Frozen Water Trade
By Gavin Weightman
Published by Hyperion
January 2003; 0-786-86740-X; 254 pages
The Frozen Assets of New England
When the brothers William and Frederic Tudor agreed to put together what money they had in the summer of 1805 and invest it in a scheme to sell ice to the West Indies, they held the plan close to their chests. They had dreamed up the idea after spending some pleasant weeks on the family farm, Rockwood, near Boston. It was just a few miles inland from this city, the great port that seethed with shipping and merchants, many of whom had made fortunes trading around the world in all kinds of luxury goods. New England itself had little of value to export: there was no iron or coal or cotton, and the farmland was picturesque but poor. Most of Boston's trade was secondhand: the Yankee merchants had a sharp eye for other nations' goods, which they bought and sold as their ships scoured the world for bargains.
Just to the north, the port of Salem had more or less cornered the market in peppercorns, reexporting in 1805 7.5 million tons of the spice, which was greatly valued as a food preservative in the days before refrigeration. And in 1783, the year the younger Tudor brother Frederic was born, a syndicate of Boston merchants had made a fortune from a shipload of ginseng that they sold in Canton. The herbal root, rare in China, where it was greatly prized as an aphrodisiac and a tonic, had been found growing in abundance in North America, and the first Boston cargo was said to equal ten times the annual Chinese consumption. But even the shrewd merchants of Massachusetts had failed to realize that each winter a local product of dazzlingly high quality was left to dissolve away each spring, while in the tropical islands of the West Indies and the plantation states of southern America it would be worth its weight in gold. That, at any rate, was how the Tudor brothers saw it, and why they wanted to keep their scheme for selling ice in tropical climates a secret. Once Boston merchants got wind of their brilliant plan, they would face stiff competition.
The elder brother, William, who was twenty-six years old and a Harvard graduate with some worldly experience after traveling in Europe, was just a bit skeptical once he had considered the practical problems of the venture. But Frederic, not quite twenty-two and the maverick of the distinguished Boston family, was convinced it would make them a fortune, and that within a few years they would be, as he put it, "inevitably and unavoidably rich." As it turned out, Frederic did make his fortune selling ice, but there was nothing inevitable or unavoidable about his eventual success. The fact that he prospered at all, after suffering years of ridicule and hardship, was more of a miracle than something preordained. Then, as now, the notion that it was possible to cut lake ice in winter in New England and sell it the following summer 1,500 miles away in Cuba or Martinique, with no artificial refrigeration to prevent it from melting, was thought to be ridiculous.
Nevertheless, the plan did make some sense. The Tudor family was privileged. The brothers' grandfather Deacon Tudor was a self-made baker and merchant who had sailed from Devon, England, in 1715, at the age of six. His mother was a young widow who had remarried in America, well enough for John to receive a basic education. John did sufficiently well in business to send his youngest son, William, to Harvard to study law. He also bought the hundred-acre farm, Rockwood, as a kind of rugged country estate where the family could spend the hot summer months away from their town house in Boston. At Rockwood, like a few of the better-off Bostonians, the Tudors had an icehouse that was stocked in winter from a pond on the farm that usually froze solid in January and February. As children, Frederic and his brothers and sisters* enjoyed ice cream in the summer and took their drinks cooled with chunks of crystal-clear ice from Rockwood Pond. This was a great luxury. In Europe, icehouses-traditionally underground and lined with brick or stone-had long been a privilege of the wealthy, who could afford to excavate them on their estates and had the manpower to fill them in winter with ice from their frozen ornamental lakes.
This luxury was denied to those who lived in tropical climates, including the colonial rulers of the West Indian islands and the prosperous plantation owners of the cotton belt in South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. What would they pay for a shipload of perspiring New England ice during their most torrid season, when the heat was hardly bearable and yellow fever raged? Selling them ice, it seemed to Frederic Tudor, would be an excellent and simple proposition provided a few technicalities could be sorted out. It was a straightforward matter of supply and demand, once the problem had been solved of how to keep the supply from melting before it reached the demand.
The Tudor brothers were in the happy position of having a bit of family money to invest. In 1794, when Frederic was eleven, their grandfather John had died at the age of eighty-six, and had left everything to their father, William. This small fortune consisted of forty thousand dollars in cash and investments, some properties in Boston, and Rockwood. William was always known affectionately in the family as "the Judge," a title he had acquired when he served as judge advocate* in George Washington's army. His Harvard education and his military service afforded him many good connections in New England society, where he was well liked for his jovial personality. Before 1794, he had practiced as a lawyer, but he felt he was well enough off after John died to give up work and live the life of a landed gentleman. The Judge was a generous man and a spendthrift, and the family lived well. He could afford to send his sons to Harvard and to give them a generous allowance that enabled them to travel, and sometimes to dabble in speculation.
In preparation for Harvard, Frederic was sent to Boston Latin School. At the age of thirteen, he decided that college was a waste of time, dropped out of school, and took a job as an apprentice in a Boston store. His mother, Delia, a cultured woman who was anxious that her sons be properly educated, did not approve. Nor did his eldest brother, William. But neither had any authority over him, and at the time Frederic left school, the Judge was off on a jaunt to Europe. Frederic wrote to him: "I hope you will not be displeased with my going so young." When the Judge returned to Boston, Frederic had already given up his apprenticeship and was spending his days on the Rockwood farm, hunting and fishing with a black servant of the family who had been given the name Sambo. Frederic loved Rockwood and sometimes imagined he could make the farm pay, but he spent most of his time on little schemes that came to nothing, such as designing a water pump that he believed would make ships unsinkable.
When he was seventeen years old and still hanging idly around Rockwood, an opportunity arose that would have an influence on Frederic's later conviction that there would be a demand for ice in the West Indies. His nineteen-year-old brother, John Henry, had a bad knee that had turned him into an invalid. Anxious about his son's health, the Judge suggested that Frederic take John away somewhere. The boys were enthusiastic, and chose to go to Havana, then a thriving trading port on the Spanish island of Cuba. It would not be just a convalescent trip: while they were there they might try their hand at trading in coffee or sugar-they had already made a small profit selling mahogany furniture to Havana. On February 26, 1801, they sailed from Boston on the Patty with $1,000 in travel money given to them by their father.
John Henry left a jaundiced account of the voyage. Both brothers were seasick for the first week or so, got sunburned, and hated the shipboard diet of beef and soup. They were at sea for a month, arriving in Havana at the end of March. At first they thought Cuba a kind of paradise, full of excitement and tropical fruit, and for two months they took tours, engaged in a little trade, and lost money. But by the end of May, as Havana heated up and the mosquitoes and scorpions became bothersome, they decided to leave. John Henry's knee was getting worse, and gave him pain every day. At the beginning of June, they bought passage on a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina, loaded with molasses, which gave off a fierce and heavy stench. To ensure that they would eat tolerably well on this voyage, the brothers loaded up for their own consumption 192 eggs, which would be enough for half a dozen or more each a day.
In Charleston, they were entertained by some kindly Bostonians who were living there, but the heat was just as bad as in Havana. The brothers sailed on to Virginia, driven north by the rising summer temperatures, and, still with their "tongues hanging out," as John Henry put it, cruised into the Potomac River, where they had a glimpse of Mount Vernon, which had been George Washington's estate. In search of a cure for John Henry, they went on overland to a spa in Bath, Pennsylvania. Each day his health was deteriorating-he may have been suffering from bone tuberculosis-and lumps appeared on his side. In August, they met up by chance with their mother and eldest brother, William, and all four went to Philadelphia, from where Frederic and William took the stagecoach back to Boston. At the end of January 1802, John Henry died in Philadelphia, his mother by his bedside. When Frederic, back on the Rockwood estate, heard the news four months after he had last seen his brother, he was deeply affected.
Frederic's brother William, who had finished his studies, went off to Europe to broaden his education. The Judge found Frederic an unpaid position with a mercantile firm owned by his friends the Sullivan brothers. There he spent two years arranging shipments of pimento, nutmeg, sugar, and tea. With this experience behind him, the Judge felt confident enough to set Frederic up in business on his own, though he did not know what exactly he would trade in. The best bet at that time appeared to be speculation in real estate, for Boston was a growing city, and handsome profits had been made by those who owned land that could be built on. The Judge himself decided to put the family fortune into a venture in South Boston that was considered to be gilt-edged. A new bridge was being built to connect the town with an isolated area of land in the complex archipelago of Boston Bay. Frederic had a stake in it too, buying land for $7,640 in partnership with his brother William.
While they still mourned the death of John Henry, the family was able to look forward to a happy event, the marriage of Frederic's younger sister Emma Jane. She was by all accounts an attractive young woman, and her family's wealth appeared to be assured. Her suitor was a shy young man named Robert Hallowell Gardiner, who had come into a fortune by chance. His father, Robert Hallowell, had been collector of taxes for the port of Boston before the War of Independence, and had fled to England in 1776. Robert was born in Bristol in 1782, and his family moved back to Boston the same year. When he was six years old, his maternal grandfather, Dr. Silvester Gardiner, who owned a very large estate on the Kennebec River, in Maine, died, leaving everything to Robert's uncle William. A year later, William died and left everything to Robert, provided he agreed to change his name to Gardiner. He would come into his inheritance on his twenty-second birthday.
Robert had studied at Harvard, and when he first met Emma Tudor, he was a member of the New England elite, a very eligible young man. His marriage to Emma was a great match for the Tudors, and would turn out to be vital for the new trade Frederic and William were about to embark upon. Though they fell out in later life, Robert Gardiner would be the very best friend and supporter Frederic could have hoped for in the years ahead. It was in the heady atmosphere of the summer of 1805, when the wedding was celebrated with picnics and parties on the Tudors' Rockwood estate, that Frederic and William finally decided to embark on the venture they had talked about for some time.
Emma had married Robert on June 25, 1805. A few weeks later, Frederic bought a leather-bound farmer's almanac and inscribed on the cover the title "Ice House Diary," above a crude drawing of the kind of icehouse, if not the very one, the family had at Rockwood. He also wrote the inscription "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 love, war or business." It is probable he added that later, inscribing it as if in stone on the illustration of the icehouse, for he had absolutely no idea in 1805 of the trials he was to face over the next ten years.
The first entry in the diary, written in Frederic's spidery hand, reads: "Plan etc for transporting Ice to Tropical Climates. Boston Augst 1st 1805 William and myself have this day determined to get together what property we have and embark in the undertaking of carrying ice to the West Indies the ensuing winter." There is a note written later to the effect that William was not very enthusiastic, and had to be persuaded that it was worth giving the venture a try.
A Tudor family legend had it that it was, in the first place, William's idea. It would have been typical of him, as he was full of hare-brained schemes that came to nothing, and in his privately published autobiography, Early Recollections, Robert Gardiner remembered William, at a picnic, suggesting selling ice to the West Indies. To the end of his life, Frederic disputed this, and maintained that it was his inspiration. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was without doubt Frederic who took the idea seriously, and who dedicated his life to making it work.
The second entry in the diary is for August 12. Frederic writes that he is off on a trip with his cousin James Savage to visit Niagara Falls, and expects to return in October. In the meantime, he and William had been laying plans for the shipment of ice that winter. They had realized they would need substantial financial backing, and hoped they might be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to grant them a monopoly in the trade, for once everyone in Boston saw how profitable the shipping of ice was, there would be immediate and damaging competition.
Puffed up with youthful enthusiasm and naïveté, Frederic could not imagine that such a brilliant scheme could fail to make him and his brother a fortune. His excitement leaps from the pages of his diary as he drafts a letter to a business associate of his father, Harrison Gray Otis, a distinguished Bostonian and U.S. senator:
Frederic's escape from Havana in the blazing June heat four years before with brother John Henry, only to find Charleston, South Carolina, no better, was clearly in his mind. He would have given anything for a lump of Rockwood ice when he felt the heat of Cuba that summer. But there remained the question of whether ice would last the voyage to tropical waters. Frederic had thought about this, and believed he had come across a good deal of evidence that ice could be preserved at sea. His letter to Otis continued:
The evidence with which he hoped to persuade Otis to take a stake in the business was, to say the least, patchy, and in retrospect a little puzzling. For example, he had it on good authority that an American sea captain had shipped ice from Norway to London in a year when a mild winter had led to a shortage of ice in England. It is true that by the end of the eighteenth century, English fishermen had begun using ice to preserve their catches, but there is no record of any ice shipments from Norway to England before 1822. And even if they had been made, Frederic could have had no idea how the ice would have been preserved onboard.
As if to prove definitively that his scheme was not absurd, Frederic told Otis that he had also heard from a French friend of his family that ice cream had been carried from England to Trinidad in pots packed in earth and sand. He had also been told-this time by a French gentleman, further evidence of his mother's Francophile tendencies-that timber boards shipped in winter from New England still had ice on them when they were unloaded in the West Indies, the only instance that gentleman knew of ice being seen in that part of the world. Frederic had also been told that it had been "experimentally proved" that ice could be preserved in Carolina, a southern state with a summer climate "as intemperate as most of the West Indies." He supposed that wherever you were in the world, if you dug a hole in the ground you would soon reach cool earth, which would keep ice much longer than if it were left on the surface. It was some time before he learned that this assumption was false.
Apparently Frederic knew nothing of the Mediterranean trade in Alpine ice, but he had heard of something similar in Peru, where snow from the mountains was sold in the city of Lima. All in all, Frederic was in little doubt that carrying ice to the West Indies would be pretty certain of success, and he was confident that he and his brother would make "fortunes larger than we shall know what to do with." He asked Otis, whatever his own opinion of the scheme, not to mention it to the Judge, as it was a secret and their father did "not have a hint of it."
After he had dispatched this letter, Frederic set off for Niagara Falls with his cousin James, who at that time had no idea he was to be brought in as a partner in the brothers' pioneer venture in the ice trade. James had spent most of his childhood with the Tudors and was more or less one of the family, for his mother had died when he was a boy and his father was insane and incapable of caring for him. He was the same age as Frederic, just twenty-one, and had recently graduated from Harvard. The trip to Niagara was just a youthful jaunt, but on the way, Frederic made a point of studying the construction of two icehouses he had heard about. One of them, in upstate New York, had three walls aboveground and only one cut into the earth, and Frederic was intrigued to see that it apparently kept ice as efficiently as any other icehouse. Frederic was no scientist and had absolutely no idea about the thermodynamics of icehouses, which are surprisingly complex. For most of his lifetime, the nature of heat was poorly understood. Much thought had gone into the design of icehouses both in Europe and in America, and as Frederic had suggested in his letter to Otis, it was believed that you had only to dig down a few feet anywhere in the world to find cool earth in which to store ice. In time, he realized that this was nonsense; it would prove vital for the continuation of the trade he established that ice could be preserved just as well aboveground as below, and that if the atmospheric temperature was above freezing, the only source of "cold" was the ice itself.
William, meanwhile, appears to have given the ice venture little thought, and to have spent his time enjoying the beefsteak-and-oyster dinners held weekly by members of a Boston literary society he had helped found, the Anthology Club. He had given business a try on his trip to Europe a few years earlier, and felt he had no talent or taste for it. As he did not need to earn a living, he preferred the pleasant company of Boston's young literati. It is a wonder that Frederic persuaded him to get involved in the ice trade as winter closed in on Boston in 1805. But he went along with his younger brother's plans, which were, on the face of it, quite straightforward.
European colonial powers in the West Indies each had a different set of laws and regulations relating to trade, all of them subject to rapid change as treaties were made and broken. It was the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson won his famous victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets off the southern coast of Spain. Though the West Indies were thousands of miles away, such momentous European events sent ripples across the ocean. With its newly won independence, America was continuously adjusting its policies on trade to take into account the shifts of European power and allegiance. For reasons that were never made clear, Frederic decided the best bet for his first venture was the French island of Martinique. Maybe he feared that the most promising market, which was certainly Havana, would draw too much attention to his venture too early, or perhaps the tension between Spain and America at the time warned him off.
Wherever he sent the ice, Frederic wanted to have an officially sanctioned monopoly on the trade, for without it, he was certain prices would be driven down by competition and he would not make the profits he dreamed of. Both his brother William and his cousin James spoke French, and his mother had many friends and contacts in France, so they felt they had a good chance of presenting their case to the colonial governor, or prefect, on Martinique. The principal town on the island, St. Pierre, had a population of thirty thousand, a Tivoli pleasure garden, and sufficient perspiring expatriates to provide willing buyers of Rockwood ice.
As there was unlikely to be any ice to cut until January 1806, there was time for William and James to sail to Martinique and seek to establish exclusive rights. Once this was done, they would make some short hops to other islands that might be interested in putting in advance orders for a spring delivery of the Tudors' luxury cargo. Frederic would stay behind and make preparations for the first shipment. The whole enterprise would be funded by him, as Harrison Gray Otis had politely declined any involvement, though he thought the scheme "plausible."
As more people learned of the venture in Boston, Frederic discovered that it was not competition he had to contend with so much as ridicule. The Judge, in particular, who still believed he was going to make a killing with his South Boston land speculation, urged Frederic to abandon his crazy ice scheme. Robert Gardiner, who was Frederic's most enthusiastic supporter, would write in his Early Recollections:
But Frederic was a stubborn and determined young man who seemed to thrive on the challenge of accomplishing something that others regarded as impossible and foolhardy. He fancied he cut a dashing figure around town, a dapper little man in a blue coat who was going to make a fortune from a very big and brilliant idea.Copyright © 2003 Gavin Weightman
Reprinted with permission.
In the tradition of Cod by Mark Kurlansky, this is a remarkable book about a long-forgotten historical phenomenon that changed our world -- the rise and fall of the natural ice industry in nineteenth-century North America.
On February 13, 1806, the brig Favorite left Boston harbor bound for the Caribbean island of Martinique, with a cargo that few imagined would survive the month-long sea voyage. Packed in hay in the hold were large chunks of ice harvested from a frozen Massachusetts lake. This was the first venture of a young Boston merchant, Frederic Tudor, who imagined he could make a fortune selling ice to tropical countries.
Ridiculed from the outset by fellow merchants, Tudor endured years of hardship before he was to fulfill his dream. Over 30 years, he and his rivals extended the "frozen water trade" to Cuba, Charleston, New Orleans, New York, and London, and finally to Calcutta, when in 1833 more than one hundred tons of ice survived a four-month voyage of 16,000 miles with two crossings of the Equator.
Tudor not only made a fortune, he founded a huge industry, which each winter employed thousands of men and horses to harvest millions of tons of ice. Thanks to his astonishing enterprise, iced drinks, chilled beer, and homemade ice cream became essential to the American way of life, and cooled the brows of communities throughout the world long before artificial refrigeration -- after which the frozen-water trade melted away.
In this fascinating book, Gavin Weightman reveals the forgotten story of America's vast natural ice trade, which revolutionized domestic life for millions of people.
Gavin Weightman is a journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker. He lives in London with his wife, the illustrator Clare Beaton, and their son, Tom.