Luxury without Impact

In an effort to follow the advice I post here, I purchased a book I referenced only in passing in my blatantly fluffy piece about making clear ice.

"The Frozen Water Trade" by Gavin Weightman is one of those books that opens up a hidden world behind something we take for granted. It's history, entrepreneurship, and struggles against adversity for ice. It covers its collection, distribution, and sale before there were handy machines which would make it in abundance automatically.

I think most people under the age of, say, 50 know that ice was sold in blocks but know very little about beyond that. My grandparents referred to their refrigerator as an "ice box" which I assumed to be a holdover from their modest upbringing and scant education. My assumption was that companies manufactured ice in large quantities and distributed blocks regularly to homes with a box in which to hold it. It turns out, the history of gathering and storing ice goes back much further than that. Thousands of years, in fact.

In some parts of the world, mother nature makes great quantities of it like clockwork; sometimes to the point of hindering the activities of human beings. In short, ice comes along with great regularity requiring no help from us. A valuable commodity which makes itself.

While there isn't much of a market for ice in January for the people who live in and around it, when the weather shifts and the temperature (and humidity) rises, they change their tune. Someone along the way thought to cut large slabs of ice during winter, and store them which is no simple task given than fiberglass insulation was another 80-100 years away, and mechanical/chemical refrigeration was only in its infancy. It would be some time before a machine could freeze anywhere near as much water as mother nature. So, to protect ice from the inevitable approach of summer, they built insulated warehouses called "ice houses" to store ice for the summer.

Frederic Tudor thought bigger than that. Much bigger. What about places where it was hot all the time? Havana, Calcutta, Martinique? How many people of means travel to those destinations, and how much would they be willing to pay to have ice in their drinks, or ice cream on a sweltering day? Getting it there was the tricky bit. He needed an ice house that would float.

There were hopeful signs; someone noticed that wooden crates in ships from Norway would still have ice on them months later in the Caribbean. Wood, it seemed, was at least a decent insulator. Saw dust became the most flexible and plentiful (thanks to the saw mills nearby) means of insulating ice for what would be very long voyages.

Not to give away the ending of the book, but it was a colossal success. (Why write a book about a crazy ice guy if he failed?)

What Frederic Tudor achieved was astounding in its scale, if subtle in its longer-term effect on mankind. It was how he did it and - more importantly - WHEN he did it that fascinates me.

At first, his story reminded me of the insane waste of resources we use to transport bottled water from every continent on earth (even if it's frozen and we need to thaw it.) But if you think about when all of this took place, you'll see it as an amazingly "green" enterprise.

First, to freeze water, we now use electricity rather than forethought. They, on the other hand, simply stepped back and waited for a lake which had frozen for hundreds of thousands of years to freeze once again. To keep water frozen, we continue to use electricity; often in the same device used to make it in the first place. In their case, they hauled large blocks of ice (via horses) to ice houses which, for the next several months, would be the same temperature as the ice itself. Once the weather changed, insulation would help keep the ice cold.

When it was time to move the ice, horses were once again employed to move them around town or to the ships. (Internal combustion-powered vehicles weren't ready to carry anything heavier than the rich people who could afford them.) The ships, in turn, used a source of energy we're only now returning to - wind. Yes, it took a long time to get to where you were going, but other than cooking fires (if such things were permitted on a wooden boat; I'd think not), the ships generated little to no carbon emissions.

From the ship, it was back to horses again or, if the distance on land was greater, then steam locomotives were used; presumably coal-fired. Here's where the "green" breaks down a bit, coal being a notorious pollutant. But if you think about it, steel wheels on steel rails makes for very little friction. Trains can't climb steep mountains so you would either go around them or through them. Hence, no hills to climb burning more fuel.

Once it reached its final destination (sometimes 10,000+ miles from where it started), back into an insulated box it went until it was chipped and used in the finest treatment for Malaria ever invented - the Gin and Tonic.

Considering the effort involved (mostly human and animal), the distance covered (across ice, over land, stored in an ice house, hauled on a ship, placed on a train, hauled over land again, then held), this whole endeavor required amazingly little in the way of fossil fuels.

Ice, too, is an immense luxury, especially at a time when it wasn't possible to just make it anywhere you wanted. Fredric Tudor did the world no giant favor by providing ice to it, but he did make people happier. While a minimal carbon footprint wasn't something anyone pondered in those days, it's remarkable how something so fleeting and frivolous could happen with such minimal impact on the planet.


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