Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Frederic Tudor, the Ice King

9/1/2003
Frederic Tudor had a bold idea: Cut winter ice from the ponds of New England and transport it by ship for sale in far away lands including India and Singapore. Stranger still, it worked.

Largely forgotten today, the ice cutting industry was one of the major business enterprises in 18th and 19th century Boston. Ice cut in New England was packed onto insulated ships and transported across the globe. At the center of this booming industry was a successful entrepreneur, Frederick Tudor, better known as the "Ice King." The Tudor Ice Company owned icehouses in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Galle, Singapore, Jamaica, Havana, New Orleans, and Charleston. Tudor conquered many challenges in packing, shipping, and storing ice in far away lands—not the least of which were weather issues—as excerpted in a new biography of Tudor published by the Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport.

The records of the Tudor Ice Company (1752-1863) are part of the manuscript collections of Baker Library at Harvard Business School. Included among the voluminous administrative records for the company are Frederick Tudor's diaries recording his experiences and thoughts over a thirty-year period from 1805 until 1838. In conducting their research for The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, the authors used these diaries extensively.

The winter that rotted in the sky

The winter of 1827-1828 made for great unease for the head that bore the crown of the Ice King. When Frederic opened his almanac diary to inscribe his notes for November 1827, he found this advice from its editors: "Now my friends, put your affairs in order and prepare for an attack. Old December will soon approach with a fierce battalion of snow, sleet, cold wind, and tempest.... Yes, come on my farmer warriors, and be ready for the onset."1 Frederic farmed the frozen waters of New England rather than its soil, but ice had to be ploughed and harvested as carefully as any other crop. The difference was that he harvested his crop while the land farmers were huddling about their firesides.

As winter approached, Frederic's prospects looked especially favorable. Since his return to Boston in the spring of 1823, his ice business had gone well, expanded, and become organized to the point that by March 1827 he had finished harvesting ice for that season. His ice trade was two decades old now. Frederic calculated the total shipments of goods from the port of Boston in 1826-1827 at three thousand tons, of which he had shipped two-thirds. His strongholds—New Orleans, Charleston, and Havana—took most of that stock. Competitors, who had sprung up once he had established the trade, shipped to such places as Wilmington, Delaware; Norfolk, Virginia; and Martinique. One even dared to ship to Charleston; Frederic met him with a price war.

The ice trade flourished only because Boston was the port of entry for southern cotton destined for the textile mills that surrounded the city. Since the South imported no goods from Boston, vessels on the return trip had to go in ballast, which sometimes meant a hold filled with rocks. Thus, ship owners were prepared to give ice cargoes a low rate. By the same token, Boston had the ice trade almost entirely to itself: The other principal ports—New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—shipped farm produce from their back country to the South. The mountains in western Massachusetts blocked Boston from produce grown west of the Hudson River, and the soil east of the mountains was too poor to support large-scale agriculture. Consequently, the growing ice trade could make a substantial contribution to the economy of New England only.

Since temperature was of the essence, Frederic kept a constant eye on his thermometer and recorded the temperature daily. November 1827 was remarkably cold for so early in the season. It looked to Frederic that this winter promised a good crop of ice for cutting.

Boston had the ice trade almost entirely to itself: The other principal ports—New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore--shipped farm produce from their back country to the South.

December began with the temperature hovering annoyingly just above freezing. If one day it dropped to 32 degrees, the next day it shot to 52. Frederic's hopes rose on December 8 when the temperature dipped to 30, but for much of the month it stayed at 36 or just above. Indeed, on the fifteenth it was 48. That day as he walked the nine miles from Boston to Fresh Pond in Cambridge, a walk he made often and one he very much enjoyed, he perspired freely. So far this month he had harvested no ice; instead, he was busy ordering bushes and vines to sell in Havana. It seemed more like spring planting time than winter.

He conferred with Wyeth about a new invention: an iron and steel ice cutter that could cut blocks four inches deep. Wyeth also had made a model for an improved iceloading machine, and Frederic ordered one to be made. On December 20 the thermometer registered 20. Frederic began to feel in the mood for business and signed agreements with Ephraim Spear, a shoemaker aged twenty-five, to take charge of the icehouse in Savannah and with John Beamis to do the same at Augusta. Spear was to get sixty dollars a month and Beamis eighty.

On December 22 the temperature fell to 15 degrees—the coldest it had been so far this winter. The next day it fell to 6. Finally, real winter had come. The day before Christmas Frederic could walk across Fresh Pond on ice five inches thick. Three days later it thickened to eight inches, and a light snow was falling. But the next day, up went the glass to 36, with an easterly rain carrying off the snow. Two days later he walked out to Fresh Pond to see a demonstration of Wyeth's newest ice-loading machine. It failed to meet his approval and the workers returned the older method. When Frederic walked out at noon on December 30, the thermometer, which had read 20 in the morning, read 38. The weather was, as the almanac had predicted for December, changeable--always a safe call in New England.

New Year's Day 1828 came, and Frederic, with a friend from the boardinghouse where he lived, walked to Fresh Pond with skates in their pockets. At the icehouse they put on their blades and coursed about the pond for an hour. Frederic had not skated for years, but he greatly enjoyed any exercise. He came back to Wyeth's hotel and dined on pickerel from the pond. Several men could be seen fishing through the ice. One had caught several pickerel weighing at least twenty pounds.

Wyeth had begun cutting ice for his own icehouse, even though it was only six inches thick. Although Wyeth was in charge of Frederic's ice business, he continued to harvest ice for retail ice dealers in Boston. A number of other people were also cutting on the pond, but Frederic felt it was still too thin for him. Perhaps he could begin after three or four more days of cold weather. It was not to be. The remarkable mildness continued. On Sunday, January 13, he put on his overshoes and walked to Wyeth's. The mud was so deep in many places that he had to walk across the fields. He found Wyeth wandering about the woods "in all the lonely perturbation of invention & contrivance."2

Wyeth's fertile brain was developing improvements for his earlier creations. "I have from time to time given him several hints, particularly respecting the ice cutter which I first suggested to him."3 Seeing him thus busy with his schemes, Frederic, thinking of the day of rest, could not forbear noting in his diary that "for minds highly excited & in great activity there is no Sunday."4 Through the month of January, Frederic made arrangements just as if this were an ordinary winter. He dickered with ship owners to hire their vessels to supply his icehouses in the South. He had his men ready to commence work as soon as the temperature could produce ice of the required thickness.

His consolation for the warm spell was the old proverb "the winter never rots in the sky."5 On January 22, the old proverb seemed true, as the thermometer plunged to two above zero, the coldest day of the winter. Frederic exulted: "The frost covers the windows, the wheels creak, the boys run, winter rules & $50,000 worth of ice now floats for me upon Fresh Pond."6 The next day, he commenced cutting and testing Wyeth's new rig for hoisting ice into wagons. Instead of walking, he rode a chaise to the pond with his icehouse keeper from Havana, John Damon, who was on holiday in Boston. They saw the new device in operation. Inspired by this burst of activity, he then walked to Charlestown started to arrange for fitting two vessels at Deven's Wharf to receive the ice.

Excerpted with permission from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, and Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut. 2003.

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In addition to The Ice King, Carl Seaburg and Stanley Peterson collaborated on two books, Merchant Price of Boston: Colonel T.H. Perkins (1971) and Nahant on the Rocks.

Footnotes

1. Frederic Tudor, diary, Nov. 1827, Tudor Ice Company Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts.

2. Ibid., Jan. 13, 1828.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Henry G. Pearson, "Frederic Tudor, Ice King," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 65 (1932-1936): 196.

6. Frederic Tudor, diary, Jan. 22, 1828, Tudor Ice Company Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts.