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  • James Wheeling

Tudor Ice - Establishing the Ice Trade

I’ve written some pretty heavy blogs of late so I thought it might be refreshing for all of us to explore a lighter subject, one that gave me one of those “what the…?” moments.

We all know the convenience of ice…ice cubes that fall out of our freezer’s door when we push our glass against the tab. Ice introduced refrigeration, ice made ice cream, slushes, shave ice and snow cones. Dry ice let perishable things ship across the country. There’s ice fishing, ice climbing and ice skating. But how and where did it become so important to us?

Cutting ice on Hudson River, 1852.
Cutting ice on Hudson River, 1852. Wikipedia

It all started in New England where the industry of harvesting ice and packing ice had been common place since Europeans arrived. Basically, when the ponds and lakes of New England froze over, men would venture out on the thick slabs with ice saws and augers. Slowly and painstakingly, they would bore into the two-to-three-foot-thick ice until they could insert their ice saw and begin sawing. Eventually, they would come up with a block. Then, with enormous ice hooks, they would haul the block out and put it on a sled or a wagon. When the vehicle was full, they would head back to the ice house and store it to use for refrigeration in the hot summer months in their iceboxes.

Frederic Tudor

Enter Frederic Tudor of Boston. Son of a wealthy, Boston Brahmin lawyer, he passed on the opportunity to go to Harvard Law School like his elder brother, choosing instead to focus on business. In his early twenties he took a trip to the Caribbean and that was when the idea struck him: “These people need refrigeration!”

Tudor was an entrepreneur from a wealthy family so he had some advantages. Still, consider his costs: ice was free, only the labor of cutting required payment; hiring of ships was cheap since they were empty headed back to the West Indies; and sawdust, his main insulator, was a free by-product of the booming lumber industry. Any entrepreneur likes the look of that balance sheet! The biggest trick is…well, ice melts.

At 23, Tudor bought his first brig and outfitted it to carry cut ice originating in Saugus, New York to be shipped from Charlestown, MA to Martinique, a distance of 1,500 miles. Tudor sent his brother, James, ahead to secure contracts for the ice with the local governments. The ship, Favorite, first left on February 10, 1806 and made the trip in three weeks. While he lost a substantial amount of ice to melting, he sold the rest which amounted to just a $4500 loss (remember the valuation of money… at current value, that is roughly a $148,500 loss). It wasn’t until 1810 and 1811 that Tudor saw a profit only to have all but $1,000 stolen by a “villainous agent.”

The next several years were rough. Personally, he was in debt so far that he spent parts of 1812 and 1813 in debtor’s prison. Finally, in 1815, he borrowed enough money to build a proper ice house in Havana, Cuba, which held 150 tons. Success! By 1816, he had smoothed the wrinkles in the shipping process enough to consider importing Cuban fruit to New York. Saving 15 tons of ice and using an additional 3 tons of hay to insulate the fruit, he set sail with limes, oranges, bananas and pears. He had borrowed money at 40% interest to buy the fruit and, alas, all the fruit rotted in the month-long trip. More new debt.

Tudor experimented with different types of insulators, different configurations of stacking the ice blocks and finally, took on a partner who had invented a horse-drawn “ice plow” that quickly and efficiently cut the blocks. After years of hard lessons, he was getting some breaks.

His next break came when a fellow, Boston-based merchant, Samuel Austin, proposed partnership in order to ship ice to Calcutta, India, 16,000 miles away. Leaving on May 12, 1833, with 180 tons of ice, they arrived in September with 100 tons still frozen. The Calcutta run would become Tudor’s most profitable route for the next 20 years. By the 1840’s, ice was being shipped all the way to Hong Kong. When the horse-drawn Charlestown Branch Railroad expanded, the ice business boomed with the more efficient transportation of ice from inland to the many ice houses along the coast.

Tudor survived his difficult early years and became known as Boston’s, “Ice King.” At 50 years old, he married a woman 30 years his junior and had six children. Tudor also had a passion for trees and when he inherited the family grounds in Nahant, MA, he started planting trees until, after two years, he had over 4,000 trees on the property. Today, the Tudor family grounds are now the Nahant Country Club.

Fredric Tudor’s story grabbed my imagination and I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t imagine the tenacity it took to not give up on an idea in the face of so much debt. Perhaps his family’s wealthy standing gave him a unique sense of security but still, he did spend time in debtor’s prison.

This led me to wonder what happened in debtor’s prison. Turns out they were abolished in the United States in 1833 but when they were alive and well, if you didn’t pay your debt, you went to prison until someone sprang you. And you were responsible for the costs of being in prison -talk about hopeless. Described as somewhere between a jail and a dungeon, debtor’s prisons were hotbeds for typhoid fever, which subsequently cleared out the cells. There was no work to do with your time, so you just had to wait for payment to drop from the sky, a benevolent family member or typhoid to take you.

Anyway, I love the story of Fredric Tudor and admire his grit in the face of disaster after financial disaster. When you read my story, you’ll understand his influence.

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