The Ice Industry: An American Phenomenon

The ice industry in the late 1800s changed how the world viewed food storage and became an American phenomenon

| August 1998

As you reach into your refrigerator for that carton of milk, pound of hamburger or a cold beer, it’s pretty easy to take the process of refrigeration for granted.

Most of today’s population never knew it any other way.

But convenient refrigeration was not always available. From the time of the earliest colonial settlements, Americans experimented with various forms of cold storage (usually in the form of ice and snow) for food preservation. What ensued was the beginning of the natural ice industry.

Considered an “American phenomenon” by Joseph C. Jones Jr. in his book America’s Icemen, the natural ice industry boomed as the concepts of refrigeration became better understood. “By 1830 the use of ice to preserve food was commonplace,” he wrote. Eventually, the industry thrived and employed thousands.

The natural ice harvest

Harvesting operations were naturally based in the cold northern tier of the U.S., where river and lake ice were readily available. A typical harvest operation included cutting the ice into blocks (sometimes called “cakes”), transporting cut blocks by sleigh or floating them through channels and, finally, stacking them to the rafters of the icehouse. The size of the operation dictated how mechanized it was.

In rural communities, the ice harvest was eagerly anticipated. In a cooperative community effort, labor, horse teams and sleighs were donated to help fill local icehouses. It was extremely hard work, but also a social activity that people looked forward to.

To fulfill the demand for ice in the cities, large scale commercial operations were necessary. A crew of 100 men and a dozen teams of horses would work an ice field while an additional 20 men stacked blocks in the icehouse. In some cases, a lake shore was lined with multiple icehouses and harvesting operations. When the local workforce was inadequate, outside workers were transported in to get the job done.