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Hearth to Hearth: Ice

Hearth to Hearth: Ice – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2004

By Alice Ross

In the days when seasons rolled around and one’s life and livelihood changed accordingly, going against Mother Nature was an exciting and privileged thing to do. In the summer heat, a cool drink, ice clinking away, was a welcome treat for the great part of the population. The wealthy of antiquity had gone to great lengths to have it hauled down from fairly distant mountain tops, but colonial Americans, often benefiting from a more temperate climate, could use the natural ice at hand, and preserved it for summer use, both for kitchen and preservation needs. One had to work months in advance for a chilled July dessert, a sharp contrast to current, simplified lives in which refrigerator doors offer an unending supply, on demand.

Ice harvesting began almost immediately among the first settlers of the northern New World. The wealthy had brought their taste for ice, and dug ice pits in 16th-century Jamestown. For the next 200 years they were found as one of the many outbuildings on large estates and farms, where they were built as deep underground rooms that maintained temperature. The ice itself was cut in blocks from nearby frozen ponds or rivers. It is hard to imagine the vast numbers of work hours spent on ice provisioning — Monticello held 62 wagon loads — but no grand house — whether Jefferson’s or Washington’s rural estates, or the Philadelphian Bishop White’s urban mansion — went without. Enjoyed by most classes, ice had been a necessary addition to the the festive rum-punch bowl and was used to chill drinks in the pleasure gardens of Philadelphia.

The Ice Industry

The ice industry actually began in the late 1700s, as an enterprising entrepreneur cut ice in New York City and shipped it by boat to Charleston. The idea took hold, and was advanced throughout the 1800s by the invention of special equipment – ice plows (gigs, or horse-drawn cutters), scrapers, grapples, long handled one-man saws, chisels and hooks, and eventually loading ramps and conveyor belts. Clever advertising ploys and promotions made it an indispensable product to restaurants, taverns, and bars, and by mid-century, to the urban middle class in general.

Nineteenth-century ice harvesting began before the actual cutting. As soon as the ice was strong and thick enough to support horses and equipment, work forces cleared away the insulating snow, repeatedly if necessary, to encourage the formation of stackable, thicker blocks. When the ice was thick enough, the field was marked in squares (usually with a horse-drawn marker), scored slightly deeper, and finally the blocks were cut by hand with the use of large-toothed one-man saws. The blocks were floated to the large adjacent commercial ice house for stacking, or to a railroad loading ramp for shipping. The system proved workable and lasted throughout the century, the major change being the late introduction of rotary saws that would replace hand-cutting.

Nineteenth-century farms were part of the ice industry, but on a much smaller scale. Many farmers harvested ice for their own use. Sometimes they dug and lined relatively small stone ice-houses, deep covered pits sometimes as deep as 18 feet deep, and protected by small roofed above-ground structures. Later they built barn-like structures, partially or entirely above ground, with removable wall panels to help with the stacking. Cold temperatures were maintained by using insulating sawdust and salt hay, separating layers and filling the spaces between the ice stack and the walls. Even in summer very little was lost to melting. According to one memoir, the family ice house could routinely be depended on to keep ice until August 15; others, perhaps with better insulation, lasted into September. Once the ice was gone, people simply did without, reverting to the use of cool cellars and springs for refrigeration, at least until winter.

A farm endowed with a good pond or river served not only the family, its work (in the case of dairy farms and milk production), but nearby towns as well. Regular warm-weather delivery routes were established for town residents, their vacationing boarders, and, by the end of the century, local local ice cream and soda parlors.

Despite the relatively small scope of ice houses on average farms, an immense amount of labor was still needed to fill them, and in many communities it was only possible if farmers worked cooperatively. In many ways similar to the neighborly sharing of work of barn-raisings and grain harvesting, farmers worked together first on one ice field and then another until all the local icehouses were supplied. Using horses and sleighs, it was hauled and unloaded, pushed up a plank to the door, and then down to the group below who packed it in evenly, row by row. This annual process was, for many, a highly social, extended winter event, properly observed with lots of gaiety and ample hot food.

Urban residents of America’s major cities consumed substantial amounts of ice. Early 19th-century travelers to New York noted its universal use in public eating places, taverns and restaurants, confectionaries, and homes. In the streets one heard the cries of ice vendors announcing their presence, each with a unique and identifiable chant or song. In one early 20th century street cry the ice man himself was teased with: “Hey ice man, have you got ice today?” And the “Hokey-Pokey Man,” often Italian and vending from a long Italian tradition, sold ice cream from a double-walled ice cart.

Ice in the Kitchen

When ice became more widely available, ice boxes were not far behind (actually the first models were called “refrigerators”). At first they were low chests with top-lifting lids (circa 1830). Later in the century they were converted to upright models in which an upper compartment held the ice and disseminated cold air to adjoining compartments and shelves. The ice melted slowly, and the water was directed through a tube to a pan positioned on the floor underneath. Disposing of the melt water worked if the routine was kept faithfully. Everyone had stories about the times they neglected to empty the pan on time; I myself lived with an ice box during my early years of housekeeping and came home to a flood more than once.

Deliveries were commonly scheduled every other day. The homemaker left a card in the door or window, instructing the iceman how much to leave. Some of these cards were divided into areas according to pounds (25, 50, etc.) and a moving needle could be swung around to point to the desired amount. Delivery men were known for their brawn, as they hauled heavy blocks of ice all day long, and often up flights of stairs. They often had access to the kitchen when no one was home, and they simply placed the ice appropriately. Some city apartments used a suspended box (a small version of the ice box) outside the kitchen window, its contents available to the cook through the raised window; others kept an ice chest outdoors on the porch, or a handsome oak refrigerator in the kitchen. Ice wagons were the delight of children playing in summer’s heat; it was a good day when the iceman dropped his ice tongs and used his ice pick to chop a small piece of ice for someone to suck on.

The latter half of the 19th century was filled with attempts to perfect manufactured ice methods. The Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company (1868) appears to have been the first one to operate regularly, one of its claims being a price considerably lower than that of natural ice. Others followed. By 1925 factory-made ice had entered the realm of big business, and natural ice had become a thing of the past.

With ice so plentiful, changing culinary fashion exploited it in all kinds of chilled and frozen desserts. Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) contained a full chapter entitled “Cold Desserts” (68 recipes), and another, “Ices, Ice Creams, and other Frozen Desserts” (61 recipes). In 1914 Linda Hull Larned published a cookbook entirely devoted to the new ice-centered genre, a small volume entitled One Hundred Cold Desserts. Her direction, in Sponge and Fruit Cake Cream (English Trifle), to put the dessert “on ice” was understood literally. There were more and more uses for ice, and more spin-off equipment. The 1904 World’s Fair (St. Louis) introduced iced tea; a number of different ice cream makers for home use were marketed in the latter 1800s, probably the most famous being the White Mountain hand-crank bucket style. Electric refrigerators and freezers would seriously hurt the ice industry. Although the first models were marketed before 1920, it would be a while before everyone had them, and ice therefore continued in use, although decreasingly.

Today we tend to take ice for granted. Perhaps the only moment we pay it full attention is when it has been sculpted, perhaps entered in competitions at winter festivals, or as the centerpiece of a handsomely set table. It is incredibly hard to imagine life without it.


The following recipe just sounds good as a mid-winter pick-me-up. Gregory ‘s chapter, “Ice-Creams, Ices and Sherbets” begins with general instructions on freezing, noting that a four-quart hand-crank freezer will need ten pounds of ice and two quarts of rock salt. Her Lemonade calls for cracked ice, and her Iced Buttermilk for shaved ice, suggesting that ice working tools were owned by many households.

Recipe: Lemonade

Lemonade should be made in the proportion of one lemon to each large goblet. Squeeze the lemons and take out any seeds. If you do not like the pulp, strain the juice. Sweeten the drink well, though that is a matter of taste. The pleasant tart taste should be preserved. Add water to the glass and when serving put cracked ice and a thin slice of lemon into each glass.

Recipe: Ginger Ice-Cream – from Annie R. Gregory, Woman’s Favorite Cook Book, 1902.

Take one-quarter of a pound of preserved ginger, cut it into very thin slices, using a silver knife, put them into a saucepan with a pint of cream — or a pint of milk boiled and mixed with the yolks of six eggs — one half pound of sugar, and two tablespoons of the ginger syrup. Stir the mixture over the fire until it thickens a little, then strain through a sieve. Pour into a mold and when the cream is cold, freeze in the ordinary way. Keep in ice till wanted.

Recipe: Iced Buttermilk

There is no healthier drink than buttermilk, but it must be fresh and rich to be good. It should be kept on ice and just before serving a little shaved ice put into each glass will improve it still more.

Recipe: Sponge and Fruit Cake Cream (English Trifle) – from Linda Hull Larned, One Hundred Cold Desserts, 1914.

Line mould with a layer of cake, sprinkle with sherry, and spread with jelly, fill with alternate layers of fruit cake soaked in brandy, macaroons, minced almonds, and jelly, fill with whipped cream, and cover with another layer of cake. Put on ice 2 hours, turn out, and garnish with whipped cream dusted with the nuts.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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