The Ice King Cometh

Why are ice cubes seemingly as American as unnecessary medical debt? Perhaps it’s all the hard work we used to put into acquiring all that ice back in the day.

By Andrew Egan

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from Andrew Egan, who wrote about magic last time we saw him. This time he gets seasonably, well, cold.

Today in Tedium: The list of things that Americans do differently is long and extensive. From private healthcare and mass ownership of guns to extreme college debts and refusing to use the metric system, Americans seem to prefer their own path (consequences or efficacy be damned). The contrasts between life in America and those in other similarly developed countries is often stark. And abstract. And occasionally just weird. But when it comes to differences, we tend to focus on the big things, the systemic elements that distinguish countries and cultures. I say all of this to point out a weird happenstance of life in America. Today’s Tedium is wondering, why do Americans expect so much ice in their drinks? The answer is all it’s cracked up to be. — Andrew @ Tedium

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The average annual revenue of the pre-packaged ice business in the United States. Almost predictably, roughly 80 percent of all pre-packaged ice is sold between Memorial Day and Labor Day.


(Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay)

A new world meant new opportunities

There’s a reason the European powers of the 16th and 17th centuries colonized the Americas. The lands were fertile, rich, and ostensibly unclaimed. Whereas a lot of early American wealth came from cultivation or enterprise in one form or another (yes, I mean slavery), one transformative industry was staring people right in the face.


Ice is often a mundane and boring topic. It’s also often used as a segue into long-winded discussions about climate change. So I’ll keep my segue brief to just talk about the Little Ice Age.

Quick aside: Global warming is real and what I’m talking about is pre-Industrial. If I see this article used to deny global warming, I’m… going to be annoyed and probably do nothing else about it.

Planet Earth goes through cooling and warming periods with one of the most recent significant cycles occurring between 1500 and approximately 1850. According to NASA, the Little Ice Age was marked by three periods that were significant for how cold they were: 1650, 1770, and 1850. These years are significant because it’s approximately when colonization of the Americas started, took hold, and lead to independent countries.

In 1806, the relatively new United States of America had a lot of possibilities but it was still a harsh land. Unpredictable weather could destroy crops, the British renewed threats to invade, and no one really knew what the country’s laws meant. America had a lot of problems. It also had a whole lot of ice.

This video demonstrates the bonkers and dangerous practices of ice harvesting. Between the horses, large sharp blades and huge blocks of heavy ice, workers were routinely maimed, leading to the phrase “ice man’s knees,“ which was used to describe the various injuries to limbs that often result from runaway blocks of ice, not to mention the accidents that happened with poorly used ice picks, saws, and cracking ice over frigid water. It was the kind of job that just really sucked.


An ice harvest. (Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress)

Before America started mining for wealth, it took what was on the surface

Too many English teachers in my life have extolled the naturalistic virtue of Henry David Thoreau’s return to the wilderness to write his classic work of poetry, Walden. Too few history teachers informed me that Thoreau was full of shit.

His refuge on Walden Pond was within walking distance of a village, complete with neighbors, a church, and a store. Thoreau’s home on Walden Pond was also something of a “hoary ruin” due to the workers toiling within earshot of his “isolated” hideaway. Their tools went to work in that winter of 1847, removing giant blocks of ice from Walden Pond and any other frozen fresh water source.

The poet’s annoyance, as highlighted in the Walden chapter “The Pond in Winter,” is understandable, to a degree:

At first it looked like a vast blue fort or Valhalla; but when they began to tuck the coarse meadow hay into the crevices, and this became covered with rime and icicles, it looked like a venerable moss-grown and hoary ruin, built of azure-tinted marble, the abode of Winter, that old man we see in the almanac — his shanty, as if he had a design to estivate with us.

Some 30 years before Thoreau’s descent into the woods, another visionary was just starting to realize his own dream. Frederic Tudor was the son of a wealthy Boston lawyer, but needed to find his own path in life. As a New Englander living through the Little Ice Age, Tudor was astonished to learn that some people living in the Caribbean had never seen ice. He soon began devising ways to export ice cut from local ponds and lakes to tropical climates.

There was a bit of a learning curve to the new industry. Tudor first attempted to export ice from Boston to Mauritania, an island in the Lesser (but far superior) Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. Only a reported 10 percent of his cargo managed to survive the trip. Tudor then set about forging a path to profitability that would later be followed by countless tech startups, losing money for nearly four years as he honed insulation methods required to ship ice to tropical climates. He finally struck upon a reasonable solution involving sawdust and storage boxes painted white to reflect thermal heat. Of course, once Tudor finally got commercially viable quantities of ice to these far-flung locations, he then had to teach people what to do with it.

By 1810, Tudor was turning a profit en route to becoming crowned “The Ice King.” He started acquiring the ice rights to most ponds in Massachusetts and other strategic sites in New England, creating a near-monopoly.


A few of the implements used in the harvesting of ice in the late 19th century.

In the next 30 years after Tudor’s cool business move, the ice business exploded in the U.S. At the industry’s peak, it employed more than 90,000 Americans exporting some 52,000 tons of ice to 28 American cities and locations abroad. As a result, areas with ice year-round suddenly sprouted ice boom towns, like along the Kennebec River in Maine.

Like any transformative new industry, commercial ice made its early pioneers rich and lead to the creation of even more transformative industries. In fact, one of the most convenient aspects of life in modern America owes its existence to the commercial ice industry. But ice would do a lot more to American culture than most people would ever realize.


The estimated annual revenue of 7-Eleven, a chain of convenience stores. Founded in 1926 as an ice house, 7-Eleven has grown to a whopping 67,480 stores in 17 countries. Hints to the company’s heritage can still be seen today in their signature drink, the Slurpee, a iced concoction that includes an unhealthy amount of syrup. They can be pretty good though, depends on the flavor.



Ice influenced migration across the country

Ice rose as an industry during the 19th century just as the Industrial Revolution was kicking off in the U.S. In 1851, a Florida physician named John Gorrie was awarded the first patent for an ice making machine. It would still take decades for “artificial” ice to replace the “natural” ice that people had grown accustomed to.

There’s even an apocryphal tale of Mississippi preacher that visited a Jackson ice plant in 1902 and was completely shocked that people can make ice.

“Upon sharing this news with his congregation when he returned home,” the tale went, “the good people of his faith decided either the preacher had lost his mind or had been taken in by the devil himself. They kindly asked him to step down from his post for making such an outlandish statement that ice could be made in Mississippi in July.”

Other than costing religious figures their jobs, the rise of Tudor’s ice industry also happens to coincide with widespread consumption of ice cream in the United States. The International Dairy Foods Association freely recognizes the contribution of ice houses and the industry made to the popularity of ice cream.


(National Association of Ice Industries/Library of Congress)

More importantly, ice would make life more comfortable in the Sun States, according to Colorado State University Pueblo history professor Jonathan Rees. Places like Nevada, Arizona, and Florida were suddenly more attractive, leading to a population explosion in western and southern states. These changes were profound and with the advent of air conditioning, ice production had an almost unbelievable impact on the trajectory of the south.

In his article “The End of the Long Hot Summer”, University of South Florida professor Raymond Arsenault made a direct link between the proliferation of affordable refrigeration and air conditioning technologies with helping bring about the New South. He argues, “Air conditioning has changed the southern way of life, influencing everything from architecture to sleeping habits. Most important, it has contributed to the erosion of several regional traditions: cultural isolation, agrarianism, poverty, romanticism, historical consciousness, an orientation towards non-technological folk culture, a preoccupation with kinship, neighborliness, a strong sense of place, and a relatively slow pace of life. The net result has been a dramatic decline in regional distinctiveness. In combination with other historical forces-such as the civil rights movement, advances in communication and transportation technology, and economic and political change—the air conditioner has greatly accelerated what John Egerton has called “the Americanization of Dixie.”

Obviously, Arsenault isn’t saying that ice and air conditioning is more important than the Civil Rights era in transforming the South, but anyone that’s ever endured 100-degree heat with 100 percent humidity for two weeks straight probably understands his point.

Of all the seemingly mundane topics I’ve covered for Tedium, ice is one of my favorites. There is a lot to talk about. For example, I didn’t even talk about the international competition to American ice, which is its own funny story.

Ice so ubiquitous in the U.S. that no one ever really thinks about it. Other countries’ aversion to ice varies depending on the region. Some associate ice with stagnant water and, as such, believe ice to be dirty. There is some truth to their concerns.


How other countries probably feel about Americans’ obsession with ice cubes. (Columbia Pictures)

However, some cultures just have an aversion to ice for whatever reason. Like this hilarious New York Times article, “Why Do Russians Hate Ice?“—which also serves up some truly self-congratulatory (but admittedly awesome) prose, such as: “The air out on Brighton Beach Avenue hit us like a plume of dragon breath as we quickly made our way toward our first destination, a cafe.”

That aside, the writer notes that individual reasons among Russians varied. Some said they don’t hate ice, some readily admitted they did. Ultimately, she sort of dismisses Russians’ hatred of ice as a sort of cultural curiosity. It feels like a missed opportunity.

The American love for ice is intertwined with the historical, cultural, and technological transformations that shaped the country as it moved from a 19th-century agrarian society to a 20th century industrialized one. Since there is a whole lot behind America’s love affair with ice, maybe there is something more to the Russian hatred of ice.

Maybe I’m making a glacier out of an ice cube. And maybe Pepe Silva is just a misreading of Pennsylvania. But what do I know?


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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at

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