A Human History of Ice

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Podcast Transcript

Humans have been aware of ice for as long as there have been humans and ice. However, using ice outside of winter has always been a huge challenge, but that didn’t stop people from trying to harness and use ice even when it was well out of season. 

It wasn’t until relatively recently, historically speaking, that ice became something that most people could just take for granted. 

Learn more about ice and how humans managed to make and store it before they had electricity, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Ice is a very strange substance as far as humanity’s relationship with it goes. 

It is extremely common and it comes from one of the cheapest substances on the planet. 

Yet, for much of early humanity’s development, we rarely or never experienced it.  When the first proto-humans were in Africa probably would have encountered it rarely, either during extreme weather events, or if they were at a sufficiently high altitude. 

As humans left Africa, they mostly stuck to tropical areas, but eventually, they migrated further north in Asia in Europe. There they would have encountered seasonal ice and potentially year-round ice on mountain tops. 

Eventually, they would have discovered the properties of this unique substance. It would be cold to the touch, and it could in fact numb your body if it touched you too long. It could make beverages taste better and make them more refreshing. It could preserve food longer. 

Most of all, it would disappear if you tried to preserve it or take it to a warmer climate. 

The ability to collect and preserve ice goes back much farther than most people realize. 

We know that at least as early as the 4th century BC, the ancient Persians had figured out how to preserve ice year around in the desert. 

They created a building called a Yakhch?l, which was the Persian word for ‘ice pit’. It was a conical, or onion-shaped building about two stories tall, which took advantage of the physical properties of the climate and of water. 

A yakhch?l had insulation that came about from the thick clay walls of the structure. This would prevent the heat from outside the structure from melting the ice.

The other feature which kept it cool was evaporative cooling. When water evaporates, it reduces temperatures. The arid environment in Perisa would make it easy for water to evaporate, keeping temperatures inside cool, but the water would condense on the walls of the structure inside. 

The Persians would collect ice and snow from the mountains during the winter and transport it to a yakhch?l where it would keep for months. In some areas, if nighttime temperatures dipped low enough, they could create ice in a yakhch?l.

Evaporative cooling was powerful enough that it was able to be used in ancient Egypt, and occasionally they could make small amounts of ice. 

In ancient Rome, they didn’t have anything as sophisticated as a yakhch?l, but they also didn’t need it. They had access to much more ice from the alps. 

Snow would be packed up and shipped to insulated buildings where it would be purchased by rich Romans. 

It was documented that Emperor Nero enjoyed wine and honey with ice. 

By the third century, there was a flourishing ice business in Rome with snow shops where rich Romans could buy ice. 

When the Roman Empire fell, ice harvesting and preservation pretty much disappeared for over 1,000 years in Europe. 

However, elsewhere in the world, ice continued to be collected and preserved.

During the Tang Dynasty in China, emperors and other members of the nobility drank iced drinks with ice that came from ice houses. 

Moghul Emperors in India had a drink called kulfi, which was condensed milk frozen into molds. 

Likewise, part of the Muslim Caliphate would store ice for refreshments. 

While ice was collected and stored all over the world, the techniques were pretty similar everywhere. It basically involved collecting ice and snow from where it was cold and then transporting it in an insulated cart to be stored in an insulated ice house. 

The primary insulating agent in most places was sawdust, straw, and wood. The same elements which were used for insulation up through the 19th century.

While the techniques for collecting and storing ice weren’t that difficult, it was a lot of work. Taking ice from the Himalayas or the Alps to an ice house possibly hundreds of miles away resulted in a significant amount of product loss through melting, but it also took a large number of people and animals. 

This meant that in almost every culture, ice was reserved for only the elite in society. 

Ice made a return to Europe during the Renaissance. Once again, it was used as a way to demonstrate wealth and extravagance. Italy, France, and England all saw the use of ice houses. Kings would often have heaps of snow at banquets to chill wine to impress their guests. 

This was pretty much the state of ice up to the early 19th century. It was collected during the winter or from high altitudes, stored in insulated buildings, and consumed by the rich. 

The beginning of the change in the ice industry began in 1805 with a Boston merchant named Frederic Tudor. 

In 1805, ice was pretty much what it had been for thousands of years. Something which was used only by the rich. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had ice houses on their plantations, but the average person wouldn’t have any access to ice outside of winter.

Tudor was at a picnic with his brother William in Boston where they were enjoying some ice cream. William commented that they would be the envy of everyone sweating down in the colonies in the Caribbean with their ice cream. It was just an off-hand comment, but it stuck with Frederic Tudor. 

New England had lots of ice in the winter. It was literally there for the taking in any lake or pond. 

He figured he could harvest the ice in the winter, and ship it down to the Caribbean for purchase by wealthy Europeans. He built an ice house on the island of Martinique and began to ship ice. 

Almost everyone thought that his enterprise was a joke. When his first shipment of ice went out, the Boston Gazette reported, “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

It took a while for people in the Caribbean to take to the ice because they never really had any there before, but soon they did and Tudor expanded his business to other islands. 

Within years he had an operation that was shipping ice to the American South, Europe, India, and even as far as Australia.

He developed the moniker, “the Ice King”. 

In the 1820s, other cold-weather countries started to get in on the act. Norway began harvesting and exporting ice to London. 

Tudor applied modern industrial thinking of the ice business which hadn’t been done before. He created a horse-drawn saw to more quickly and easily cut the ice on lakes. He created an assembly line system where huge slabs of ice would be cut, floated downriver, and collected by a conveyer belt where they were then stacked as high as 80 feet. 

He realized that the insulated ships and carriages which transported the ice could also be used to refrigerate food to allow it to keep longer. He also traveled to southern cities to create demand, having tavern owners chill beverages for their clients, and giving out free samples. 

Ice began to be used on a regular basis for the preservation of fish, meat, and even beer. 

As the infrastructure around ice began to grow, the cost of ice began to drop, and it was no longer something that was just for the rich. 

In the early 19th century, only 10% of harvested ice would make its way to consumers. 90% of the ice was lost to melting. By the end of the 19th century, only 20 to 50% of the ice was lost to melting due to improved insulation techniques. 

By mid-century, the biggest market for the New England ice industry was large cities on the east coast of the United States, like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. 

Iceboxes became important additions to homes, and residential ice delivery sprang up in many cities. Periodic ice deliveries would allow average people to have ice in their homes to keep products like milk and meat cool. 

In the 1880s New York City alone had 1,500 ice delivery wagons. 

A major development in the mid-19th century was the creation of industrially made ice. 

During the US Civil War, there were several years that were known as “ice famines” due to the warm winters with rivers and lakes not freezing over. There wasn’t as much ice available, and what ice they had, had to be transported from locations farther north like Maine. 

Around the same time period, several inventors were working on creating ice artificially. In 1853, American inventor Alexander Twining created the first system for refrigeration and creating artificial ice. 

In 1854, Australian inverter James Harrison had a system that was producing 6,000 kilograms of ice per day. 

In 1867, Texan Andrew Muhl created an ice-making machine for the beef industry.

By the 1890s, artificially produced ice had taken over ice harvesting. It was cheaper, the ice was cleaner, you had less loss through melting, and it could be produced year-round. 

Even though artificial refrigeration become more popular, it was still mostly ice was providing cooling. Refrigeration systems were very bulky and couldn’t be pulled by a horse, or easily powered on a railroad freight car. The ice infrastructure was still in place, it was just now produced differently.

In the 20th century, the big development was the spread of residential ice creation. In the 1930s only a small percentage of Americans had refrigerators, but by the 1950s that reached over 80%. If people wanted ice, they could make it at home by putting water into trays and putting them into their freezer. 

The first home automatic ice maker was released in 1953 and the first one to be built into a refrigerator door appeared in 1965.

One of the unique features of American hotels is ice machines. I’ve stayed at hotels all over the world, and I never see ice machines except in the United States, and here they are ubiquitous. 

The tradition of putting ice machines in hotels came from Kemmons Wilson who was the founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain. At the time, hotels charged customers for ice, and he wanted his hotel to avoid having so many fees. 

When he opened his first Holiday Inn in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, it was the first hotel to offer free ice via an ice machine. Soon, other hotels followed suit to compete. 

Why are they only found in the US? Because Americans really like ice. Culturally, we put more ice in drinks, often by default without even asking, than any other country. 

You can still find a very small industry surrounding natural ice harvesting. There are a few companies that will get ice that comes off of glaciers for use in beverages. There are also some people that will cut ice from lakes and rivers for use in ice sculpting or the creation of ice hotels or ice castles for winter festivals. 

When I went to Antarctica, the staff would often look for a large piece of crystal clear ice floating in the water and bring it aboard the ship for drinks in the bar in the evening. 

Ice today isn’t that big of a deal. You can find it all over the world and most people can create their own ice at home. It has come a long way from being a product that was only consumed by kings and emperors.