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From Ice Harvesting to Icebox

If you’ve toured the James E. Merrill House Museum, you have likely noted the oak cabinet icebox in the kitchen. This was how food was kept fresh before electricity. Many items donated to the museum – including the icebox, which dates to the days of ice harvesting – have a great story and rich history behind them.

The New England ice trade, developed by Frederick Tudor, would cut ice from local ponds and rivers to be stored in underground ice pits and ice houses. By the middle of the 19th century, Tudor was shipping ice to every major port in Asia, Australia and South America, in addition to the Caribbean and the South.

Robert Morris, whose home was in Philadelphia, had an ice pit which could maintain ice through October. Because George Washington could not preserve his ice past June at his Mount Vernon home, he wrote to Robert Morris, who advised Washington about proper insulation of the icehouse in warmer climates and recommended that the door to the icehouse face north and that a trap door in the middle of the floor be installed to put the ice in and take it out. Washington’s ice problem was solved when he moved into Morris’ house which served as the initial President’s Mansion until the capitol moved to Washington, D.C. When Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House, he constructed an icehouse there, and an icehouse and a snow house at Monticello. Jefferson’s icehouse filled in December, held 60 wagonloads of ice in the 16-foot-deep pit and it would last until the following October.

Thomas Moore was a farmer and cabinetmaker in Philadelphia and created the “Icebox.” The icebox was an oval tub with lid made from cedar wood with a tin chamber inside the cedar box. The exterior of the box was lined with rabbit fur to insulate it. Moore filled the space between the wood and inner tin chamber with ice. This icebox allowed Moore to transport his butter from his farm in Maryland to the Georgetown markets, allowing him to sell firm, brick butter instead of soft, melted tubs like the other vendors. In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson visited the Moore farm to inspect his icebox. He took notes and made drawings. A patent for a refrigerator (icebox) was granted to Thomas Moore and signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. He later bought one. By the 1840s, the iceboxes were made by carpenters to take advantage of regular household delivery of large blocks of ice.

Dr. John Gorrie, a physician, living in Apalachicola, Florida, found that cooling down his patients suffering with malaria and yellow fever improved their survival rate. But ice was expensive to purchase in Florida so he worked on his idea of a machine to mechanically make ice. He received a patent in 1851. No one took his idea seriously and he could not get capital to create a more practical model because of a smear campaign by Frederick Tudor. In poor health, Gorrie died in 1855 and was unable to market his invention.

In 1853, Alexander Twining was awarded the U.S. Patent for developing the first commercial refrigeration system to artificially produce ice. During the Civil War, ice from the north to the South was suspended so the south turned to artificial means to manufacture “mechanical ice.”

With mechanically produced ice, there were 766 mechanical ice plants delivering ice to shippers and to homes in 1900. Jacksonville residents received their ice from horse-drawn wagons and trucks in the Twenties and Thirties. By 1948, Jacksonville had over 35 ice dealers.  

For this article, I uncovered one other interesting piece of research. In 1918, the Frigidaire Company started to mass-produce refrigerators with a compressor on the bottom of the cabinet, which were mainly owned by the wealthy. By the 1920s, refrigerators became competition for the ice trade and ice companies needed other ways of making money. An employee of the Southland Ice Company in Texas decided to start selling convenience items at his ice distribution shop: milk, eggs and other items which he could keep cool with his ice. He opened early at 7 a.m. and stayed open until 11 p.m. for the convenience of his customers. He sold these items on Sundays and evenings when grocery stores were closed. As this market shifted from ice to convenience items, this company’s early convenience outlets were called Tote’m in 1927 because customers toted away their items.  In 1946, the Tote’m name changed to 7-Eleven!  

Think how far we have come from ice harvesting, ice pits, icehouses, mechanically produced ice and the wooden oak cabinet icebox in the Merrill House to what’s in our homes today.

Nancy Gandy
Merrill House Docent

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