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First ice sold worldwide

Ice is such a natural and ubiquitous part of modern life, often available at the touch of a button from suburban freezers, that it’s hard to imagine it ever being a revolutionary industry.

But the availability of ice truly changed the world. Up until about 200 years ago, people living in hot or tropical climates would rarely if ever have seen ice – never experienced the joy of chilled water, never been able to store food or medicines in a truly cold environment and never heard the alluring tinkle of ice cubes in a cocktail.

An ambitious, and some might say reckless, man called Frederic Tudor changed all that. Born in Boston, on the east coast of the USA, he is the forgotten pioneer of the ice industry, kickstarting a global obsession that’s still going strong today. He effectively commercialised frozen water by creating consumer demand where there had been none before. And like any industry pioneer, his first hurdle was to convince people why they needed lumps of coldness in their lives. Like some sort of winter-based drug dealer, he would initially give his ice away for free, only to charge people once they were hooked and couldn’t live without ice in their gin and tonics all year round. “A man who has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again,” was how he phrased it in letters.

Once he’d created enough demand in far-flung lands, there was the not insignificant matter of harvesting, transporting and delivering tonnes of melting ice blocks across unimaginable distances. But Tudor’s ambition knew no bounds. He was convinced he would get absurdly rich if he could just get ice into the hands of people as far away as the Caribbean, India, Singapore and Brazil. It was a far-fetched and bonkers dream, that very few believed but him. But credit where credit’s due, by the end of his career, he was rightly known and revered as ‘The Ice King’.

Tudor obviously didn’t invent ice. Nor the act of harvesting or storing it to cool things at a later date. He just took it to the next level – turning it from a local luxury to a global tradition.

The act of storing winter ice was first recorded well over 3500 years before him. An impossibly ancient cuneiform tablet, written in the Sumerian language in around 1780 BC, confirms evidence of an icehouse built by Zimri-Lim, the king of a great but now forgotten Babylonian city called Mari in northern Mesopotamia. Much later, in China, early texts Zuo Zhuan (Zuo Qiuming’s Chronicle) and The Shih Ching (The Book of Odes or Classic of Poetry), a collection of ballads, sagas and hymns compiled by Confucius from as early as 600 BC mention chilling food with stored ice. Alexander the Great, it is said, was also a big fan of ice. He built snow and ice pits wherever he went on his many military campaigns, often in hot countries, and is known to have dug 30 pits when besieging the Indian fortress city of Aornus in 327 BC.

But back to Frederic Tudor. He was born into a wealthy, traditional, lawyer-y family in Boston, Massachusetts, on 4th September 1783, the day after the treaty that ended the American Revolution was signed. Accounts say that even from a young age, he was a bit of a maverick, preferring to do things his own way. He dropped out of school at 13. Turned his back on the family path into the hallowed halls of Harvard. He was bright but unbiddable. But he was rich.

Growing up, his family had the luxury of an icehouse on their estate, where of course chunks of winter ice from local ponds would have been stored throughout the year, so he would have regularly enjoyed chilled refreshments in the summer. In fact, it is said, a passing remark about how their cold drinks would be ‘the envy of all the colonists sweating in the West Indies’, might have put the idea firmly into the mind of young Frederic.

But whatever the inspiration, by the time Frederic was 23 years old he had the madcap idea of harvesting ice from his local New England reservoir, called Fresh Pond, in Cambridge. Who knows what the ice harvesters thought of Frederic’s plan, but they were being paid a decent wage in the depths of winter, so they duly did their duty and embarked on this new dangerous and strength-sapping job. They would take industrial-grade tools out to the thick ice, create holes and start manually sawing the ice, which was feet thick, in teams. It took days and relied on the weather staying cold enough to give them a firm footing.

But it was a start. Eventually Frederic had enough blocks of ice to sell. He charted a boat in Boston to sail to the West Indies, but once the captain got wind of what was being put in his hold he cancelled the contract – he thought the ice would melt and sink his ship.

So, with a full icehouse but no transportation, Frederic was forced to buy his own ship in desperation, a brig called The Favourite, for $4,750 – a big chunk of his start-up money. So it was that on 10th February 1806, he set sail for the French island of Martinique with 130 tonnes of freshwater ice packed and insulated with hay.

It’s clear from newspaper clippings at the time that people had little faith in this new venture, The Boston Gazette reporting with clear derision: “No joke. A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”

Frederic Tudor made port in Martinique on 7th March 1806 with most of his ice still intact after 25 days at sea. As any good marketeer would, he had advertised his arrival beforehand, distributing flyers about the benefits of ice and trying to create a swell of excitement.

“Today, and during three consecutive days, there will be put up for sale in small amounts a cargo of ice, brought into this port very well preserved, from Boston....This sale will take place immediately and will last three days only, the brig having to proceed at that time to another island. The price is ten cents a pound. It is necessary to bring a wool cloth or a piece of covering to wrap the ice; this means preserves it much longer.”

The biggest problem was there was no ice storage capabilities in Martinique, so Frederic was forced to sell his precious ice from the hold of his ship. And of course, as soon he exposed his cargo to the tropical air, it started melting furiously. And it turned out people in tropical climates didn’t have personal icehouses (shocker), so couldn’t stop the ice from melting anyway. Overall, the trip was not a success, tallying a loss of anywhere between £2,500-4,500. But Frederic chose to see the positive side, and it reaffirmed his belief that ice could be transported to the tropics – it just needed a more efficient cold chain system set up in the places he was sailing and selling to.

In a typically stubborn response to his first failure, Frederic wrote, “he who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow despairs of success has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love, or business.”

Over the next few years, despite ending up in debtor’s prison for large parts of 1812 and 1813 due to further big losses, Frederic’s dream grew more real. He slowly started establishing icehouses in various near and far ports, like Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Havana. He started harvesting ice on more and more bodies of water throughout Massachusetts, like Walden Pond, Spy Pond, Sandy Pond, Horn Pond, Lake Quannapowitt and many more. And he started getting more savvy about how he transported and packed his ice, ditching hay for bark chippings, then wheat chaff before finally settling on sawdust as the most efficient.

But his big breakthrough was making the actual harvesting of the ice more streamlined. He’d hired a new foreman called Nathanial Jarvis Wyeth, who came up with an ingenious system that effectively brought traditional farming techniques to the frozen ponds. He devised a horse-drawn ice plough with two blades that effectively cut ice blocks into manageable and uniform sizes and shapes, which was much easier to transport and store. It effectively tripled the amount of ice that Tudor could harvest, and ultimately profit from.

With his harvesting more efficient, and a better cold chain system in place, Tudor rightly expected to take his business to the next level. His big breakthrough, and first real big financial success, came when he started selling ice to Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, which was over a whopping 11,000 nautical miles away. Partnering with a fellow Boston businessman called Samuel Austin to alleviate the costs, he hired and fitted out a ship called Tuscany, commanded by Captain Clement Littlefield.

We know from Tudor’s detailed diaries that the 180 tonnes of ice took three days to pack and load, painstakingly wedged together and covered in sawdust to minimise melting.

“She has 60 cords [a cord measures four by four by eight feet] on board and fitted in a most thorough and expensive manner & if she does not carry her cargo safely to Calcutta & arrive with 2/3 of it, no ship ever will and the undertaking should be abandoned.”

The Tuscany set sail for Tudor’s most far-fetched enterprise on 12th May 1833: “Sailed this day the ship Tuscany Capt. Littlefield for Calcutta with 180 tons of ice—an experiment I have been desirous of making for 20 years.”

The epic journey took four months to complete, becoming the first ice to ever cross the equator. And we know from Captain Littlefield’s journals that his holds still had 100 tonnes of freshwater ice blocks intact when they reached India – an impressive 55% of his starting cargo had made it to its famously hot destination.

When the ship sailed down the Ganges in September 1833, it drew crowds of curious and astonished onlookers to the quay. India did have a rudimentary ice manufacturer nearby – in Hooghly, 50 miles upstream – but the ice produced was very thin and poor quality, more like slush than solid cubes. So imagine the surprise of the British inhabitants and local population when they saw the vast and deep blocks of shimmering ice in the hold of the Tuscany.

Susan Bean, a writer for American Heritage in 1991, unearthed a wonderful written recollection from an emotional Indian on the reaction:

“It was an hour after dawn one morning in spring – a time of the year when the cool air and fogs of February are suddenly exchanged for the hot winds—that a ‘faithful’ domestic came to my bedside with the strange intimation that a ship was off the town laden with burruf (snow). … What could he mean? Ice from America! An entire cargo! So I at once jumped up, bathed, while my horse was being saddled, and then rode down to the ghaut. Engaging a paunchway, a small native wherry, I pulled on board the Yankee clipper. … I was allowed to peep into the abyss which contained the treasure. There it lay! in square masses of the purest crystal packed carefully and scientifically. … I hurried off giving my khansamah a wicker basket and a piece of green baize and sent him off with a rupee for a pound of ice. He soon returned with half the quantity. ‘How is this?’ ‘Master, all make melt.’ ‘Did you wrap it well up in the cloth?’ ‘No Sahib, that make ice too muchee warm.’ ‘Did you close the basket?’ ‘No, Master, because that make ice more warm.’ How many Calcutta tables glittered that morning with lumps of ice! The butter dishes were filled; the goblets of water were converted into miniature Arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon, that people might rush about to pay each other congratulatory visits, and devise means for perpetuating the ice-supply. Everybody invited everybody to dinner, to taste of claret and beer cooled by the American importation. …”

The accolades for Tudor’s ice immediately flooded in. William Bentinck, the British Governor-General, the highest-ranking government officer in India at the time, published a letter in the India Gazette singing its praises: “The importation of American ice into Calcutta is an enterprise so novel and beneficial that I cannot resist the desire of expressing to you my sense of the spirit and skill by which it has been planned and executed.” Other articles thanks Tudor for making this “luxury accessible”. The Statesman, another leading Calcutta newspaper, reported the benefits for medicines and its hospitals, saying that the abundant supply enabled “our hospitals [to] extend its useful application to the poorest patients.” And so beguiled by ice and so eager to maintain a supply that the British managed to commission an icehouse to be built within three days. One resident wrote: “The idea of having the purest ice at three half-pence a pound during the whole year, instead of having the Hooghly slush for six weeks at four-pence the pound was irresistible.”

Frederic Tudor had found his market. Right up until his death on 6th February 1864, Calcutta would be his most lucrative destination, finally bringing him the profits he craved.

He became famous for his exports on both sides of the ocean. Even Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s great essayists and poets, philosophised about Tudor’s ice as he watched a crew cutting great blocks from Walden Pond in front of his house: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well… The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

But he had cracked more than just India. From an article in The Polynesian on 7th July 1847, Wyeth listed the vessels, tonnage and places that he and Tudor were delivering to. It’s quite an impressive list, with 52,000 tonnes of ice sent to 28 ports in the United States and over 30 ports further afield, including Rio de Janeiro, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Bombay and Batavia (now Jakarta). In over 350 ships. His business was now well established and thriving.

Against all the odds, Frederic Tudor died a rich and successful man – the epitome of a global pioneering entrepreneur – and was interred in the King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street, Boston, in the Tudor family tomb (number thirteen). Of course, the ice business that he established flourished and grew beyond anything he could have imagined. America, and the rest of the world, became accustomed and dependent on enjoying their meat fresh, their drinks chilled and their medicines long-lasting. It spawned innovation and invention on an unprecedented scale – leading to even the humblest family owning an icebox, then a fridge and finally an electric freezer.

But it all began with one man’s vision and sheer never-say-never desire to make his business a success. It will come as no surprise to those who have read Frederic Tudor’s story to know that his motto was: “I have so willed it”. And of course, he did.


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