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History of the Ice Trade

Updated on February 6, 2013
Ice cubes.
Ice cubes. | Source

Next time you put ice in a drink, order ice cream, or browse the frozen food section, consider that it is only in the past few decades that we have had proper mechanical refrigeration. Before then, people had to rely on natural ice for cooling drinks and preserving food.


In early civilizations, the need for refrigeration was limited because food supplies were usually obtained locally and consumed quickly. Exactly when the first harvest, storage, or use of ice occurred is uncertain. Initially, ice or snow would have been used where it could be collected, followed by the storage of ice for use during the warm season.

The earliest suggestions of ice use and storage seem to date back to about 4,000 years ago. Icehouses were likely built as early as 2000 BCE in Assyria, and 1100 BCE in China. By about 400 BCE, the use of ice for cooling drinks was common in ancient Greece.

The early uses of ice varied depending on the region and local conditions. In China, ice which had been harvested in winter was used to preserve food during summer. In the Middle East and Europe, ice and snow were preserved for cooling drinks, in particular sherbet, a fruit juice drink.

In regions that experienced seasonal snows and much ice, methods of preserving pressed snow or harvested ice developed quickly. Insulation with straw, sawdust, and leaves was an early discovery. Even in tropical countries, the wealthy classes learned ways of transporting and storing ice for later use.

1500s to 1800s

By the 1500s, the use of ice for cooling drinks along the Mediterranean coast was common. A system had developed where snow and ice were collected from the mountains, stored underground in caves and pits, then transported in the hot season to the coast.

Nations that had extensive colonial interests in tropical countries realized there was a good business to be made in providing natural ice by ship. Ice deliveries from Europe to India were frequent during this time.

Further Reading

Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices (Faber Finds)
Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices (Faber Finds)

The uses of ice throughout history, in various social and geographical contexts, including trade of ice and its economic roles.



Before the 1800s, most ice harvesting and storage was done individually or locally. However, as the demand for ice increased, such small-scale sources became inadequate. This demand gave rise to an international ice trade and large-scale uses in the early 1800s.

In England, large commercial storage facilities for ice were built. Ice was imported from the Scandinavian countries, stored, then delivered to fishing fleets for keeping their catch fresh. In the United States, the use of ice as a commodity became a major business as well, eventually developing into an ice trade with the East Indies. Ice was harvested mainly around Boston and Maine and stored in large icehouses until shipment.

Through the mid-1800s, many ice trading companies were established, and by about 1880, natural ice had become big business. Despite the development of mechanical refrigeration in the late 1800s, trade in natural ice continued to be important and facilities for storing natural ice were still being built as late as 1914. In cold climates like Russia, natural ice continued to be used well into the 20th century.

Effects on Other Industries

The natural ice trade had effects on various other industries. It increased trade between warm and cold regions, and enabled businesses that needed cold temperatures to operate year-round. With access to ice, brewers were able to make beer year-round, and meat producers were able to transport fresh meat at any time of the year. The shipbuilding industry also benefitted from the increased trade. At the height of the ice trade, ships would often travel south with ice, and returned north with coal. By 1880, the ice trade was so extensive that it put a strain on supplies of sawdust, shavings, and hay used in ice storage. These nearly worthless commodities quickly became very expensive.

After 1900

In most developed countries, the natural ice trade began to decline after the 1890s, mainly due to advances in mechanical refrigeration technology. The adoption of manufactured ice and refrigeration began in warmer climates such as the southern United States. Northern regions, with easier access to winter ice, took longer to adopt refrigeration technology. However, water pollution due to the rapid rise of cities along rivers which were sources of ice became a major problem, eventually prompting rapid adoption of mechanical refrigeration.

Although most urban areas today have adopted mechanical refrigeration, natural ice is still used in less populated and remote regions where it is convenient to obtain natural ice.

© 2012 ArchonCodex


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