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How ice became a revolutionary idea that generated millions of dollars

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“Many years later, in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía had to remember that remote afternoon when his father took him to see the ice.”

That’s what Gabriel García Márquez told us in his “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

While the ice had been carried to Macondo by gypsies who arrived every year with marvels of distant lands, a Bostonian named Frederic Tudor, known in the 19th century as “the king of ice”, arrived in other parts of the Caribbean.

He had been born in 1783 and in 1806 it had occurred to him to harvest what his land gave in abundance each winter, cutting blocks of frozen water from lakes and packing them in a mixture of hay and sawdust to keep them thermally insulated until they reached warm places.

Today, Tudor would be one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs: at the age of twenty, he created a demand that did not exist, selling something that nature gave and, according to several economic historians, marking a before and after.

In his time he also came to be admired, but first, he was mocked.

Cold in the tropics f

While it is true that Tudor created a massive demand for its product, frozen water had been appreciated since time immemorial.

Both in the Mediterranean and in South America, for example, there was a long history of bringing it from the peaks of the Alps and the Andes during the summer months.

The eccentric Roman Emperor Elagabulus sent slaves into the mountains to bring snow and piled it up in his garden so that the breeze would cool the interior of his lavish dwelling.

There was even production of artificial ice since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but the quantities were small.

By the 19th century, there were also some chemical methods for cooling beverages, which involved mixing them with nitro or sulfuric acid.

But until then, all this was a luxury in which only the richest could be given.

Ice to relieve fever

In 1805, the towns and cities of the then known West Indies islands – the Caribbean islands of the Antilles and Bahamas – were decimated by yellow fever and almost all the officers and crews of the European fleets were victims of the disease.

Tudor shipped ice that he cut from a small pond located in one of his properties and embarked a few tons on a sailboat in which he set sail for Martinique.

“It’s not a joke: a ship full of ice travels to Martinique”, was the title of a Boston newspaper about the adventure, which together with the subtitle – “Hopefully it does not turn out to be a slippery speculation!” – reflects how eccentric it seemed at that moment.

Despite the ridicule, according to an article on the subject published in New York in 1875 in the illustrated journal Scriber’s Monthly, “one of the prominent aspects of Tudor’s character (…) was his total disregard for the opinions of the others “.

The author notes that from his lips he heard how the experience was and that “it was not a whim or mere speculation that led him to embark on his experiment, it was a study and the results of his theories effectively vindicated his strength”.

Caribbean monopolies

That first trip was a failure; the ice melted before anyone could take advantage of it.

However, the cargo had survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The problem was that there was nowhere to store it in Martinique.

So when, the following year, he repeated the feat, fate changed to Cuba, where he had negotiated with the authorities to build an appropriate deposit to store ice.

Over time, Tudor had a monopoly of that trade both in Havana and other parts of Cuba and in Jamaica, at that time the richest possession of the British Empire.

Whiskey with ice

For his homeland, Tudor drew a strategy.

“The goal is for the entire population to get used to cold drinks instead of hot or warm ones,” he wrote in his diary.

With that in mind, he instructed his employees to go from bar to bar trying to convince the owners to use their product in the drinks.

As an incentive, I offered them free ice for a whole year.

“A single conspicuous bartender who constantly sells his cold liquors without an increase in price makes it absolutely necessary for others to do the same or lose their customers,” he wrote in the newspaper.

Unlike the British, for example, it is rare to see an American drinking whiskey without ice … a Tudor legacy?

The point is that…

By the mid-nineteenth century, the ice of Tudor and its partner Nathaniel Wyeth was not only sold in large quantities in the United States but reached ports in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Calcutta.

The ice industry grew, with imitators taking advantage of the opportunity to make money, and during the 1850s about 140,000 tons of ice left Massachusetts every year to bring some of the colds of its winter to more than 50 cities around the world.

The article by Scriber’s Monthly, written some 20 years later, highlights: “It is amazing to see to what extent an article, which was considered a luxury in non-producing countries and – in northern latitudes – as an article with no practical value calculated, has been recognized in the world of commerce. ”

And lists his virtues saying: “One hardly notices the frozen lakes and rivers north will give labor to thousands who otherwise would be unemployed for most of the winter months, that trade ice employs millions of capital that in the income by trade in the United States, both foreign and domestic, is classified next to cotton and grain, and often exceeds the latter “.

In addition, already at that time, the author of the article recognizes something that later, with the advent of more advanced technology to do what with much work was done with simple ice, he forgot.

Before the fridge

or many connoisseurs of the subject, Tudor, and the ice trade were the catalysts of a powerful transformation of everyday life.

In the words of Scriber’s Monthly : “The universal practical use for which it is applied (ice) in the preservation of meat, fruits and vegetables has, in the last 30 years, produced a total revolution in the system of domestic economy, without saying nothing of the blessings that he has brought to the suffering humanity in our hospitals and in our pestilential cities. ”

All this thanks to what Colonel Aureliano Buendía knew that remote afternoon that he remembered in front of the firing squad:


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