As far as get-rich-quick schemes are concerned, Frederic Tudor’s dream of developing a global ice business without the aid of artificial refrigeration has to be one of the most unlikely. In 1805, this 22-year-old Massachusetts native convinced himself he could make a fortune by shipping ice from Boston to the tropics. Of course, it was reasonable to assume there would be a market for ice in warm weather locales. But Tudor’s ambitious venture required overcoming a daunting challenge—namely, keeping his product from melting before customers had a chance to purchase it.
For decades, Tudor was ridiculed as he struggled to establish what seamen called the frozen-water trade, suffering through financial hardship, bankruptcy and several stints in debtor’s prison. Year after year, Tudor “harvested” ice in winter from Boston-area lakes and ponds, stored it in icehouses of his own design, and transported it in the insulated cargo holds of sailing ships, sending it to far-flung ports like Havana and Calcutta. In the book “The Frozen-Water Trade” (Hyperion), author Gavin Weightman recounts Tudor’s life story—how this fiercely determined entrepreneur ultimately realized his dream, becoming a wealthy man in the process.
The Iceman Cometh
Ironically, when Tudor first came up with the idea of supplying ice to warm weather cities, he was concerned about competitors moving to cash in on his big idea. That concern was alleviated when fellow merchants dismissed him as foolish and crazy. In fact, his concept was considered dangerous, as ship owners worried that ice would damage other cargo or even threaten the integrity of their ship. “Most ships carried a mix of cargo and it was a fear that melt water from ice would ruin anything else stored in the hold,” says Weightman.
Undeterred, Tudor bought his own vessel to carry the first load of ice 1,500 miles from Boston to the island of Martinique in 1806. Although a considerable amount of the ice melted during the three-week journey south, he did manage to sell much of what remained on board, proving not only that there was a market for ice, but that it might be of value to freight-carrying vessels departing from Boston. “The fact that the ship survived convinced other ship owners that ice could be worth carrying as ballast,” notes Weightman. “Massachusetts had nothing much to export and ships routinely loaded up with stones; ice at least paid a return,” he says.
Nevertheless, Tudor initially absorbed severe financial losses when three shipments to Havana the following year also failed to recoup. A prep-school dropout at the age of 13, Tudor had experienced a comfortable upbringing, but by the time his ice venture was underway the family had fallen on hard times, putting added pressure on Frederic to be successful. Although Tudor had his first profitable season in 1810 his personal debts far outweighed his income and he spent parts of 1812 and 1813 in debtor's prison.
However, every shipment became a learning experience and yielded new technological breakthroughs in shipping, storing and transporting the ice. After the harvest, Tudor would store his product in wooden icehouses with cavity walls to provide insulation. “Although hay was used, it was discovered that the best insulation was sawdust,” notes Weightman. Tudor was careful to insulate the holds of his ships in similar fashion, and under ideal circumstances constructed an icehouse at the destination point to preserve his product for as long as possible.
By 1816, Tudor was shipping ice from Massachusetts to Cuba with ever-increasing efficiency and decided to try his hand at importing Cuban fruit to New York. In August of that year, he borrowed three thousand dollars (at a 40 percent interest rate) to buy a shipload of limes, oranges, bananas and pears, preserving it with 15 tons of ice and three tons of hay. The experiment ended in disaster as virtually all the fruit rotted during the month-long voyage, leaving Tudor with several thousand dollars worth of new debt.
Still, he pressed on, opening up new markets in three southern U.S. cities—Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. Initially, Tudor had avoided the American market, fearing that ice wouldn’t be of interest in southern ports. Yet, his first forays into Charleston and Savannah proved that his product appealed to both rich and working class Americans. Typically, Tudor employed a marketing strategy common among modern-day drug dealers—building a client base by giving his ice away free, waiting for those who became hooked to return as paying customers.
By 1825, Tudor was living a comfortable existence on proceeds from ice sales, but the labor-intensive process of hand-cutting large blocks from frozen ponds and lakes limited the growth of the industry. In the mid-1820s, one of Tudor’s suppliers—a Bostonian named Nathaniel Wyeth—developed a more efficient method of cutting ice. Wyeth harnessed horses to a metal blade, which would cut the ice as the spike-shod horses clomped their way across the surface.
“The plow cut parallel grooves on the surface to form a lattice pattern of squares, then cut down into the grooves to mark out blocks about two feet square, which could be pried out with iron bars,” says Weightman. In essence, Wyeth’s ice plow made mass production a reality, as ice could now be harvested in much larger quantities. Moreover, plowed ice was easier to distribute to the public: “These large, neatly cut blocks lasted better than rough sawn ice and could be stacked in warehouses and ships more easily,” notes Weightman.
While Wyeth’s invention allowed Tudor to more than triple his production, the ice plow also reduced barriers to entry and a host of new competitors appeared, all jostling for real estate on Massachusetts lakes and ponds, especially those close to Boston. Ultimately, lines had to be drawn defining the ownership of waterways, with boundaries literally staked out during winter.
By the early 1830s, Tudor was weary of battling new competitors, not to mention the process of harvesting and transporting ice, which involved driving horse-drawn wagons along muddy, bumpy roads in cold, wet and windy conditions. Tudor decided to diversify his business interests and began speculating in coffee futures—buying enormous quantities of coffee beans in the hope that prices would later rise—using his ice business as collateral. Initially, coffee prices did rise and Tudor made millions of dollars, enabling the now wealthy entrepreneur to take a hands-off approach to his ice business, leaving underlings to do the dirty work. But before long the prospect of a daring joint venture rekindled Tudor's enthusiasm for the ice trade. In 1833, fellow Boston-based merchant Samuel Austin proposed a partnership in which Tudor would ship ice to India—16,000 miles and four months away from Massachusetts.
On May 12, 1833 the brig Tuscany sailed from Boston for Calcutta, its hold filled with ice cut during the previous winter. While the ship was en route, Tudor, now 49, met and fell in love with 19-year-old Euphemia “Effie” Fenno. With marriage on the horizon, his success as a coffee speculator, and the warm reception his ice would soon receive in India, everything finally seemed to be going well for Tudor. When the Tuscany approached the Gagnes delta in September 1833 many believed the delivery was an elaborate joke, but the ship still had 100 tons of ice upon arrival. Over the next 20 years, Calcutta would become Tudor's most lucrative destination, yielding an estimated $220,000 in profits.
But in 1834, Tudor’s speculation in coffee took a turn for the worse and he fell more than a quarter-million dollars in debt, forcing him to re-focus on the ice trade. By this time, the ice business had expanded from New York up through Maine, and the construction of new railroad lines allowed the process of transporting ice to become more efficient than ever. By the 1840s, ice was being shipped all over the world, and although Tudor was now just a small part of the trade, his profits allowed him to pay off his debts and resume living a comfortable existence.
Of course, with the influx of new suppliers, distributors looked for ways to distinguish their product from the competition. As with bottled water today, marketers sought to make purity and taste a selling point, and consumers became attached to particular brands, believing that there was something special about, say, ice from New York's Rockland Lake. In reality, Rockland Lake provided only a portion of the supply that went under that name, and consumers were sometimes duped into believing they were getting ice from a particular body of water.
As the ice trade expanded water purity became a greater concern, although no major health disasters appear to have been reported. “Medical officers began to raise the alarm in the 1880s when they took samples from well-used sources such as the Hudson River, which became polluted as towns grew. But when the industry was at its height, the clean rivers of Maine provided much of the East coast ice and inland lakes were cut to supply Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities,” explains Weightman.
By the last decade of Tudor's life, the ice industry had transformed America, re-defining the possibilities for food preservation, in turn helping to expand the brewing and fresh food industries. Even the development of refrigeration in the second half of the 19th century failed to slow the frozen-water trade, as artificial ice machines couldn't produce ice as fast or inexpensively as Mother Nature. Only unseasonably mild weather could roil the market, and warm winters in the Northeast resulted in so-called ice famines.
In the early 1900s, the natural ice industry finally began to decline, as the supply was increasingly polluted and consumers began to tire of what they now perceived as messy and inconvenient deliveries. The electric household refrigerator finally delivered the knockout blow, as it offered convenient and inexpensive ice at a moment's notice.
Nevertheless, Tudor had long since proved everyone wrong, becoming fabulously wealthy in the process. Apparently, the inscription on the front cover of his first diary were his words to live by: “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love or business.” Words to live by indeed.