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Who Were the Icemen of Budapest?

Updated on November 20, 2017

During these unusually hot summer days I involuntarily wonder about refreshment and ice. Through the decades when there were no modern refrigerators, people in Budapest depended on icemen when it came to cooling their groceries.

Who were the icemen? What did they do? Why were they needed? Where did they get the ice from?

Typical ice wagon on the streets of Budapest around the 1950s selling an ice block for 4 Forints (about 34 cents at current exchange rate)
Typical ice wagon on the streets of Budapest around the 1950s selling an ice block for 4 Forints (about 34 cents at current exchange rate)

Until the 1950s people carrying ice blocks were not an unusual sight, and in the 1960s ice was still purchased in Budapest.

Iceboxes were invented in the 19th century in order to cool food – at that time, in a modern fashion. The box was covered with a wooden or metal case, and needed to be filled with fresh ice weekly, which was stored in ice pits beforehand.

Where did the ice come from? At the beginning ice was harvested during the winter from frozen lakes and rivers, but in the 20th century ice was produced in large amounts by using industrial methods.

Ice harvesters
Ice harvesters

How exactly ice was harvested?

Role of ice and ice pits in the countryside

As I have read on the website of the Hungarian village Tunyogmatolcs, ice-houses were built in shadowy places, a few metres deep, padded and topped with a building.

In winter, ice was harvested through a difficult and dangerous procedure, then were covered with straw.

Sectional view of an ice-house
Sectional view of an ice-house | Source

“In the summer heat ice was used to cool pub drinks and butcher meats. But more importantly, to cure inflammatory illnesses, especially to ice appendicitises. As you know, not all the villages had a doctor, and hospitals were even more rare. Whatever was possible, was cured locally. Getting ice was a privilege. The ice-house, the key of which was kept at the town-hall, could be opened only by the town crier for the relatives of a patient if their doctor or the midwife ordered so".

Iceboxes - the first refrigerators

Iceboxes are the non-mechanical refrigerators of the early twentieth century kitchen appliances of homes and restaurants. Iceboxes were made of wood and had hollow walls that were lined with metal and packed with various insulating materials for example straw. A large block of ice was held in a tray or compartment near the top of the box. Cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the lower section. The user removed the water that was the result of the melted ice, and replaced it with a new piece of ice from the iceman.

Iceboxes date back to the days of ice harvesting, which had hit an industrial high that ran from the mid-19th century to the 1930s, when the refrigerator was introduced into the home. Most non-industrially consumed ice was harvested during the winter from snow-packed areas or frozen lakes, stored in ice houses to be delivered to the residents as iceboxes became more common. Did you know that 110 years ago 81% of New York City inhabitants had some kind of refrigation such as ice stored in a tub or a real icebox? The use of iceboxes was very important in big cities, primarily during the summer.

Old Iceboxes

But many sources of natural ice became contaminated from industrial pollution or bacterias. Because of the danger of epidemics, when early mechanical refrigerators became available they were installed as large industrial plants producing ice in Hungary too. These factories were able to produce clean ice and replaced the harvested ice for homes and restaurants. The use of iceboxes was so common that some old Hungarians are still using the word icebox instead of refrigerator.

Iceboxes were used in Hungarian households until the late 1960`s. So where else was ice used in Budapest? For example the Parliament Building.

The Parliament Building

Amazing Cooling System

The construction of the Parliament building started in 1885 based on the blueprints of Steindl Imre (1839-1902). However, the opening ceremony was only held 17 years later on 2 October 1902, five weeks after the architect, Imre Steindl`s death. Long before the architect had passed away, in 1896, the first session of the Hungarian Parliament was held in the Dome. The final touches were completed long after the opening in 1904.

The building`s heating and ventilation was considered one of the most modern systems in Europe. This one-of-a-kind heating and cooling system was the product of Imre Steindl`s genius. While heating was provided by a boiler room built a few blocks from the building, two fountains and a network of tunnels were responsible for cooling the Parliament. The humid air flowed through the fountains` drains into the tunnels and travelled for 80 meters underground until it reached the Parliament Building, cooling down even more on its way.

This cool air moved underneath and inside this mysteriously winding network of tunnels paved with tiles. These air ”boulevards” split into alleys and connected to every part of the building. During the wintertime heating season, hot steamy air was combined in a ”mixing chamber” under the assembly hall and that warm air circulated into the halls and rooms of the Parliament through floor vents made of brass, copper and bronze. Stale air was captured and flowed out of a ventilation system by the chandeliers into the underground network and left the building by the Danube side through a huge cavern.

In 1927 the whole Kossuth Square had gone under reconstruction and the tunnel network was shortened. The fountains have been replaced by a well covered with a grill and ornamented with a cast iron hemisphere. This well is much closer to the building than the fountains were. Water pipes have been installed that provide water creating a light mist which is now how the whole building has access to fresh cool air. This method is still being used, moreover, from the 1930`s up till 1994, large blocks of ice were placed here on hot summer days to generate even cooler air for the building. Through this underground circulation system one can still smell grass inside the building whenever the lawn is freshly mowed on Kossuth square.


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