Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

This 1852 drawing, from Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion, shows ice harvesting on Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the days before refrigeration, ice was a valuable winter cash crop for enterprising businessmen.  Ice was a year-round staple in most households, and many families would give up food before they would give up ice.  As a region, New England was well-known for its quality ice.  The region’s severe cold coupled with its deep ponds produced hardy, compact ice that became quite valued for the 19th-century ice trade.

During heat waves, people depended on the harvested ice to cool lemonade and make cocktails even more appetizing, as a retreat not only from the life’s concerns, but from the heat too.  Also, iced water flavored with lemon peels had long been a 19th-century staple of Sunday school picnics.  There were other uses of ice too.  Ice was used to protect food and drink from spoiling, and it was also used to preserve bodies before burial.

Ice, due to its nature and its weight, was expensive and difficult to transport.  The ice of New England was viewed as among the purest and clearest ice available, and the region frequently produced ice crops that were thick, and as clear as crystal.  Even middle-class families considered regular visits from the ice man within their means, along with calls from butchers and grocers.  During the summer, restaurant owners and barkeepers needed steady deliveries of ice.  Private citizens did too.  Students were known to take small pieces of ice to suck on as they walked to school.  When local supplies fell short in terms of quantity or quality, the expense to bring ice in from Western Massachusetts or from New Hampshire was considerable.

The best ice for harvesting was thought to be between nine inches and one foot thick.  If the ice was to exported long distances, the recommended thickness grew to about 20 inches.  Before harvesting the ice, any snow was cleared off its surface by a wooden scraper dragged across the ice by a horse.  A second scraper was then drawn across the ice, which used a steel blade to scrape away the ice’s porous upper layer, which averaged about three inches.  After the snow was cleared, and the porous layer of the ice was removed, another horse then dragged a plow across the ice to cut a set of three-inch deep grooves across its surface.  Soon after,  a series of cuts was made in the opposite direction, thus creating a checkerboard pattern across the ice.

A stereoscopic view showing a scene from the Minnesota ice harvest (Source: Robert N. Dennis collection via Wikimedia Commons)

After the squares were marked off, the manual labor started as men took out hand saws and sawed out rows of ice blocks, each about 30 feet square.  After the first block was removed, the subsequent ones would either be taken out or thrust under the others.  Once the first few blocks were removed the work became easier as an ice spade could be dropped into the grooves to wrest the remaining  blocks of ice free.

The blocks of ice were sometimes floated through the canal, where, at the shore, they would be hoisted out.  Sometimes, they were hoisted free from the river, jerked with a hook at the end of a pole.  All blocks were then slid on sleds, which carried them away to the ice houses.

The ice blocks were then taken to ice houses, where they were cut into smaller ice cakes and raised up into the houses by steam-powered elevators.  At the top of the elevator, men then pushed the ice cakes into their final resting positions within the ice house.  As long as the ice kept moving, its weight could easily be managed by one man.  If the ice stopped, though, its weight of nearly one-half ton could require as much as four men to get it moving again.  The ice house itself was a huge wooden building with no windows that typically stood near a pond or riverbank.  Ice houses measured from 100 to 200 feet long, and were wide too.  The largest boasted capacities of some 20,000 tons of ice.  To better insulate the ice during warmer weather, the walls of ice houses were filled with sawdust.

Today, the once-familiar scene of ice cutters harvesting ice on area lakes, ponds, and rivers has gone the same way as the vision of the ice man delivering his blocks of ice along city streets.  Gone too are most of the ice houses where the ice was once stored.  What remains are the images and memories of the ice harvesting trade in history books, and in the family histories of those who count these men among their ancestors.

A late-19th century view of an ice house in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Photograph by H. P. McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)

17 thoughts on “Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

  1. I was just talking with my daughter on how the ice used to back up on the Merrimack. You could hear it cracking all the way to Broadway. It hasn’t happened in decades. When I was a kid we’d walk over to Gage’s and get ice chips. They’d sell huge blocks of ice for 25 cents. They’d come down a slide and be packed in straw to preserve them through the summer. I own a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s that were found in an attic in the Acre. (Am I that old?)

      1. Great minds think alike. I’ll leave that one to you. As I said as kids Gage’s was probably in its final days. When my dad was a kid, Gage would have local boys out on the river helping to cut and haul the blocks to the ice house. The huge blocks that we would get for a quarter were the predecessor to the cubes we get today. We’d have a hammer and pick to cut chunks to put in our Coca Cola cooler for a trip to the beach.

  2. When I think of ice cutting I always think of the book ‘Farmer Boy’. There is a good description in it and they also talk about their ice house. I also wrote a blog post about Winter Cuttings that included an ice cutting picture. I really enjoyed this post as it gave much more detail about the process. Thanks.

  3. I have a distant relation, Fredrick Tudor, who was known internationally as the “Ice King”. He shipped ice from Wenham, Mass to Cuba and made a lot of money. He developed a system to ship ice to the tropics, using close packed blocks and insulation of wood shavings and straw (as mentioned by another commenter above).

  4. Thanks for an amazing post. It is so interesting and really brings me back to those days. Having recently experienced Hurricane Sandy made me realize how ice is also an important commodity nowadays during this type of emergency, without it our food would have perished.

  5. Here’s an article from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society about harvesting ice on Jamaica Pond:

    My mother remembered following the ice man in the summer during the depressing and catching chips of ice to suck on and play with when he carved apart a larger block to deliver a smaller piece to a home. When my parents bought their first house in 1961, there was still an ice chest in the back hall on the second floor landing. It was so heavy that no owner since had ever bothered getting rid of it. We left it there as well when we left in 1971.

  6. My grandmother left a sign in front room all the edges had different price so the ice man knew how large a cake of ice should be and would then carry block into the house and place in the ice box. ice was 25
    cents for the piece

  7. We lived at 530 Pawtucket Street next to Daniel Gage Ice Company. My father who worked there making ice for my Uncle F. Arthur Osterman the owner used to measure the thickness of the ice on the river so we knew it was safe to skate on the river. Friends used to change into skates at our house in front of the wood stove and then walk across the street to the river.

  8. Looking for any photos of employees of Daniel Gage Ice Co. Lowell Ma. My Greatgrandfather worked there & as an employee he drown in the Merrimack River Sept. 11, 1885 his name Patrick McMahon

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