Icehouses Before Modern Refrigeration: How Ice Was Kept Frozen on the Homestead

Icehouses were the answer to our ancestors’ food storage and other problems during early homesteading days, long before the modern refrigerator.

  • The interior of a modern icehouse.
    Photo by Michael P. Gadomski
  • Moving blocks of ice into the icehouse at the 2008 Annual Tobyhanna Millpond No. 1 Ice Harvest in Pennsylvania, where ice is harvested and stored much like the old days.
    Photo by Michael P. Gadomski

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.

Very Beginnings

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.

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters