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The Astonishing Story Of How Ice Was Made In 19th -Century India

23/08/2016 2:14 PM IST | Updated 24/08/2016 8:34 AM IST
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In a recent conversation with my dad, he mentioned that during his childhood in his village, two things stood out as status symbols: having a transistor or ice at home.

The journey of transistors going mainstream is relativity better known but I couldn't stop thinking about the other element, the course of ice reaching our households and becoming a part of our everyday life.

The oldest living relics of our country's history of ice are the barafkhanas, some of which still survive in cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Karachi and Jaipur. People in the barafkhana of Delhi are quick to inform you that this place has been serving ice to the city since the time of Mughals but it was hard for me to say that whether there was any truth to it.

The first ice that Calcutta ever saw came all the way from Boston, having travelled halfway across the world, which used to take around four months.

After some research I could conclude that people in the 19th century did use ice in their sherbets, water and alcohol. But it was such an expensive commodity, that only the rich could afford it. When I first heard about how this ice was made was available, it sounded like an impossibility. But then, more and more evidence added up to support the same story.

By the mid-19th century, ice was being traded in huge quantities in Europe and the Americas, when it first reached India. And this is how it was done: businessmen would take a bunch of labourers to cold places and narrow down on a frozen lake or pond and start cutting them into smaller blocks. These pieces would then be loaded on a train and in some cases then transferred to ships. Through them, ice was taken to the warmer cities. In fact, the first ice that Calcutta ever saw came all the way from Boston, having travelled halfway across the world, which used to take around four months. It's fascinating that entrepreneurs had figured out ways for this journey to be made possible.

The tools used in this "ice trade" evolved to become more and more efficient with time. The first thing that needed to be taken care of was that whether the ice was deep enough to withstand the torture of the travel. By trial and error it was concluded that ice needed to be at least fourteen inches thick to make the journey. Just like farmers use oxen to plough their fields, horses were used to pull ploughs to cut the ice into regular squares. The reason for this was that they had ridden the horse to the mountain anyway, so might as well use them to plough as well. Once the squares had been cut, something heavy was thrown on them to separate them from each other. The blocks of ice would then start floating in the water and be stored in an ice house, taken there through conveyor belts.

Ice harvesting on Whitefish Lake, Crow Wing County, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The technique which was used to save this ice from melting was to store it in houses or boxes with a lining of sawdust, known to be a good insulator. Although this trade started from the US, with time it established its grip over Hindustan as well and some of its traces can still be seen today.

In Chennai, one can still visit Vivekanandar Illam, which was built in 1842 to be used as an ice house by an American entrepreneur called Frederic Tudor, who came to be called the "Ice King". It continued to be used as an ice house until 1882, which was when other ways of making ice took over, many years after Tudor died.

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It might sound like the most natural thing today, but it wasn't always obvious that putting ice in a drink like a sherbet or whiskey makes it taste better. Frederic Tudor realised this in the early 19th century but he knew it would be an uphill task to convince others. To tackle this challenge, he adopted a technique which is used by drug peddlers in today's time: giving away the first one for free.

With time, people started adapting to having their drinks with ice. Tudor's ice became popular to the extent that he raised his prices. In India, his ice became a big source of relief for the British, who had been struggling to handle the heat of Calcutta and Bombay. Some of the British used to joke that the heat of Calcutta was more dangerous than any mutiny the city could offer.

In Chennai, one can still visit Vivekanandar Illam, which was built in 1842 to be used as an ice house by an American entrepreneur called Frederic Tudor...

Another reason why the ice trade flourished in India was that in the 19th century, India used to export a lot more to the US than it used to import. As a result the ships used to go loaded to the US but would come back empty. As a result of this spare capacity, the cost of shipping ice from the US to India was minimal.

And then someone realized that storing your fruits and vegetables in ice makes them last a lot longer. Because of this revelation, there was a further spurt in demand for ice. In today's time it's hard to imagine how something as perishable as a tomato would have reached people's homes back then.

The ice trade became so competitive that brands started to get built in this domain. Some would say that their ice was purest while others would claim that their storage technique was most sophisticated. The brand which stood out was Wenham Lake, which began to be regarded as the purest. Word started getting around that the Queen of England used only the ice from Wenham. It got so big that Norway decided to cash in on the brand by renaming a lake as Wenham.

It was the year 1805 when Frederic Tudor, only 22 years old, was hanging out with his brother during a vacation. Both of them were having ice cream when Frederic's brother joked that if the workers in West Indies could see them, they'd be so jealous. This statement made in jest consumed Frederic Tudor's mind for many months, as he noticed that even though there was plenty of ice in his city, people in warmer places hardly ever saw it, even during winters.

Tudor started by focusing on bars, where he thought whiskey drinkers would be the easiest to convert to ice consumers.

So Tudor hired some workers and made his first journey on a boat. People made fun of him in the beginning for wanting to take ice to warmer places. They said he had lost his mind. He struggled at every step, as he was setting up an industry which didn't exist at the time.

In the first journey, the ice managed to reach the city but melted soon after being off-boarded as there were obviously no ice houses to store it. Once he tackled that, Tudor realized that people in warm places have a centuries-old habit of just eating and drinking warm stuff, which was hard to change. Tudor started by focusing on bars, where he thought whiskey drinkers would be the easiest to convert to ice consumers. In the course of this business, Tudor failed many times and also went to jail because of his debts. But with time he did manage to build a successful business.

And finally on 7 May, 1833, Tudor shipped his first consignment to India, which reached on 13 September, after more than four months. With time, on seeing Tudor, many other businessmen started ice businesses of their own and just like the ice he was selling, Tudor's business got cold.

You can listen to this story and others like this one on my podcast: www.igvpod.com

Golden Baba

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