It might seen ridiculous to spend top dollar for ice, but this simple, clear cooler hasn’t always been a convenience-store staple.
Two centuries ago, frozen water was regarded much like the diamonds it can resemble — precious, a luxury, a status symbol; and, especially in the summer, prized as a near miracle.
In 1806, a New England entrepreneur developed a technique to cut ice from ponds in winter. Packed in sawdust, ice blocks were stored in icehouses, then transported by barge, ship or rail to chill the drinks of the elite.
By the 1900s, ice was being harvested from Minnesota and shipped west.
“Harvesting ice is backbreaking and dangerous work,” said Tim Graf, whose grandparents operated an ice harvesting operation in Worthington, Minn. “Once they started cutting, they ran three shifts, 24 hours a day, in the wind coming off the prairie. But in January, farmers and carpenters were glad for the work.”
Graf, a retired engineer, has studied Minnesota’s icy past and has re-created an old-fashioned ice harvest demonstration using authentic horse-drawn ice plows and handsaws.
It was only about 100 years ago that ice moved into kitchens.
“By the 1920s, my grandpa was selling ice for iceboxes — 25 cents for 100 pounds of ice, delivered by horse and wagon to your home,” he said. “My grandparents were still cutting until 1952; 10 percent of American households still used iceboxes in the ’50s.”
Ice from ponds and lakes froze slowly, which pushes out impurities and makes ice clear, explained Graf. Today’s artisan icemakers mimic that natural process to produce crystal-clear ice — with just a hint of its luxurious past.