Today, the thought of the ice and snow that winter brings has struck terror in many a New Englander. In the early 1900s, however, ice was a large commodity. The first chill in the air brought hopes of a prosperous winter, as harvesting ice was a major part of the early economy of New England. Ice was essential to chill perishable food and medical supplies. But the ’ice season’ was short, lasting from mid-December through March, with temperatures at their lowest throughout January and February.
During the 1800s, new techniques for storing ice were invented. Northern communities near large bodies of fresh water harvested ice for 10 hours a day, 7 days of the week until the entire crop was harvested. The ice also needed to be 14 to 16 inches thick to hold a team of horses and men.
To harvest the ice, the snow would be cleared, and then the ice would be sawed into large blocks (that could weigh up to 300 lbs!). An ice saw cut the ice, and then it was broken off with a breaker bar. Ice tongs were used to grab the blocks and manipulate them.
The ice was floated ashore, or attached to a sled and hauled ashore by horses. (This job was eventually done with a steam powered engine as industrial times progressed.) The ice was then hauled up a ramp and into a nearby icehouse or ice wagon.
Ice tongs were needed by both ice workers and the public, so they came in different shapes and sizes. Large platform ice tongs were used in the ice house, while lightweight ice tongs were used by delivery men. Homeowners used small camp ice tongs.
Icemen delivered the ice in ice wagons to local business and families. Many residential homes had ice boxes to keep their food and supplies chilled.
Between 1889 and 1890, the winter was very mild. This spurred inventors to find an alternative to ice harvesting, leading to numerous refrigeration inventions. By the mid-1940s, refrigerators were widely used, bringing an end to the lucrative practice of ice harvesting.
However, large blocks of ice are still needed for ice sculpting at venues such as fine restaurants, ice festivals and wedding. Come visit The Past Antiques Marketplace to view our selection of vintage ice tools! We are located on Route 85 in Montville, CT.