Entrepreneur Frederic Tudor Spent Family Fortune to Make Ice Obsession a Business Success

(p. 71) Lake ice was a marvelous product. It created itself at no cost to the producer, was clean, renewable, and infinite in supply. The only drawbacks were that there was no infrastructure to produce and store it, and no market to sell it to. In order to make the ice industry exist, it was necessary to work out ways to cut and lift ice on a large scale, build storehouses, secure trading rights, and engage a reliable chain of shippers and agents (p. 72) and, above all, create a demand for ice in places where ice had seldom or never been seen, and was most assuredly not something anyone was predisposed to pay for. The man who did all this was a Bostonian of good birth and challenging disposition named Frederic Tudor. Making ice a commercial proposition became his overweening obsession.
The notion of shipping ice from New England to distant ports was considered completely mad – ‘the vagary of a disordered brain’, in the words of one of his contemporaries. The first shipment of ice to Britain so puzzled customs officials as to how to classify it that all 300 tons of it melted away before it could be moved off the docks. Shipowners were highly reluctant to accept it as cargo. They didn’t relish the humiliation of arriving in a port with a holdful of useless water, but they were also wary of the very real danger of tons of shifting ice and sloshing melt-water making their ships unstable. These were men, after all, whose nautical instincts were based entirely on the idea of keeping water outside the ship, so they were loath to take on such an eccentric risk when there wasn’t even a certain market at the end of it all.
Tudor was a strange and difficult man – ‘imperious, vain, contemptuous of competitors and implacable to enemies’, in the estimation of Daniel J. Boorstin. He alienated all his closest friends and betrayed the trust of colleagues, almost as if that were his life’s ambition. Nearly all the technological innovations that made the ice trade possible were actually the work of his retiring, compliant, long-suffering associate Nathaniel Wyeth. It cost Tudor years of frustrated endeavour, and all of his family fortune, to get the ice business up and running, but gradually it caught on and eventually it made him and many others rich. For several decades, ice was America’s second biggest crop, measured by weight. If securely insulated, ice could last a surprisingly long while. It could even survive the 16,000-mile, 130-day trip from Boston to Bombay – or at least about two-thirds of it could, enough to make the long trip profitable. Ice went to the furthest corners of South America and from New England to California via Cape Horn. Sawdust, a product previously without any value at all, proved to be an excellent insulator, providing useful extra income for Maine lumber mills.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

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