Frederic Tudor's World-Changing Idea: Sell Ice

By Wesley Fenlon

Frederic Tudor had a simple vision: Ship ice across the globe, turn a profit. It worked, and changed the world.

It's hard, now, to imagine a world without ice--giant cases full of ice churning non-stop at even the dingiest motels, ice bagged and waiting outside every convenience store, ice conveniently crushed and dispensed from the fronts of our refrigerators. There was always ice at the poles, of course, but it wasn't exactly accessible. Two hundred years ago, if you didn't live somewhere it got awfully cold during the winter, ice was a rare and precious commodity. That's mostly what makes the story of Frederic Tudor so fascinating--in the early 1800s, he figured he could get rich selling ice across the world, so he set out to do it.

And it worked. After about 20 years. The Atlantic's chronicle of the tale covers Tudor's early ambition to ship ice thousands of miles from Massachusetts to the tropics and other parts of the world and the advances that eventually made him a rich man. At first, people scoffed at his idea, assuming the ice would melt on long voyages to warmer climates. It did.

So Tudor packed it tighter and used sawdust for insulation, and the ice lasted longer. Nathaniel Wyeth helped Tudor grow his business by coming up with an alternative to hand-sawed ice (imagine cutting chunks of ice out of frozen New England ponds all day--slow, laborious, and expensive). Wyeth used a horse-drawn plow to carve up frozen lakes and "mass produce" more convenient blocks of ice.

And Tudor was a smart businessman; as The Atlantic writes, he "first gave away his ice for a drug dealer...then charged once people were hooked. After people tried their drinks cold, they could 'never be presented with them warm again,' Tudor wrote.

Tudor's own history is fascinating, but so is the way he affected the world. The availability of ice improved food preservation and changed the kinds of foods and drinks people consumed on a regular basis (hello, ice cream). Artificial ice didn't take over the majority of the ice trade until the 1900, when cities grew, demand increased, and pollution became increasingly problematic. Long after refrigeration could produce ice, the Queen of England still drank from Walden Pond.