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Here's a barefooted iceman's helper in Jacksonville in about 1897. Ice merchants made their daily rounds, delivering frozen water to homes & businesses. Many people relied on iceboxes before electric refrigerators became widespread during the mid 1900s. This African American boy carried tongs to try to manhandle large blocks of ice. During the later 1800s, young African Americans took part in the delivery of ice to Mulberry Grove Plantation, which was located in the vicinity of today's NAS Jacksonville base. Steamboats brought supplies to the plantation's private docks on the St. Johns River. Here's how the ice arrangement worked, according to Sarah Louis (Pearson) Richardson in a WPA interview from 1939: "Ice would be delivered in 100-lb. blocks. The colored house boys had a hand cart on which it was transferred and carried to the cellar under the old house..., and there it was slid down a board placed over the steps. There were two compartments in the cellar: In the front was a large box and there the ice was stored, the fresh meat and other perishables being placed in nice clean cloth bags on the ice and covered in sawdust. In the back compartment of the cellar, canned fruit, jellies and preserves were stored. The cellar had an outside door which was kept locked." (Source of picture: Florida State Archives)
The poster on this page came from the National Archives. Dating from World War II, it gave this admonishment: "Your wartime duty! Don't waste water! Do not let water run a long time to get a drink. Do keep water in icebox instead."
Florida Public Service Center ice box exhibit booth at the Volusia County Fair, Deland, Florida. photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Ice trucks helped cool things down in the Sunshine State -- until they were finally driven into the junkyard of history. Tucked under canvas tarps were ice blocks that often weighed 100 pounds or more. The ice was used in the old-fashioned iceboxes that many households relied on. This particular truck belonged to Consumers Ice Company, which also dealt in kerosene and fuel oil. The picture dates from June 20, 1948. Consumers Ice operated plants in South Jacksonville(1461 Hendricks Avenue) and in Riverside (2293 Edison Avenue). The photo was taken in South Jacksonville at Daniels Auto Service on the 1000 block of Kings Avenue. Shorty's Radio Service can be seen behind the truck. A car radio specialist, Shorty's had been servicing radios since 1919 and was run by Louis M. DeMaria. Shearon Cleaners, owned by George W. Shearon, appears on the right.

Ice Boxes

CHILLIN’ OUT YESTERDAY — A few people still call their refrigerators “iceboxes.” Indeed, fridges used to be little more than fancy ice chests. Some kitchens contained iceboxes until just 60 or 70 years ago. In 1948, for instance, Jacksonville was served by over 35 ice dealers. Only three dealers now operate in the city, though, according to the BellSouth phone directory. This is in spite of the fact that far more than double the number of people live in Jacksonville today than in Duval County in 1950.

The mass production of modern refrigerators didn’t get started until after World War II. Why was this? For one thing, it was impossible to use a fridge if you couldn’t plug it in: A number of farms and communities didn’t even receive electrical service until the 1930s or later. Mayport, for example, finally lit up in 1936. The American economy also had to recover from the effects of the Great Depression (1929-1941) and World War II (1941-1945). And, of course, technology had to advance to the point that it could permit modern refrigeration in individual households.

A SIMPLE SET-UP — In the old kitchens of our grandparents or great grandparents, iceboxes relied on a most uncomplicated coolant: a chunk of ice. The boxes were constructed of a good quality wood, along with insulation and a metal liner. Heat rises & cold air falls, so the ice was kept in a top compartment of the box. It chilled the food which rested on wire shelves below, much like today.

As the ice melted, it dripped into a drain pan through a tube similar to those in modern refrigerators. The pan had to be emptied each day, and Jacksonville parents often assigned this task to their kids. One First Coast native, Jack McGiffin, found a simple, yet ingenious way to solve the problem, as shown in the book It Ain’t Like It Was in the Good Old Days… No, and It Never Was. Mr. McGiffin simply bore a hole under his family’s refrigerator and placed a funnel in it. And, as Mr. McGiffin noted, if you lived in an upstairs apartment and forgot to drain the drip pan, you were asking for trouble.

All in all, though, an icebox was about as trouble-free as an ice chest — There were no moving parts or service departments to call.The boxes contained ice chunks that ranged from 25 to 100 pounds. Many units held a hundred-pound chunk, lasting 3 to 4 days. The block’s lifespan depended on how many times a family used an ice pick to chip off pieces for lemonade and other drinks.

THE ICEMAN COMETH — During the 1920s & 1930s, Jacksonville residents received their ice deliveries from trucks and sometimes horse-drawn wagons. The iceman usually came twice a week. Customers placed special cards in their windows to indicate that they needed service. Some cards also alerted the deliverer as to the the size of blocks that were required.

The iceman used large tongs to tote his product. He heaved a block over his shoulder onto his back. Waterproof, vest-like clothing protected the carrier from wetness and frostbite. He toted the blocks to the iceboxes, which usually sat either in a kitchen or on a back porch. A few kitchen iceboxes, in fact, contained a door that opened through a wall onto the porch. This allowed the carrier to fill them from outside.

In some Jacksonville neighborhoods, the iceman proved to be a pied piper. Barefoot children tagged behind his truck on hot days. They gathered ice that fell on the truck’s floor when the driver would chisel & saw a hundred pound block for a customer who wanted only fifty pounds. According to one Jacksonville lady who move here during the 1920s, the splitting of the ice produced hundreds of little pieces, which were scooped up into what she called “Florida snow cones.” This frozen water tasted heavenly to kids during a time when air conditioning proved scarce.

Many companies sent only chunks that weighed 100 pounds or more. This allowed for melting on the way to distant consumers. As Jack McGiffin noted, everyone complained at one time or other about being short-changed with the ice’s weight. Nevertheless, Mr. McGiffin suspected that the culprits were actually hot weather and icebox doors that were accidentally left open. Before being loaded onto the truck, the ice was grooved in fifty pound sections so that the deliverer could easily cut them in half. Some thoughtful icemen also stowed away an extra fifty pounds just for the kids.

RESIDENTIAL ICE PLANTS? — Between about 1910 to 1920, home refrigerators finally became available for some families. These included models from Kelvinator and General Electric. However, the early, expensive appliances were anything but economy size. Most units had compressors that were driven by belts attached to motors located in the basement, garage, or backroom. This set-up made the refrigerators seem like miniature ice plants to Mr. McGiffin. As for the refrigerator cabinets, they were made of wood until steel and porcelain models began to appear in the mid-1920s.

Today, the refrigerator ranks as America’s most used appliance, found in more than 99.5% of homes.

~written by Glenn Emery

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