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A True Story

by Gavin Weightman

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2003
ISBN: 0-7868-6740-X
Publisher: Hyperion

British journalist Weightman brings back the days when an icebox was truly an ice box.

At the turn of the 19th century, a young Boston entrepreneur named Frederic Tudor thought he might be able to turn a dime if he could get the ice that formed on a local pond to the West Indies to cool their drinks and make ice cream. As Weightman relates the tale (in a voice as soothing as that ice was for the West Indians), Tudor created the trade from the bottom up. He put together teams to harvest the ice, built icehouses to store the goods, arranged for a monopoly, then shipped the ice south. It was a slippery slope at first, and returns were meager until they had ironed out the kinks; Tudor suffered both a nervous collapse and visits from the sheriff's debt collectors before the trade took root. But gradually, ice became indispensable in places like New Orleans, Havana, and—remarkably, if you are unfamiliar with the thermodynamics of ice—India. The 16,000-mile, 130-day voyage that brought this cooling godsend to the British Raj “furthered the reputation of New England merchants as ingenious and benevolent entrepreneurs.” While Weightman spends most of his time detailing the vicissitudes of the Tudor family trade, he also pays close attention to the development of our understanding of how ice behaves, the evolving design of icehouses, the creation of name brands, and the death of the industry, which had a lot less to do with the spread of electrification (iceboxes were still much in evidence in rural America until the 1950s) than it did with pollution: as early as 1907, Hudson River ice promised not just a kiss of cold, but probably a dose of typhoid bacteria as well.

A fascinating and vast industry, melted away as completely as an ice cube on a summer sidewalk, but delightfully preserved here. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)