The cold truth about the ice business

Bucket of ice

Answers to the big questions behind small, simple, ubiquitous things in the world of business.

Believe it or not, the reason those big, white ice boxes are all over the place, is pretty much thanks to one guy. His name is Frederic Tudor.

Tudor has been described as stubborn, pigheaded and occasionally a genius, but his undisputed title is “The Ice King.”

Jonathan Rees is a history professor at Colorado State University Pueblo, and he wrote the definitive (and pretty much only) book about the ice trade. It’s called “Refrigeration Nation.” Rees says in the early 1800s, this Tudor guy had a crazy idea. He’d sell ice to places that had never seen it.

"He cut off ice from New England lakes and sent it to the Caribbean and other hot spots in the world, and people had no idea what to do with it."

Tudor peddled a ship full of ice overseas on his first faithful voyage in 1806, but only about 10 percent of what was harvested made it from Boston to Martinique.  For the next four years he honed his methods, packing the ice in sawdust and straw to keep his profits from melting away. Tudor shipped ice as far away as India, floating some 200 tons and finally turning a profit in 1810.

But it was his U.S. push that would ultimately pay off in a big way for Tudor. He travelled the country getting folks to try ice, giving it away for free and convincing bartenders and shop owners of how good it could be for business. He had to teach them what to do with it, and how to make it last. A box with a little insulation, a little ventilation, a drain and some white paint to reflect the sun was the way to do that.

Rees says these ice boxes helped Las Vegas, Phoenix and Florida attract people around the turn of the century. And they even spawned other businesses – like 7-11. That store started out as an ice box in Texas in the early 1900’s, run by a guy who worked for an ice company. He started selling eggs and milk and now they sell beef jerky and Zig-Zags.

10 chilling facts about the ice biz

  1. After Frederic Tudor’s foray into ice peddling, business boomed. The ice trade grew to employee some 90,000 Americans.
  2. This video shows how crazy an “ice harvest” could be. Grown men with horses, using sharp tools to smash the very surface that was keeping them from plunging into an icy death. What could go wrong?
  3. If you didn’t get the message, ice harvesting was super, insanely dangerous. First off, it’s really cold, and numb hands plus sharp instruments equals bad news. The term “ice man’s knees” was coined in the mid-19th century to describe the bruised and bloody limbs of men who would often strike themselves with picks or get hit and knocked over by 300-lb. blocks of rogue ice. Also, there was that whole falling in the pond thing.
  4. Boston was once the ice capital of America. By 1847. Nearly 52,000 tons of ice traveled by ship or train to 28 U.S. cities, and nearly half of it came from Beantown. Back then ice-harvesting rights was a thing, and Tudor had a monopoly on most of the key ponds throughout Massachusetts.
  5. The more north, the better when it comes to ice. Ice boomtowns sprouted along the Kennebec River in Maine, where ice farmers could work year round.
  6. The iceman was kind of like the milkman for ice. Okay, he was the milkman for ice. He'd bring you a big old block in a wagon and it was up to you to chip it off yourself. An ice cube back then was called an "ice cake," and it was often big enough to be thrown over your shoulder. 
  7. 7-11 started as an ice house in 1927, until “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green, began selling milk, bread and eggs that he kept cold with his product.
  8. Packaged bags of ice are still a $2.5 billion business. There are over 2,000 retailers who sell it. Apparently there are a lot more tailgates and keggers than you’d think.
  9. The average American buys four bags of packaged ice each year. 80 percent of all packaged ice is sold between Memorial and Labor days.
  10. There’s now an icemaker that can make a new batch of fresh cubes every 10 minutes, churning out up to 28 lbs. of sweet New England clear every day. Take that, nature!

Crowley Russell, Ice Man.

About the author

Tommy is a producer on Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal. Before that he worked at CNN Radio as a producer, correspondent and anchor, where he covered everything from the national elections to a story where he had to hike through a New Jersey swamp wearing a blindfold. Before CNN Radio, Tommy worked at both CNN.com and CNN TV, and, before that, did a stint at This American Life.

Answers to the big questions behind small, simple, ubiquitous things in the world of business.

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