Frederic Tudor was the creator of the ice-shipping business out of New England in the 1800s. He was born September 4, 1783 in Massachusetts, and spent summers on Rockwood, a family farm outside Boston. Like others wealthy enough to afford it, his family had an icehouse which was stocked in January and February with ice cut from a frozen pond, and stored for months until it could be used to cool things in the summer. This process had been reasonably common in Europe for millennia.
Tudor, a drop-out from Boston Latin School, was sent to keep his brother John Henry company on a voyage to Havana, Cuba for the latter's health. Their visit was pleasant at first, but the heat drove them crazy, and no relief was gotten by moving on to Charleston, South Carolina and then north to Virginia. John Henry died soon after their return to their home state, but life went on after a period of mourning, and Frederic (or possibly another Tudor brother, William) had been inspired by the difficulty of dealing with the southern heat. Boston was a great shipping center, and often ships bringing imports to the city needed to pick up ballast to fill the holds, keeping the ships stable when they sailed away. Why not ship blocks of ice to locations in the West Indies which had summers nearly unbearable by European and New England standards? He had been told by a friend of his mother's that timber from New England sometimes arrived by ship in the tropics with ice still on the wood, and knew that fishermen in England and Norway had used ice onboard to preserve their catches. With sufficient insulation and a protective covering, he thought he could ship ice with very little melting.
However, the general view of his idea by others was that it could not possibly work. The ice would melt, they felt, damaging any other cargo and imperiling the ship's stability. Tudor went ahead to the best of his ability, buying his own ship because no one else would allow the use of theirs, even taking the precaution of trying to arrange an official monopoly from the governments of the Caribbean islands that seemed the most likely markets. This was difficult, since most of the islands were colonies of some European power or other and U.S. relations with those countries were often in flux. Frederic sent his brother William and cousin James to Martinique in 1805 to set things up in advance; after a lot of back-and-forth and at least one bribe, they sent back to Frederick the news that the monopoly had been obtained from the Napoleonic government. There was bad weather in Boston -- the cold produced good ice on Rockwood Pond and other sources, but the same cold literally iced over Boston Harbor for a few days before the ship could depart on February 13, 1806. It arrived in Martinique in a quick twenty-one days, but ran into a snag -- William and James had not gone so far as to build or find a place to store the ice once it was unloaded. Frederic sold the ice off the ship, though this made the melting rate increase because the hold kept having to be opened. There really wasn't much demand for ice yet anyway; the people of Martinique were not used to having it available and thus didn't know what to do with it. He eventually left the last of the ice with a merchant and took up a cargo of sugar to take back to Boston, later calculating that he'd lost three to four thousand dollars on the trip total.
But Frederic Tudor did not give up. He spent the summer arranging more contacts with island bigwigs, and had icehouses built in St. Pierre, Martinique and Havana, Cuba. In early 1807, he sent off three shipment of ice to Havana and found a fairly good market with cafe owners who wanted to make ice cream and cool drinks. He sold six thousand dollars' worth, almost enough to cover his expenses; there would have even been a profit if he had been paid for the cargoes of molasses he was hired to ship back to New England. William Tudor was in England, trying to get permission to ship to British colonies (from officials who thought the operation must be a cover for a smuggling operation, because the shipments of ice were such a peculiar concept to them). Unfortunately, before a third year of shipping could begin, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson embargoed all shipments from leaving U.S. ports to demonstrate that the U.S. was neutral in European conflicts.
Though it must have been very frustrating, Frederic used the time to experiment with better insulation for the ice. His whole family's financial situation was sinking low, as his father's financial investments were failing too, and the ice still seemed to Frederic to be the best hope, even though he was dodging debtor's prison at times. Finally, the embargo was lifted and the Tudor Ice Company resumed its work. The 1810 shipping season made a profit -- only a thousand dollars, but it was a start. Rough times continued when the War of 1812 started and another embargo was put in place. Frederic tried to design a warship without success, and as soon as he could (November 1815) started shipping ice south again, with some new ideas for icehouses for the tropics. He now had a rival, a Spaniard named Carlos Goberto de Ceta, who claimed to be able to make an artificial coolant and render natural ice unnecessary. But de Ceta was eventually beaten because his product was not very good. Tudor was also able to change the insulation to sawdust and blankets in his Havana icehouse to reduce the amount lost to melting from fifty-six pounds to eighteen pounds per hour. This icehouse was also unusual in being entirely aboveground; traditional designs were dug in below ground level.
By 1816, Tudor was experimenting with shipping Cuban produce back to the U.S. with ice for refrigeration. This did not work out, but his ice business was looking good enough to U.S. observers that a friend of his father's offered to back him in expanding his shipments to Charleston, South Carolina. There he also started a subscription service where a household could get a regular supply of ice for ten dollars a month. He also started manufacturing home iceboxes to keep the ice at its coolest after purchase. The success of the Charleston outlet started to make up for the ups and downs of the Havana enterprise. He hoped to expand into Savannah, Georgia as well, though this was more difficult at first, as the wealthy people of that city tended to go stay on their country plantations during the summer. His regular shipments to Savannah started in 1819, and turned out fairly well because there was also some demand for ice in towns inland from Savannah which could be reached up the Savannah River. Warm winters did cause problems for him, though; he had storehouses in Boston where the winter's harvest could be stored for summer shipping, but when the weather did not create enough ice to fill them he was inclined to run out of ice. Once in August 1819, Tudor actually found a captain willing to harvest ice from an iceberg to replenish the exhausted Martinque icehouses.
With help from his two brothers, Frederic was able to start preparations to ship to New Orleans, Louisiana in Autumn 1820. Younger brother Harry was sent out to take charge of affairs there, and things turned out wonderfully -- Harry wrote back to Boston that sales were four times higher than expected. Frederick was overwhelmed with relief, because several disasters had happened in his other locations and this New Orleans venture was all that kept him from bankruptcy. He actually suffered a breakdown in the summer of 1821 and was cared for by his sister and brother-in-law, and after recovering, took a cruise on the advice of his physician (though this trip ended up being a year's stay in Havana fixing up things there while his brother-in-law Robert Gardiner looked after things in Boston).
After returning in 1823 to Massachusetts, Frederic bought an estate on Nahant Island to replace the old family one which had been sold. There he started to work with Nathaniel Wyeth, who had long been a supplier of ice to his business (as a sideline from Wyeth's family hotel outside Cambridge). Wyeth had been working on better ways to cut blocks of ice from the frozen ponds and lakes. Originally ice had been cut completely by hand with pickaxes, chisels, and saws. Wyeth's idea was to harness a horse to a blade which would cut the ice as the horse walked over the frozen surface. Later versions would also produce a parallel groove which would provide a track to follow for the next row cut. After cutting rows across the entire surface to be harvested, the horse team would then cut another set of rows perpendicular to the first, making a neat set of square blocks that could be stacked for storage much better than hand-cut blocks. The deeper cuts still had to be done by hand, but the "ice plow" speeded up the process considerably. Tudor was very impressed and offered Wyeth five hundred dollars a year to take charge of all the cutting and storing of ice for Tudor Ice Company. This increased harvest allowed ice to be sold not only in the hot areas, but in northern cities like Boston and New York.
During warm winters, Tudor and Wyeth started to go farther north, to Maine, for colder weather and better ice. Tudor also started other business, such as opening graphite and coal mines, and speculating in coffee (a relatively trendy beverage at the time) to even out his earnings when the weather wasn't optimal for ice. Wyeth spent a few years trying to set up trade links to Oregon, but eventually came back and rejoined the ice business. In 1834, Tudor married Euphemia Fenno, who was nearly thirty years younger; they would have six children.
But the really big step had come the year before; another Boston merchant approached Tudor with the idea of shipping ice to British colonies in India. The first ship to come to Calcutta with a cargo of ice arrived in September 1833; the people of the city had thought the news of American ice on the ship was a joke until they first saw it in front of them. The British government there was enthusiastic enough about the availability of ice that they declared the cargo duty-free and lifted the usual ban on unloading ships' cargo after dark, so that the ice would encounter less heat. The English people were so happy to have an additional help in keeping cool that a committee was formed to raise money to build a fancy stone icehouse for the city. Tudor's agent William Rogers was given a silver commemorative cup. The trade would soon be expanded to Madras and Bombay.
U.S. consumption of ice was also on the rise, and its profits kept Tudor afloat when his coffee speculation failed. New laws had to be set up to keep people from running into conflict over ice-cutting rights on any particular pond (the settlement was that each person who owned shoreline property owned a portion of the ice on the lake proportional to the fraction of the shoreline's length that was theirs. Tudor also was a pioneer in bringing railroads to New England to make the transport easier. By 1847, at least 52,000 tons of ice were shipped to U.S. destinations and 23,000 tons to foreign ports. Henry David Thoreau even mentioned ice-cutting on Walden Pond in his book Walden. Tudor had a lot of competitors now, but as the originator he was still called the "Ice King." (However, a competitor's brand name "Wenham Lake Ice," became the name most non-Americans attached to American ice -- to the point that some Norwegian ice-harvesters renamed one of their local lakes "Wenham Lake.")
Tudor was getting older and spent more and more time at his Nahant estate, where he was a local hero and the person named in magazine articles and encyclopedias as the only person responsible for the ice trade (despite Wyeth's contribution). Tudor also a started a little amusement park on his property; this drew Boston people to come out and pay five cents each to spend the day. This was mostly to amuse himself, as he did not need the money. His health gradually got worse, and he died on February 6, 1864. But the ice trade went on for more than forty years after his death until artificial refrigeration and manufacture of ice took over from the need to harvest and ship it, and his Nahant estate is now the Nahant Country Club.
Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story. New York: Hyperion, 2003.