harvesting became big business. Icehouses sprang up near cities, and the rush to fill them was on. The ice harvest provided income to people in the Northeast during a time when they would usually have been unproductive. Where the land was unable to be dug for an in-ground icehouse, wooden buildings sprang up to serve the same function. And as luck would have it, people discovered that these aboveground icehouses provided as good as, if not better, ice storage, since they were better ventilated. The double-walled buildings were packed and insulated with substances such as sawdust, which also benefited the timber industry in the Northeast by providing a use for what had originally been a waste product.
Icehouses the size of large warehouses began popping up in dozens of cities across the country, and enabled cities such as Chicago and Kansas City to become the beef production centers of the nation. With the invention of the ice-cooled railroad car, and the increased demand for beef on the East Coast, the modern beef industry was born.
A contemporary of Frederic Tudor, Maryland farmer Thomas Moore is generally credited with building the first icebox, a small wooden chest packed with ice and insulation surrounding a tin box containing butter, with the whole thing wrapped in rabbit fur. Moore realized chilled, firm butter fetched a better price at the market than the soft, soupy product supplied by his competitors.
Iceboxes took a bit longer to catch on, but by the late 1800s, nearly every house had one. This simple small-scale copy of the larger icehouse expertise allowed people to store dairy and other items for longer than ever before possible. Ice deliveries became routine, and at one point in New York City in the early 1900s, more than 1,500 ice wagons were needed to keep up with the daily ice trade. Customers hung a card in their windows indicating how much ice they needed for the day, and larger blocks could be shaved down to fit an individual’s needs.
Being able to keep food on hand for longer allowed cities to grow much larger, as people no longer needed regular access to fresh food. Meat became a more regular part of the diet, and butchers were able to keep larger quantities available for sale.
As you might imagine, particularly warm winters could cause ice famines, and as people had begun to believe they couldn’t live without cooling, the price of ice from time to time went up to record levels. As the demand increased, more effort began to be put into new refrigeration technologies, and by the early 1900s, refrigerators became more commonplace in homes. Clunky and awkward, and more than likely loud by today’s standards, nevertheless they were a miracle of technology at the time. Ice deliveries became less and less common, and the icehouse became largely a thing of the past.
Thankfully, some folks still hold on to the traditions today, and several farms and families in the Northeast still conduct regular ice harvests. These harvests become community events, and folks come from all over to watch and participate, some even returning year after year. Ice is cut in blocks approximately 12 inches thick and weighing around 100 pounds apiece.
Each farm differs in how they cut, haul, and store the ice. Some still use handsaws to cut, but chainsaws often come in handy and make things go a little faster. The blocks are loaded onto wagons and hauled either by draft or engine power to the icehouse, where they are loaded into the house via a conveyor. There, they get packed with straw or sawdust, in the traditional method. This ice will last until September, depending on usage.
In modern times, icehouses can be used to provide backup or bulk storage for meat and other items, just for the novelty, or it can be a step towards living life off the grid. If using an icehouse is on your bucket list for whatever reason, but you don’t currently have one handy, don’t despair. There are several modern versions readily available, with a little effort. These range from buildings consisting of an igloo-type structure made from Styrofoam blocks, seated on a concrete slab with a wood-frame building surrounding it for protection, to double-walled stick-built structures. Plans for the latter exist in the form of a 1919 publication available for free download, Farmers Bulletin: Issues 901-925. These plans contain the material list and all the instructions for building a small icehouse.
Today, nearly every house in the U.S. has at least one refrigerator, and many have separate free-standing freezers. Going to the “fridge” for something, or relying on a stockpile of frozen foods, is a modern-day convenience that we can’t imagine life without. Considering how much cooling technology has evolved and changed to what we can thankfully take for granted, it still remains somewhat of a miracle. The history of cold storage may go back a long way into the mist of history, but thankfully today we benefit from the ideas of those early folks who enjoyed what we today also consider a much needed refreshment: a cool sip on a warm summer day.
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