On Ice

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)

9 thoughts on “On Ice”

  1. Often I reflect on how technology has redefined poverty. I can go to my freezer and get what a mere couple hundred years ago the richest in the world could not. My house is air conditioned. I’ve not time to describe the astonishing history behind that taken-for-granted technology. (One hint: freon and related refrigerants depend on commercial availability of flourine. The transition from that chemical being available as a rare, expensive lab curiosity vs available in commercial quantity depends on WWII’s atomic weapons program.)

  2. “and the ingenuity of Yankee entrepreneurs, who not only thought of harvesting ice from pristine mountain lakes”: as was done in ancient Persia, for example.

    Anyway, why on earth have shelves? Ours have drawers – far more sensible.

  3. It has drawers, too, Dearie – three on the refrigerator side, and slide-out shelves and a basket on the freezer side. It’s also about a third larger than the old one, and much more sensibly laid out.

  4. As it happens we’ve replaced our 15 year old fridge this week also. The old one had been working ok with the exception that, for the last 7 or 8 years, when the compressor turned off it sounded like someone hit a countertop in the kitchen with a pretty big hammer. BANG! I know it was a broken support and convinced Mrs. T. that all was well.

    Buying the new one was a depressing exercise. After doing some research I have come to the conclusion that there are no superior refrigerators made; only barely mediocre and worse models. A repeated thought in what other people say (and, indeed, my experience has been) is that it would not be unusual for a fridge bought post mid-20th century to last 20 or 30 years. Now it’s unheard of.

  5. I can’t find a link at the moment, but some city…I think it was Paris..had a centrally-provisioned home refrigeration service available back before self-contained home refrigerators became practical. A steam-engine driven compressor provided chilled water, which was piped to heat exchangers in the individual home refrigerators.

    Cloud-based refrigeration, in our current terminology!

  6. If it dispenses water, it has an internal filter. Don’t forget to get the serial no. and change it every six months.

  7. Could the slowly-dimming light be an anti-bacterial of some sort? I remember that being touted on some models. Ultra-violet, I believe.
    I have the refrigerator I bought upon renting the upper half of a duplex. In 1975. I have spent ~$30 for a replacement ‘cold control’ over the 39 years. Frigidaire currently makes nothing to compare.
    I have spent significantly over $1000 on repairs to the Sub-ZXXX, two compressors and two evaporators and a heat exchanger in addition to two ‘cold controls’.
    If you buy one of the fashionable 48″ wide models, be prepared for a new family member as you’ll not want to let it go when the time comes as replacement is so expensive. I keep telling myself, “the next time it breaks I’ll get something to replace it”, but filling in 12″ of open box with matching cabinetry or shelving is difficult.

  8. Thanks for the comments – yes, we have taken note of the filter and the necessity for changing it every 6 to 12 months. I don’t know about the dimming light – it does have a weirdly blue tint to it, which could be ultra-violet, I guess. I’m looking into getting another door bin – there is room for one, and we’d like to maximize the storage space within it.
    The old one still worked, fairly efficiently – but the molded door panels and the interior parts were starting to crack. I guess it could have worked for another decade or so, but it was so badly arranged and so hard to keep clean. I didn’t have custom cabinetry in the kitchen – just a gap between the edge of one counter and the pantry door, so adjusting for size wasn’t a problem.

    Now the next food-storage project involves that pantry closet, which – like the original refrigerator – was badly laid out. To the household shelving aisle at Lowes’ next month, here we come!

  9. Sgt Mom – automatic ice makers have been around since….I can’t remember.

    Just how old was your old refrigerator?

    But as Roy said, an appliance we take for granted when Kings and Queens couldn’t even imagine it.

    BTW I have a neighbor whose wife is a refrigerator pack-rat – a common malady it seems. You can go though her garage refrigerator and see stuff she bought on sale with an expiration date of – 7 years ago.

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