Just this week and thanks to gaining a new book-publishing client, I was able to complete the purchase of a new refrigerator-freezer. Oh, the old one was staggering along OK, still keeping the refrigerated foods cold and the frozen food frozen … but there were so many dissatisfactions with it, including the fact that it had such deep shelves that in cleaning it out we discovered an embarrassingly large number of jars of condiments whose best-if-sold-by-date were well into the previous decade … not to mention a couple of Rubbermaid containers with leftovers in them that we had quite forgotten about. Well, out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Truly, I don’t like to waste leftovers, but in this case, we had a good clean-out and as of now are resolved to do better, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die. The new and larger refrigerator-freezer has relatively shallow and many adjustable shelves in its various compartments; so that we dearly hope that the buried-at-the-back-of-a-deep-shelf-and-totally-forgotten-about syndrome will be banished entirely.
Anyway – enough of my failings as a thrifty housekeeper; the thing that I was marveling on this afternoon was that the new refrigerator-freezer has an automatic ice-maker. Better than that – an automatic ice-maker and ice-water dispenser in the door, and a small light which winks on when depressing the lever which administers ice (in cubes or crushed) and ice-water and then gradually dims once released. And if all that is a small luxury compared to the previous refrigerator-freezer, it is a huge luxury compared to the electric ice-box that made my Granny Jessie’s work and food-storage capabilities somewhat lighter than those of her own mother. It’s monumental, even – and no one thinks anything of it today, unless the electricity goes off.
Did the farm in Lionville have an ice-box, and a deliveryman with an insulated cart who came around every couple of days with a pristine block of pure water-ice? Or did the ancestral farm harvest ice in winter from their pond, and save it through summer, packed in sawdust and sheltered in a subterranean, insulated ice house? One or the other, according to the decade as it seems that Americans early on had an appreciation for ice. The heat in summers over much of the continent likely had something to do with it, that and the ingenuity of Yankee entrepreneurs, who not only thought of harvesting ice from pristine mountain lakes, but developed the industrial systems to do so (very labor-intensive it turned out to be), of expeditiously packing and transporting it by the ship-load, and marketing it all around the world … where it turned out to be an insanely popular and sought-after commodity, although very expensive. (There was such a thing as Yankee ice speculators, pray tell? Indeed, it seems that there was. Fortunes were made in ice beginning quite early in the 19th century.) Queen Victoria was reported to prefer Wenham Lake ice – so clear that the agents for it in London would put a block of it in their window with a newspaper behind it, so that people in the street could read the newspaper through the ice. Wenham Lake ice was preferred for use where it was actually consumed, as in drinks. Lesser stuff was loftily condemned as only fit to keep other items cold.
Ice became almost a survival rather than a luxury item in 19th century India, where the heat was even more merciless. And Wenham Lake ice was particularly valued in that sweltering climate. Even Kipling made note of it, in the short story ‘The Undertakers’ - in the Second Jungle Book, where three scavengers (a crocodile, a jackal and a carrion-eating stork converse at the waterside of an Indian village.)
“The Adjutant had done his very best to describe his feelings after swallowing a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice, off an American ice-ship, in the days before Calcutta made her ice by machinery; but as he did not know what ice was, and as the Mugger and the Jackal knew rather less, the tale missed fire.”
Ice was also valued in Texas; astonishingly, even before the Civil War there was a thriving small distribution of that precious commodity during the summer months. One distribution node was centered on the ephemeral port city of Indianola, the Queen City of the Gulf, which lasted a bare half-century before being body-slammed with two hurricanes, the second coming ten years after the first, just in time to totally wreck all that had been gamely rebuilt after the first. One of the buildings which survived the second hurricane was an enormous, landmark ice-storage warehouse, the second-sturdiest building in town with double-thick walls. When the city fathers sadly decided to abandon Indianola after the second hurricane, the icehouse was floated across Matagorda Bay, taken ashore and moved inland on rollers, where it was converted into a two-story residence for a local family. Even to today, in this part of Texas a certain kind of neighborhood small grocery/restaurant/soda fountain is still called an icehouse – because the ice merchant diversified, selling cold drinks, groceries and beer.
Amazing, how once was once an expensive and sought-after luxury, and which provided a pretty large element of industry to the north-eastern United States, shipped all over the world … is now to be had at the push of a lever on a refrigerator door. I think I will go have another ice-cold drink.
(Cross-posted at my book blog, www.celiahayes.com and at www.ncobrief.com)