Why the cold storage industry owes so much to Frederic Tudor

Fred Tudor was born in 1783, and spent his life in Boston Massachusetts. In 1806 he decided to harvest ice from a local Boston lake or “pond” with the idea of selling it to the rich of Havana, Cuba, for cooling their cocktails and making ice cream. For the next ten years his ice business staggered from crisis to crisis, including two stints in a debtor’s jail as he developed the necessary infrastructure and created a market demand for ice.

Frederic Tudor
Frederic Tudor


Considered mad by contemporaries, he had to design above ground ice houses consisting of a wooden structure surrounded by a hollow wall 4 inches wide containing readily available saw dust, which proved to be a better insulator than hay.








Essentially he created the first insulated sandwich panel. Access was through a top hatch. The melted ice water was measured and the flow used to validate improvements. In this way a woollen blanket spread directly on the ice was found to reduce losses. In his Havana ice house, he experimented with orange storage, finding that after a month a box stored just above the ice store had 16 rotten oranges, whereas a box on the ice itself had just 1.



Frederic Tudor
Ice truck: One of the many ways they transported the ice which was insulated by saw dust


This resulted in several disastrous attempts at transporting oranges from the Caribbean to Boston, but eventually led to chilled ships and rail cars all of which increased the demand for ice.






Tudor’s marketing strategy in Havana was to initially supply ice free to bar owners encouraging them to create ice cooled cocktails. On one occasion he showed a vendor at the local Tivoli amusement park how to make ice cream using his ice. In one evening over 300 dollars worth of ice cream was sold, a fortune in those days, and the vendor thereafter needed over 60 pounds of ice per day.


Yellow fever was a major killer in the Caribbean and doctors quickly found that Tudor’s ice reduced temperatures and greatly increased survival rates, creating another lucrative market.


Frederic Tudor
Ice harvesting

A major long term challenge was the harvesting of ice from the ponds of New England. A dangerous occupation at the best of times, it needed to be done as cost effectively as possible. Working with Nathaniel Wyeth, incidentally, one of whose descendants invented the plastic PET Coca Cola bottle, a horse drawn ice cutter was developed which led to mass  production and created identical blocks which could be packed closely together to reduce melt losses. But unseasonably warm winters reduced the supply of Ice and caused conflict with competitors. Despite this, by 1826, the ice business was a  bedrock of New England commerce and by 1856 over 150,000 tons was being exported annually to 43 foreign countries.


In 1833, having suffered massive financial losses from a coffee speculation, Tudor sought recovery through  shipping  a load of ice to Calcutta, a trip of 16,000 miles which crossed the equator twice. The success of this venture not only paid off his debts but led to additional markets being established as far away as Australia. It also proved how the quality and understanding of insulation had improved.


In the US itself, as urbanisation increased, ice became the only way to preserve fresh food and was preferred over the salted, dried and tinned alternatives. Agriculture in the Northern States used readily available ice during the warm summers to specialise in meat, dairy and vegetable production. In the Southern States, where ice was scarce and more expensive, the specialities remained cotton and tobacco. Residential apartments in the growing industrial cities used ice boxes to keep food from spoiling and their introduction was noted as a factor in reducing levels of infant mortality. Lager beer, introduced by the US’s German immigrants, required cooling to allow for the production of fizzy carbon dioxide gas. The use of ice allowed lager to be made throughout the year and not just in the colder winter months.

domestic ice box
Domestic ice box (also called a cold closet)


Although a relatively unknown historical figure, Tudor’s contribution to our modern world was massive. Against almost overwhelming odds, he created a market for both coldness and ice, which quickly moved from being luxuries  to necessities. As the demand for coldness increased, it provided the impetus for the development of mechanical refrigeration. Domestic ice boxes remained a common US kitchen feature until the arrival of the refrigerator in the 1930’s. Even I can remember South African cold stores during the 1980’s making ice blocks as a supplementary income stream.

So when you enjoy an ice cold beer, brandy met ys, or a cold Coke, raise them in memory of the Ice King, Frederic Tudor.


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