The Frozen-Water Trade is a delightful history lesson. At a time when ice cream and iced drinks are de rigueur, it is hard to imagine that once ice was not in fashion, and that a young man named Frederic Tudor created our “addiction” to the commodity.
Frederic Tudor came from a fairly wealthy Bostonian family, one that believed in the merits of quality education. At the age of thirteen, Frederic decided to drop out of Boston Latin School where he had been sent in preparation for Harvard. Young Frederic concluded that “college was a waste of time” and spent idle days inventing gadgets at the family farm. At seventeen, he traveled to Cuba with his brother and discovered that he could not find any cool drinks: “he would have given anything for a lump of Rockwood ice when he felt the heat of Cuba that summer.” It was then that the Tudors decided to start a business in ice trading. Cold New England winters created tons of ice that essentially just went to waste come spring. Why not “harvest” this ice and ship it to warmer climates, and make a neat profit in the process?
As the Tudor brothers started in the ice trade, they held their plans close to their chest. Frederic, for one, did not want any competition early on. Turns out that he needn’t have worried, for as Bostonians learnt of the trade, it was not competition that he had to contend with, but ridicule. As the years passed, Frederic had to deal with many pitfalls: heavy debt, incarceration, even a nervous breakdown before he could finally prove his point. The fact that he was a “stubborn and determined young man who seemed to thrive on the challenge of accomplishing something that others regarded as impossible and foolhardy” also helped.
Like a true enterprising businessman, Frederic predicted and built all the support structures needed for successful execution of his ice trade. He researched the insulating materials that would let the ice survive a ship haul all the way from New England to Cuba and other tropical climes. Peat and charcoal didn’t quite work well; he finally settled on sawdust, creating a thriving offshoot industry for Maine’s sawmills which now discovered a market for something that was just being thrown away. Frederic also designed and built numerous icehouses to hold the ice once it reached port. In order that people preserve ice for a limited time after purchase, he also sold blankets that could be wrapped around the ice. Despite ice’s obvious appeal, trade in Cuba was not brisk. Yet Frederic Tudor stuck it out till the end. His highest point was when ice cut in New England (much of it from Fresh Water Pond in Cambridge) was shipped to the British East India Company on Calcutta. The cargo reached port with two-thirds of its goods still intact. The Brits were thrilled to receive the ice and did all they could to facilitate the ice trade from New England. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, concerns over pollution and the use of effective refrigerant materials drove the impetus towards artificial refrigeration. By this time, Frederic Tudor had made his fortunes in the ice business and died a wealthy, happy old man.
Gavin Weightman, a journalist living in London, has done a wonderful job of creating an extremely readable tale about true Yankee ingenuity. Frederic Tudor made something (and a lot of it!) out of nothing. The text is ably supplemented with old pictures of the ice trade. Pictures of icemen making deliveries in Boston and New York are true historical treasures. Today Fresh Pond (which is close to Harvard) in Cambridge is a jogger’s paradise. Weightman says that he approached a few joggers on an unusually warm late winter day and asked them if they knew that ice from here was shipped all the way to India once. "I could see a shadow of doubt fall across the faces of those I stopped,” he says, “is this guy crazy?” I sensed they were asking themselves, “How could you sell ice to India without a refrigerator?”’
With The Frozen-Water Trade, Weightman proves that reality can indeed be stranger and even a lot livelier than fiction.