We take our ice for granted these days – especially when it shoots out of the dispenser on the front of our high tech home refrigerators or we buy a bag to fill the cooler we are taking to the beach. This wasn’t always the case. Not so terribly long ago, residents had to order block ice from an ice plant and have it delivered by an “iceman” on a regular basis.

“Natural” ice is a result of harvesting ice in the winter from frozen lakes, ponds, and rivers in the north and storing it in icehouses through the summer.  Frederick Tudor of Boston is credited with beginning the North American natural ice trade in 1805.  He started shipping natural ice blocks, stacked within wood shavings and sawdust for insulation, by ship or train.  By 1847 nearly 52,000 tons of natural ice traveled to twenty-eight cities across the United States, including the South.  Merchants like William Marsh Rice reportedly sent their ships from Galveston to Boston to pick up New England ice during warm Texas summers.

Ice Harvesting, courtesy of the Library of congress

Ice Harvesting, courtesy of the Library of congress

As the demand for ice grew, it could not be sustained through ice harvesting alone. Floridian John Gorrie, M.D. was granted the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851 for his invention of the first ice machine in 1845. In France in 1859, Ferdinand Carre patented an absorption process for making artificial ice. In 1873 David Boyle established the first ammonia compression plant for making artificial ice in Jefferson, Texas.  The method was labor intensive and the use of ammonia was dangerous. In 1876 a Swiss inventor named Raoul Pictet introduced an ice making machine that utilized a vaporization and expansion process using the less expensive and less hazardous substance anhydrous sulphurous acid.

Soon this new business enterprise took root in Houston. By 1877 Elisha Hall and R.R. Everett established the Houston Ice Manufacturing Company. In 1879 the Pictet Ice Company brought Raoul Pictet’s new technology to Houston. Subsequently, a newcomer to Houston, Hugh Hamilton, bought the ice factory owned by Wiggin & Simpson and renamed it the Crystal Ice Manufacturing Company. Utilizing his experience as a boilermaker and pipefitter, he modernized the plant and improved the ice making process to the extent that it could produce five tons of ice per day which he turned around and sold for 10 cents a pound.

Ice Wagon, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Ice Wagon, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Most ice plants produced 300 pound blocks of ice which measured approximately four feet by two feet by one foot. Once made, block ice was delivered to homes and commercial businesses, first by mule or horse-drawn wagons and later by automobiles and trucks. Homeowners would place a card in the front window showing how many pounds of ice were needed that day. The iceman would use an ice pick to chop off the desired amount, usually 25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds and use tongs to carry the block into the house and put it in a household appliance called an ice box.

The Ice Man, Courtesy of  Sloane Gallery

The Ice Man, Courtesy of Sloane Gallery

On a commercial basis, certain businesses began to boom with the increased production of manufactured ice. Local farm produce could now be shipped long distances, theaters could cool their patrons by placing a block of ice before a fan to chill the air, and brew masters could expand their operations. Beer historically was a warm beverage, however lager beer is brewed in the winter and stored in cold conditions with a slow acting yeast.  In order to brew lager beer all during the year and not just in cooler months, brew masters had to rely on the production of manufactured ice. Breweries soon became the largest users of the new refrigeration technology.

In 1892 Hugh Hamilton founded the Houston Ice & Brewing Association Company and established the Magnolia Brewery.  By the turn of the twentieth century the company was producing 250 tons of ice per day and 200,000 barrels of beer annually..  Prohibition forced the brewery to limit its manufacturing to ice and to change its name to Houston Ice & Cold Storage. Hamilton attempted a conversion to a company that manufactured dairy products but the company was unable to survive and finally closed its doors in 1950.

Refrigeration technology continued to develop boundlessly in the twentieth century. The ice man and the delivery trucks disappeared.  The ice box was eventually replaced by the electric refrigerator and ice trays were supplanted by ice makers and dispensers.