The Great Emerald

by Craig Stark

13 October 2003

Ice Harvesting in the 19th Century

"Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation."

No doubt about it, and Henry David Thoreau, writing in Walden, also implies that it has an eternal nature: "They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever? It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect."

Interesting or not, it might be difficult to appreciate that as recently as 100 or 150 years ago great effort was expended to make ice eternal, or at least to keep it frozen during the warm months of the following year, and even then only after greater effort had been expended to harvest it. Thoreau describes harvesting at Walden Pond:

"Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac;"

In the mid to late 19th century, ice harvesting resembled farming in scale as well, ranking with grain production as a major component of our gross national product. The iceman was as common as the milkman, and especially in smaller communities, entire weeks, sometimes months were set aside for putting up a year's supply. Sometimes this was a community undertaking with social aspects not unlike barn raising; other times it was commercial; but whatever form it took, it was usually a major event, one repeated in the dead of winter year after year during the 19th century and extending, primarily in rural areas, well into the 20th century.

Like so many other aspects of 19th-century life, ice harvesting is charged with nostalgia, and this is a reliable indicator for booksellers that collectors may be afoot - and with them high profits. No matter what one's feelings about ice are, it's not difficult to imagine the impact of making ice cream on a sultry August evening or even holding a rock hard, silky piece of pond ice from a distant and bitter winter. This might mean little to us now, but it must have been special, almost magical once. And with magic there's often wonder:

"Like the water, the Walden ice, seen near at hand, has a green tint, but at a distance is beautifully blue, and you can easily tell it from the white ice of the river, or the merely greenish ice of some ponds, a quarter of a mile off. Sometimes one of those great cakes slips from the ice-man's sled into the village street, and lies there for a week like a great emerald, an object of interest to all passers."

The process of ice harvesting was far more complex than one might imagine. Dozens of sophisticated tools were required for gaining access to the ice, clearing it, accelerating its formation, scoring it, scraping it, planing it, cutting it and more. Equipment for moving, storing and shipping it was also in great demand and equally sophisticated. Ships were specifically designed to transport it. Ice houses sprang up on farmsteads, and the ice chest, once a luxury item, became commonplace by the end of the century.

Books about ice harvesting may not be as valuable as fine emeralds, but they resemble them in that they're both difficult to find and in intense demand. Look for both vintage and relatively recent publications. As niches go, this one is a 10 on the temperature meter, and books that make even passing reference to it often do well too. Of particular note here are local history books that portray ice harvesting or contain photographs of tools or the event itself. Similarly, ephemera such as ice cutting tool catalogs, brochures and photographs attract high collector interest.

Dedicated book or booklet titles to look for include:

Harvesting and Storing Ice on the Farm, by John T Bowen. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1920.

Crystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness: The Development of the Massachusetts Ice Trade from Frederick Tudor to Wenham Lake, by Philip Chadwick Foster Smith. Wenham, Mass. Wenham Historical Association, 1962.

America's Icemen: An Illustrative History of the United States Natural Ice Industry, 1665-1925, by Joseph C. Jones. Humble, Tex. Jobeco Books, 1984. ISBN: 096075721X

Tidewater Ice of the Kennebec River, by Jennie G Everson. Freeport, Published for the Maine State Museum, by the Bond Wheelwright, 1970. ISBN: 0870271083

Ice harvesting in Early America, by Dewey D. Hill & Elliott R. Hughes. New Hartford, N.Y. New Hartford Historical Society, 1977.

The American Ice Harvests; A Historical Study in Technology, 1800-1918, by Richard Osborn Cummings. Berkeley. University of California Press, 1949.

The Ice Industry of the United States, by Henry Hall. Northampton, Mass. Early American Industries Association, 1974.

The Icemen Cameth: The History of the Natural Ice Industry at Lime Lake, New York, 1880-1925, by Jeffrey Miller. Lime Lake, N.Y. J. Miller, 1996.

A supplementary ice house and ice industry bibliography appears here:

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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