Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Ice Harvest

After hearing about Gavin Weightman's The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story shortly after it was published in 2003 and having my interest rekindled after noticing a small sign on an old warehouse in Charlestown commemorating the frozen water trade while walking the Freedom Trail in 2006, I finally got around to reading the book. The book is largely the story of Frederic Tudor, the man who was largely responsible for creating the ice industry prior to artificial refrigeration. Before I heard about this book, I had no idea that people ever harvested ice from lakes and rivers and stored it so it would be available during the warmer months. I had heard of icehouses and iceboxes but I guess I never really thought about where the ice came from. When I learned that Tudor shipped ice to the Caribbean, the American South, and even to India without artificial refrigeration, I was astounded and it was that astonishment that led to my interest in the book.

Once I was able to wrap my head around the idea that the ice trade, the book didn't really have much else to offer in the way of shocking realizations. The book devoted some space to one of Tudor's partners, Nathaniel Wyeth, who was responsible for most of the technical innovations that made it possible to harvest large volumes of ice from frozen lakes and ponds in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Once that was worked out, the ice business was like any other weather-dependent business. Tudor exploited the technical advantages that Wyeth provided to harvest more ice in less time at a lower cost than his competitors, but in the end, his success had more to do with the network of relationships he built around the world and his refusal to cede any ground to his competitors.

The most interesting thing about the whole story was not the supply side of the ice business; it was the demand side. The US was the first country where year-round access to ice in all climates was considered a necessity instead of an extravagant luxury. While there certainly was demand for ice in the tropical climes of the Caribbean and India, ice was still seen as more of a luxury good. Even today, American's attitudes towards ice differ from the rest of the world. Sit down at a restaurant anywhere in the 50 states and the first thing that you'll get is a tall, cool glass of ice water. American brewers have spent so much time and money trying to convince customers that their beer is the coldest that it's become the stuff of parody. The books doesn't offer any explanation for American's love of ice. It might be good old American exceptionalism, but I have my own theory. The climate of the eastern part of North America is a lot more variable than that of Western Europe. The average temperature in Philadelphia during the summer is about the same as the average temperature in Rome during the summer, but Philadelphia gets much colder in the winter. There's really nowhere in the eastern US that has comfortable weather throughout the winter and the summer, so it makes sense that in addition to the obvious demand for summer ice in sweltering American South there would also be more demand for summer ice in Northeastern US cities than anywhere in Western Europe.


Michael David said...

I guess I'm in the minority among Americans, because I really don't like ice. I never, ever put ice in my drinks. It waters down the beverage and hits you in the face when you try to drink the last drop.

dhodge said...

Go back to Russia.