Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ice by Appointment

by Geoff Woodland

What do you think of when you see the word ice? Is it a high-speed European train (Inter-City Express) or some mind destroying addictive chemical? For most people it is frozen water, but for Frederic Tudor in 1806 it was the beginning of a new venture.

At twenty-two he had a vision to sell the pure frozen water from a lake and ponds outside Boston to the people of the French Caribbean colony island of Martinique. He was ridiculed by fellow traders, because they couldn’t imagine the ice surviving the month long voyage and the heat of the tropics. He failed to find any ship owner who was willing to carry his cargo of ice, so he bought his own brig for $4,750.

Tudor was not the first man to see the benefit of selling ice. There had been an ice trade in the 16th century. It had been harvested from the mountains around the Mediterranean, where they were high enough to retain snow through the summer months. Donkeys transported this snow and ice, which was packed in straw baskets for the journey to the coast.

In South America this ‘cold’ trade flourished wherever the locals had access to high mountains, again with summer snow, and a demand for the product in local towns near the coast. In India they collected ice in a different way. The hills and mountains around Calcutta were too far away for the ice to be carried to the coast before it melted, so they used to boil water and placed a small amount in earthenware jars which were placed in pits packed with straw. During the night the cold wind would cause a thin film of ice (slush) on top of the water.

Huge numbers of natives were required to harvest this slush and transport it to ice houses to keep for the hotter months. This system was very expensive and it was estimated that 2,000 workers working on a huge tract of land could collect 25 to 30 tons of ice a night. During the summer it would only be available for a few weeks, and sold at around 4 pence for a pound.

In 1834 Frederick Tudor shipped clean fresh Boston ice to the British in Calcutta and offered it for sale at 3 pence per pound. He made a fortune. Remember the ice was free, because nature supplied him with virtually endless amounts during the Boston winters. Later, as a trial, he shipped apples and butter along with the ice, to see if the fruit and other foodstuff would survive the voyage; the food did survive the voyage.

In 1806 the US exported 130 tons of ice; by 1856 they exported 146,000 tons of clean sparkling ice. It is noted that Queen Victoria enjoyed Boston ice. Her majesty’s ice was not supplied by Tudor, but by one of his rivals.

Tudor was a trader, with his cousin, who persuaded him to go in to coffee futures in 1831. Frederick committed himself to buying between five and six million pounds of coffee, which was about 15% of the annual consumption in the US at that time. He did not have to outlay any cash, but he was required to put up the ice business as surety.

The population of America at that time was expanding at around 750,000 people a year, and they all liked coffee. At the beginning coffee prices were rising at between 20 and 30% a year, so he kept buying to the tune of $250,000, plus the assets of the ice venture.

By the end of 1834 he began to realise that his coffee ventures were not going as well as he planned. Toward the end of the year his cousin, who had persuaded him to go in to coffee futures, went bankrupt owing $200,000. Tudor had bought and sold seven million pounds of coffee and still had 500,000 pounds left. He knew he would have to sell at a loss and he anticipated this loss to be around $175,000; it was in fact $210,000.

He still had his ice business, which was expanding in India from Calcutta to Bombay (now called Mumbai) and Madras (now called Chennai), and he was making about $40,000 a year profit. He persuaded his creditors to allow him to run his ice business and he would repay his debts with interest. Fortunately for Tudor they agreed.

By 1849 he had paid his coffee debt, plus interest, which amounted to $280,000. In addition he had become a very wealthy man and had created a whole new industry.

His wealth was not just due to the selling of ice, but was linked to the value of his land that he had bought along the shoreline of lakes and ponds to protect his access to ice. An acre of land was bought for $130 on the shoreline of Fresh Pond, Tudor was offered $2000 for just part of his Fresh Pond holding. Frederick Tudor died on the 6th February 1864 at the age of eighty.

I read about Tudor some years ago, and the ice trade was always in the back of my mind. When I wrote Triangle Trade (published by Pen and Sword of the UK ), which is about a Liverpool slave-trading family, I used certain aspects of the ice trade in the story. It is surprising how many readers have commented about how the ice trade was used in Triangle Trade. The original title of Triangle Trade was Ice King. The current publisher changed the title, so if you see Ice King as an e-book, it is the same story.


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Geoff Woodland was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, to English /Welsh parents. He grew up with the smell of the sea and the sound of deep-sea ships plying their trade from Liverpool to the world. He emigrated, with his wife Maureen, and his two children to Melbourne, Australia in 1980. He currently lives in Sydney.


  1. I remember my mother, who lived in Goole - a port - as a child, telling me that they used to buy ice in summer there. Always seemed amazing to ship such an ephemeral product.
    Then I also discovered ice houses in gardens, where it could be kept for months..

  2. Yes, in England, at least, ice houses were built, partially underground and lined with bales of straw. The ice was chopped from frozen rivers or wherever it could be found and stored well into the summer.