Wednesday, March 8, 2017

History, Genealogy, and Ice Harvesting

History and Genealogy are conjoined twins, and like all such twins, while they are intimately connected, they each eventually and inevitably develop different perspectives and interests. One has perhaps a broader vision and more desire for external adventures and the other maybe has vision focused in a more limited direction and is content with internal, parochial adventures.  And yet both are inexorably influenced and guided by the other without end.  As I have often thought and said, genealogy is history on the most immediate and personal level, while history writ large is much broader in societal and temporal scope.

Broader history often informs our more personal and focused genealogy endeavors and so I have yet to meet anyone who indulges in Genealogy as a hobby or profession who is not also a devoted student of History. 

And it is with this intimate conjunction of History and Genealogy that I from time-to-time set aside a post here at The Prism to recommend a history book that I think can offer interesting and important material for genealogists. This is one of those posts. 

As a follow up to a recent post about a trip north to the Adirondacks in upstate New York and the Winter Carnival of Saranac Lake, I want to recommend a very interesting and informative book by Caperton Tissot titled "Adirondack Ice a Cultural and Natural History." [1] 

It was not until just after the turn of the last century (in the life time of many of our grandparents) that refrigerators for home use were first invented. Fred W. Wolfe of Fort Wayne, Indiana is often credited as the first inventor in 1913. The early domestic refrigeration systems consisted of a refrigeration unit mounted on a so-called "cold box." These first home refrigeration units were a bit cumbersome and space intensive since most of them required the mechanical parts of the system (the motor and compressor) to be placed in an adjacent room or in the basement while the cold box was conveniently located in the kitchen. It was not until 1923 that the first self-contained home refrigerator unit was introduced by Kelvinator and by that year the company had 80% of the home market for electric refrigerators. But, it was not until 1927 (the year my mother was born) that GE introduced what they called the "Monitor-Top"[2] refrigerator; it became the first really widespread home refrigerator with over 1 million units sold. 

The General Electric "Monitor-Top"
 refrigerator of 1927.

A real downside to the Monitor-Top and similar home refrigeration units was the refrigerants that were used -- either methyl formate or sulfur dioxide. The former was highly flammable and toxic if inhaled or ingested, while the latter was very corrosive and could irritate the eyes and even cause a loss of vision or cause burns and lesions if it came in contact with the skin. It was only when Freon was introduced in the 1930s that a refrigerator with safer, less toxic refrigerant came to market. 

Before powered refrigerators were introduced to American kitchens, the common method of cooling and keeping food in the early 20th-century was a mechanical kitchen appliance known as an "icebox" or "cold closet." [I remember my maternal grandparents still having a beautiful oak ice box in their kitchen in the early 1950s and getting blocks of ice delivered for it.]

An icebox was constructed with walls lined in tin or zinc and packed with insulation made of materials such as cork, sawdust, seaweed, or straw. To provide the cooling, a large block of ice was placed in a compartment of the box or on a tray at the top of the box and then the cold air would circulate down and envelope the lower storage compartments. For less expensive icebox models the water created when the ice block melted would collect in a drip pan that was placed beneath the icebox and would have to be emptied almost every day. More luxurious models had a holding tank for the accumulated ice water and a spigot that could be more conveniently used to drain off the water. 

An oak icebox similar to the one owned by my maternal grandparents.

And with this brief background on refrigeration in American kitchens, we come full circle to Adirondack Ice and how History writ large can so nicely and interestingly inform personal Genealogy.

Iceboxes, of course, were completely dependent on large quantities of ice in order to bring refrigeration into American kitchens. So naturally an industry developed to provide this necessary commodity to American homes. Before the advent of powered refrigeration, it was certainly not feasible to provide the ice for iceboxes through artificial refrigeration and so the source had to be naturally formed ice. And where was the best source for natural, freshwater ice to be found in sufficient quantities? In the large ponds and lakes of the northern tier of American states of course! 

Beginning in the mid-19th century and well into the 1930s the industry known as "ice harvesting" thrived in the United States in order to provide the ice refrigerant necessary for all the iceboxes in kitchens across the country. The basic process involved cutting and retrieving large blocks of ice created naturally in frozen lakes and ponds and preserving them in large, thick-walled ice houses where the blocks were insulated with layers of plentiful sawdust or other materials until they could be transported to market. In the colder climes of the country .  .  .  farms, restaurants, markets, and resorts would construct and fill their own ice houses (or contract with ice harvesters to fill them). In the warmer more southerly states, the ice was transported and stored in ice houses closer to the cities and towns where the ice was needed. [I remember a large ice house up on "the Heights" in Concord, New Hampshire in the early 1960s where my family would get 12 to 18 inch square blocks of ice to use in ice chests for picnics, trips to the drive-in, etc.  The ice was in a building built part way underground with a heavy wooden door that opened into a cavernous, pitch black interior where the blocks of ice would be hauled from under layers of sawdust with tongs and then washed off with a hose before being dropped into our ice chest.] 

So for almost 100 years the natural ice harvesting industry provided a huge number of jobs for Americans from the actual harvesting, to the storage, mass transportation, and delivery of the ice into American homes. At one time the delivery of ice to homes by the "iceman" was as common as the delivery of milk by the milkman and it had all the same social importance. 

Many of us might actually have relatives or ancestors who made their living in whole or in part as integral links in the chain of the ice harvesting industry . . . and this is why I recommend Adirondack Ice as not only a very interesting and informative history, but also as a resource for informing and enhancing an understanding of what could well be a part of your family genealogy!

If you had ancestors or relatives that lived in the northernmost tier of states you might have some ice harvesters in your family tree.  In Adirondack Ice you can learn about the typical process and tools used to get naturally formed ice from frozen lakes. [The tools and terms in the process derive from farming terms and implements and many farmers turned to ice harvesting when their fields were under feet of snow during the intense northern winters.] You might have an iceman in the family who made ice deliveries to homes and restaurants. Or you might have a family member who operated an ice house to supply the iceman, or worked to transport the ice to ice houses from the northern harvesting points.  If any of these occupations are known amongst your ancestors or relatives (or you think they might be), then you really should pick up Adirondack Ice to learn more about this fascinating, but now long-gone industry.

Adirondack Ice is a brief history of the formation and forms of natural ice and a fact-filled, well illustrated explanation of the process of ice harvesting in the past and its limited preservation and uses today.  You can see photographs of the early harvesting process and the development of the tools and automation of the process.  You can see a photo of an ice house in New York that held 46,000 tons of harvested lake ice. Learn how in 1913 -- on the cusp of the powered refrigeration revolution -- 1,200 to 1,500 tons of Adirondack ice, in about fifty train boxcars a day, were shipped to the metropolitan areas of New York City. Learn more about northern ice sports, celebrations, animal strategies for living with ice, and, most of all, learn the importance of northern ice to the way of life of our ancestors and relatives!

Adirondack Ice provides an absorbing connection between History and Genealogy and you will not regret adding it to your reading list -- especially when the heat of summer arrives and you want a nice read while you relax with an ice-filled glass of your favorite drink. 😊      
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[1]  Caperton Tissot, Adirondack Ice a Cultural and Natural History (Saranac Lake, New York, Snowy Owl Press, 2010).

[2] Apparently the name "Monitor-Top" came from the resemblance the top unit had to the gun turret on the Civil War era ironclad, USS Monitor.  

The scanned image of the book cover is from this blog author's personal copy of the book.

The image of the GE Monitor-Top refrigerator is from the digital collection of Mike Manning and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

The image of an oak icebox similar to one used by my maternal grandparents is from Magi Media and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

To learn more about the use of home refrigerators in the U.S. see,  For more about "iceboxes" (or "cold closets") see,

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Copyright 2017, John D. Tew
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  1. I remember my father talking about helping to harvest ice from a nearby lake when he was a young man. This book will be an interesting read. I'm sorry our local library doesn't have a copy.

  2. Thank you for commenting Nancy! What lake or region did your dad harvest ice?

    The book "Adirondack Ice" is an oversized (7.5" x 10") paperback with lots of photos and I think I paid $25. I am sure it can be purchased online if your library does not have it or cannot get it via inter-library loan. Since your dad was part of the harvesting of ice, I think you would enjoy the book.