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An Ice Idea — How an 18th Century Boston Entrepreneur Saw Value in Ice

“This Winter [1740 – 1741] was the Coldest the Old People ever I remembered. Boston Harbour was Froze up twice. In Cold February’ was the deepest Snow we have had for 25 Years. There was a Tent kept on Ice between Boston & the Castle’ for entertainment. Horses Crossed Charlestown & Winimit Ferry Daily. Sleds loaded with Wood came from Charleston to Barton’s point. The Snow & Ice in some of Streets was 3 feet deep and lay in part till Middle of April.”

Blizzard decorates Boston and Franklin Park — Photographer: Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Blizzard decorates Boston and Franklin Park —
Photographer:
Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

These words were written in the diary of John Tudor, who lived in the North End during the years he wrote those words. They remind us that as cold as this winter was, it was mild compared to the winter of 1740-1741 when the Boston Harbor could freeze to the point that people could socialize out by Castle Island, and the snow lay three feet deep on the streets through April. Of course, the earth has been warming since the last ice age, so it has really been a Long Summer, as Brian Fagin tells us in his book of that title.

But my topic is not climate change and ice ages – but ice cubes. John Tudor’s grandson Fredric (1783-1864) would eventually distinguish himself by figuring out a way to pack and ship ice from New England to the Caribbean and then to India.

Let’s back up a bit.

John Tudor emigrated with his widowed mother from Devon, England in 1715 at the age of six, living near North Square. As a young man, John started a successful bakery business in the North End (Italians were not the first bakers?) and then a merchant of various goods. He became a Deacon at the North Church and, interestingly, also an eye-witness to the Boston Massacre. He became financially successful enough to send his youngest son William to study law at Harvard, and then to buy a 100 acre farm at Rockwood (Saugus), which became the family summer refuge during the hot summers.

Fredric was the third son of the Harvard William, who had gone on to become a lawyer (he was the Judge Advocate of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War). Fredric refused to follow his father’s path to Harvard and then law, but instead, at age 13, sought to create his own business by apprenticing with various merchants. During one of the family summers at Rockwood, a number of the Tudors including Fredric were sipping iced drinks and joking about the luck of New Englanders to cool themselves with ice cut from winter ponds that were stored in sheds or underground for summer use. It then occurred to Fredric that there might in fact be a way to bring ice to people in warmer climates.

Experimenting with various ways to pack the ice so as to insulate it (coal, sawdust), Fredric, now the age of 23, bought a brig in 1806 and packed it with ice cut from the farm in Saugus. The ship set sail on February 10. A report in the Boston Gazette read: “No joke. A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.” While most of the ice melted on the three month voyage to Cuba, Fredric managed to sell enough to sustain a loss of “only” $4,500. The losses continued until 1810 when he made a profit of about $1,000 – though this did not keep him out of debtors’ prison in 1812 and 1813 (those were the days). Things gradually improved. They sped up the process of gathering the ice by harnessing horses to metal blades, and they improved the packing methods. The brig Tuscany sailed from Boston to Calcutta on May 12, 1833. Arriving in September it still had 100 tons of its original 180 tons of ice in its hold.

Tudor’s idea, of course, caught on. By the 1840s ice was being shipped all over the world, and Fredric’s company held only a small share of the market. But the idea was his, and he is remembered today as “Boston’s Ice King.” He is buried in the family plot at Kings Chapel Cemetery. While the family had moved out of the North End by the time Fredric was born, it is nice to know that they had their American roots in the neighborhood.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.