What we do without those clanking cubes for our Gin and Tonics?

Something we now take for granted wasn’t always so easy to get hold of.

The ice trade, also known as the frozen water trade, was a 19th-century industry, centering on the east coast of the United States and Norway, involving the large-scale harvesting, transport and sale of natural ice for domestic consumption and commercial purposes. Ice was cut from the surface of ponds and streams, then stored in ice houses, before being sent on by ship, barge or railroad to its final destination around the world. Networks of ice wagons were typically used to distribute the product to the final domestic and smaller commercial customers. The ice trade revolutionized the U.S. meat, vegetable and fruit industries, enabled significant growth in the fishing industry, and encouraged the introduction of a range of new drinks and foods.

The trade was started by the New England businessman Frederic Tudor in 1806. Tudor shipped ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique, hoping to sell it to wealthy members of the European elite there, using an ice house he had built specially for the purpose. Over the coming years the trade widened to Cuba and Southern United States, with other merchants joining Tudor in harvesting and shipping ice from New England. During the 1830s and 1840s the ice trade expanded further, with shipments reaching England, India, South America, China and Australia. Tudor made a fortune from the Indian trade, while brand names such as Wenham Ice became famous in London.

Increasingly, however, the ice trade began to focus on supplying the growing cities on the east coast of the U.S. and the needs of businesses across the Midwest. The citizens of New York City and Philadelphia became huge consumers of ice during their long, hot summers, and additional ice was harvested from the Hudson River and Maine to fulfil the demand. Ice began to be used in refrigerator cars by the railroad industry, allowing the meat packing industry around Chicago and Cincinnati to slaughter cattle locally, sending dressed meat east for either the internal or overseas markets. Chilled refrigerator cars and ships created a national industry in vegetables and fruit that could previously only have been consumed locally. American and British fishermen began to preserve their catches in ice, allowing longer voyages and bigger catches, and the brewing industry became operational all-year around. As U.S. ice exports diminished after 1870, Norway became a major player in the international market, shipping large quantities of ice to England and Germany.

At its peak at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. ice trade employed an estimated 90,000 people in an industry capitalised at $28 million ($660 million in 2010 terms),[a] using ice houses capable of storing up to 250,000 tons (220 million kg) each; Norway exported a million tons (910 million kg) of ice a year, drawing on a network of artificial lakes. Competition had slowly been growing, however, in the form of artificially produced plant ice and mechanically chilled facilities. Unreliable and expensive at first, plant ice began to successfully compete with natural ice in Australia and India during the 1850s and 1870s respectively, until, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, more plant ice was being produced in the U.S. each year than naturally harvested ice. Despite a temporary increase in production in the U.S. during the war, the inter-war years saw the total collapse of the ice trade around the world. Today, ice is occasionally harvested for ice carving and ice festivals, but little remains of the 19th-century industrial network of ice houses and transport facilities.