Ice is one of those little “necessities” of life that we take for granted. Many of you can press a button and get ice from your refrigerator door. Or open the door and retrieve perfectly shaped ice crescents made by an ice maker. I still do many things the old fashioned way, so each morning as the coffee maker starts dripping, I empty the eight ice trays that I keep in the freezer. Sometimes in July and August I do this little chore three times a day. That doesn’t even count as effort compared to the lengths our ancestors went to in order to keep food and drinks cold.
The use of ice has been popular for centuries, but it was “natural” ice. Ice cut from ponds and other sources was stored in containers, and even shipped to other areas, but of course it didn’t last long. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Frederick Tudor and Nathaniel Wyeth came up with new ways to cut and store ice so it could be shipped efficiently. They improved losses from 66% down to 8%. Here are some other surprising statistics from an article in History Magazine:
“Natural ice supply became an industry unto itself — and a large one at that. More companies entered the business, prices decreased, and refrigeration using ice became more accessible. By 1879 there were 35 commercial ice plants in America, more than 200 a decade later, and 2,000 by 1909. In 1907, 14-15 million tons of ice were consumed, nearly triple the amount in 1880. No pond was safe from scraping for ice production, not even Thoreau’s Walden Pond, where 1,000 tons of ice were extracted each day in 1847.”
Natural ice soon became a health hazard as pollution crept into it. Fewer good sources could be found so industry turned to mechanical refrigeration. Some of the first refinements were actually made for the beer industry, later followed, somewhat reluctantly, by the beef and milk industries.
Once ice became a manufactured product it was easier to regulate and supply. Ice manufacturing is still a big industry. People buy bags of ice for parties, camping trips, making ice cream, or just when they expect a few extra guests. We’re all accustomed to using as much ice as we want, whenever we want it. There are even different kinds of ice. I love crushed ice!
Of course mechanical refrigeration changed the way everything was made and stored and shipped. It even changed the way our grandmothers cooked. No longer did they have to carefully cook only enough for one meal. Ever wonder why our grandmother’s were so adamant about a “clean plate”. I think it was because their grandmothers told them anything left on their plate had to be thrown out! Refrigeration changed all of that.
Ice was still a precious commodity during my grandmother’s time. Ice wagons delivered ice for the “ice box” in order to keep food from rotting. It wasn’t wasted on cold drinks very often. I think that must be why my grandmother loved to fill her glass with so much ice once she was an adult with a modern refrigerator. Of course her first “modern” refrigerator only had room in the freezer for about two ice trays and not much else. There weren’t many frozen foods on the market until after 1930. The fifties were the heyday of frozen food. We were so excited by “TV dinners”. My grandmother had metal TV trays and we actually ate in front of her little television.
Remember metal ice trays? That’s what grandmother used until I was well into adulthood. They had those release levers that wouldn’t budge unless you ran a little water over them first. Then you couldn’t store the ice in anything because it would stick together. So you used one tray at a time. Luckily they froze rather quickly. And grandmother also had a metal pitcher and tumblers- they kept lemonade so very cold!
My dad preferred chipped ice over ice cubes. There were two ways to achieve this- buy blocks or freeze your own. When I was little we often went to a local ice company and bought ice in huge blocks. There was a big machine in front. Dad would let me put in the quarter, then we listened for the rumbling sound as the ice block slid down a long shoot. We’d take it home, chip it into about four pieces and put those into the tiny freezer compartment of our refrigerator. That was the best ice, especially for making ice cream.
When we got a fridge with a bigger freezer we froze ice in an old sauce pan. The ice had to be chipped before every meal. That was my job. I’d rinse the pan so the block of ice would release, put the block in a metal strainer, and then chip at it with an ice pick until all the slivers were small enough to fit into a glass. It usually took at least ten or fifteen minutes to chip a block of ice. Even though my dad now uses ice trays- plastic ice trays- like the rest of us, I would bet he still has a big bucket of ice in his freezer and he could find his ice pick if you asked him for it.
We complain a lot about our lives. Our expectations and our comfort level has changed so much, even during my lifetime. Ice was one of the few comforts of my childhood summers. I can’t remember ever having air conditioning- at home or in a car. My grandmother had the first evaporative cooler I ever saw. Perhaps that’s why I’m still grateful for little things that make my life easier. At a time when every ten year old expects to have a cell phone and an iPod it helps my perspective to reflect on the simple pleasures- like ice cubes in lemonade. Enjoy!