The History of Ice

Chilling food has been a necessity since ancient times, and ice itself has been a luxury for almost as long. At Just Ice, we find the history of ice fascinating and want to share some of the highlights.  We hope you gain a new appreciation of cold drinks, refrigerated and frozen food, and other items we enjoy every day that are only possible because of ice!

The Early Days of Ice

Thousands of years ago—between 1000-2000 BCE—people discovered that they could make their food last longer by storing it at cold temperatures. The ancient Mesopotamians developed the most common form of storage called “ice pits” that evolved into “Yakhchāl” in Persia. These large dome-shaped clay structures had a hole on the top and a vaulted ceiling over the ice pit. Water from the ice would evaporate and cling to the walls of the dome to cool the air inside.

Ice pits led the way to rudimentary ice houses recorded in China as early as the seventh century. Third century Rome was also reported to have “snow shops” where packed snow and ice harvested from the mountains could be purchased.

The First Iced Drinks

The practice of putting ice in drinks for enjoyment in the Western world dates back to the Roman Emperor Nero (37-67 A.D.) who drank iced refreshments laced with honey. Chilled drinks were also part of the Tang dynasty in China, and the early Islamic world. In India, Mughal emperors drank kulfi, a drink made from condensed milk frozen into molds. This drink was made possible by mixing ice with salt, lowering the freezing point below that of water. When liquids were immersed in this mixture, ice crystals formed and frozen foam resulted.

The Ice Trade

Ice pits paved the way for the ice trade of the 19th century. Ice was cut from the surfaces of ponds and streams, stored in ice houses, then sent by ships, barges or railroad to its final destination. Ice wagons distributed the ice to commercial and domestic destinations. This started on the east coast of the U.S. and in Norway.

In 1806, Frederic Tudor shipped ice to the Caribbean hoping to sell it to the wealthy. Over time, he added more countries to his routes, and the ice trade began to change the face of industry. Now meat, fish, fruit and vegetables could be shipped in chilled refrigerator cars. At its peak at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. ice trade employed an estimated 90,000 people in a $28 million industry ($660 million in 2010 terms).

Meanwhile, the ice industry was evolving, thanks to the invention of modern refrigeration. James Harrison, a British journalist, invented the first practical vapor compression refrigeration system in 1856. Other inventors followed improving on each system.  With the invention and distribution of home refrigeration, “the ice trade” came to an end. Today, ice is occasionally harvested for crystal clear ice sculptures and ice festivals, but little remains of the 19th-century industrial network of ice houses and transport facilities.

The Ice Industry Today

Even though large-scale ice manufacturing and production aren’t what they once were, the ice industry has managed to reinvent itself in new and creative ways. Modern day innovations in ice production are related to refrigerant gases and materials used to house them. Today’s ice manufacturers supply a range of businesses including grocery stores, seafood companies, industrial cleaning companies, ice carvers, shippers, bars and restaurants. The Amish, without the use of electricity, are reliant on ice to store their food (similar to the Mesopotamians). Even concrete pourers offer a market for ice! Block ice can be added to the tumbler trucks in the summer to keep the liquid concrete at a cooler temperature.

Today most people don’t think about ice, unless they don’t have it. Just try giving someone a glass of warm water!  However, there are many types of ice and many ways to manufacture it, each with its own story.  Just Ice is proud to offer products with such a rich and varied history!


Image credit: Pleistocene of Northern Spain showing woolly mammoth, cave lions eating a reindeer, tarpans, and woolly rhinoceros. Mauricio Antón – from Caitlin Sedwick (1 April 2008). “What Killed the Woolly Mammoth?”. PLoS Biology 6 (4): e99. DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060099.

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