Ice Ships and Ice Trade - the Slow Birth of an Industry

Ice Ships and Ice Trade - the Slow Birth of an Industry
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Birth of the Ice Ships

The first ice ship, or at least the one whose journey began an industry, was the Favorite - a brigantine purchased by a man named Frederic Tudor to carry a cargo of ice from Boston Harbor in the United States to the port of Martinique in the Caribbean.

Frederic Tudor was surely not the first man to come up with the idea of shipping ice from frigid climes to more tropical latitudes where ice doesn’t naturally form on a regular basis, but he certainly functioned as a determined investor in the idea. Along with his brother and cousin, Tudor determined that a market could be created for ice and that a determined company could control a monopoly share of ice from the United States shipped to the Caribbean.

While his initial attempt ended in a financial loss, subsequent attempts were so successful that Tudor became known as the “King of Ice,”and his company’s ice ships plied the seas all the way to Calcutta in India.

Image: Wiki Commons

Ice Ships Challenges

Soon ice shipping became common as entrepreneurs realized the profits that could be garnered from sending as useful a substance as frozen water to regions that had no natural supply. The Kennebeck River in Maine proved to be an excellent source of ice, as did the famous Walden Pond, and the ice formed during the cold months could be cut by teams and stored in dockside warehouses prior to being shipped in the cargo holds of virtually any vessel.

There were, of course, technical challenges to overcome during the process of developing standard practices for ice ships to follow. The first was keeping the ice from melting for as long as was feasible- a key consideration when calculating prices and profits- and maximizing the distance to which the ice could be shipped. Ice ship captains soon found that simple sawdust applied liberally between and around blocks of ice served as an excellent form of insulation that could keep the ice whole even on the long journey from Boston to India.

An equally significant and less easily solved problem was making the ice stable and harmless to the ship’s hold. Ice is quite slippery, and ships at sea are prone to being caught in storms even in an era of advanced weather forecasting. In the nineteenth century, heavy seas had to be anticipated, and large, heavy, rather sharp chunks of ice could easily shift violently and damage or even destroy the hull of an ice ship. As a result, many captains were wary of taking on a consignment of ice.

Solving the Shifting Ice Problem

It was an employee of Frederic Tudor who is credited with discovering a practical, replicable solution to the slippery ice conundrum. What he did was build a device that would make parallel cuts in the surface of an ice field that were a predictable distance apart. Cutting several inches into the ice in a checkerboard pattern, the furrows thereby created would guide heavier cutting equipment powered by men or horses that would cut through the ice down to the water beneath. Once complete, the uniform ice block could be pulled from the field and shipped out as cargo in one of the ice ships.

This uniformity both increased the amount of ice that could be shipped in a vessel’s hold (cubes being easier to stack evenly than uneven chunks) and also served to make the shipped ice pack tighter together, preventing any shifts during transport. When coupled with six or so inches of sawdust applied around the ice, the ice shipment could be made safely and reliably to ports all the way in India.

Optimizing the Ice Ships: New Markets, New Shipping Strategies

Ice Conveyor

The ice ships benefited from several other innovations that improved the efficiency of transshipping ice across the seas. First, ice harvested from rivers and other bodies of water in the US northeast needed to be readily available to cargo carrying vessels preparing to sail, and also needed to be kept in ice form while being loaded and waiting dockside. The construction of dedicated ice houses both at shipping and receiving ports helped improve the loss rate due to melting. Coupled with the ability to pack more ice in a cargo hold, the price per unit of shipped ice dropped to a third of the original price.

Another innovation that helped increase the efficiency of the ice ships was coupling ice shipments with shipments of perishable goods like fruit and vegetables. A natural refrigerant, ice packed into a cargo hold could keep foodstuffs cold through long journeys. This increased the profitability of each shipment, which contributed to the fortunes of both the companies hiring the ice ships and the ship captains and crew themselves.

In addition, new markets were developed. At the start of the ice trade, many customers weren’t quite sure what to do with their ice. But aside from cooling drinks, in India ice became a valuable medical commodity. India and other regions with tropical climates were wracked with diseases that could cause lethal fevers, and ice became the “go to” remedy for cooling the bodies of people suffering from fevers.


The End of the Ice Ships

By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the ice ships were falling out of favor due to the introduction of mechanical refrigeration and the ability to manufacture ice on the spot, without incurring shipping costs. But during their heyday, the ice ships carried a vital cargo far afield, and in many regions the family ice box became a household item used to take advantage of this new and longed for novel product.

The legacy of the ice ships is that they were crucial in establishing ice not as merely a luxury, but an expected staple of everyday life. Indeed, the very recognition that ice was such a useful substance came about as a direct result of the efforts of the ice ship captains, crews, and owners who took the financial and physical risks involved in shipping ice across the world. And it can fairly be said that the recognition of ice as an essential in everyday life drove later innovations in artificially manufactured ice, which each of us now takes for granted as a product of our modern freezers.


The Ice King: Hamilton, Neil A., American History Vol. 35 Issue 4, October 2000

The Impact of Refrigeration: Barbara Krasner-Khait

Kennebec (Maine) Ice: How the Humble Ice Cube Made Business History, Caroline Jordan

Bureau of Labor and Statistics Annual Report Volume 21: Maine Ice Industry: L.C. Ballard