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Why Was Frederic Tudor Known as “The Ice King”?

Margaret Lipman
Published Jun 20, 2024
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In the 21st century, having ice on demand is simply part of modern life. Most of us have freezers capable of turning water into ice cubes in just a few hours. Fridge freezers can dispense cubed or crushed ice instantly at the push of a button.

In chillier parts of the world, ice has always been relatively accessible, at least during the winter months. Yet in places that don’t experience the seasons, even the onset of winter brought little respite from the heat before the invention of electricity. Ice was an unimaginable luxury.

That’s where Frederic Tudor, the founder of the long-distance ice trade, comes in. As a young man, Tudor had the ingenious idea of harvesting ice and shipping it to warmer climes, not just as a novelty for cocktail parties but also as an important method for storing food to prevent spoilage. In the 19th century, preserving fresh foods like meat and dairy products was a serious struggle, and consuming spoiled food could have deadly consequences. The practice of cutting blocks of ice from frozen ponds and lakes and storing them in icehouses was already well-known in Europe and North America, but no one had tried shipping ice to places with year-round warm weather.

Tudor’s ice business didn’t see immediate success. In 1806, unable to get any Boston shipowners interested in his idea, 23-year-old Tudor purchased his own ship, the Favorite, and filled the brig's hold with ice from his father’s Massachusetts farm to send to Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Tudor's early voyages resulted in financial losses, partly because much of the ice melted on the weeks-long journey from New England and partly because there was nowhere to store it upon arrival. Although he began to turn a profit by 1810, he also spent time in debtors’ prison due to huge personal debts.

However, Tudor pressed on with his idea to export ice to the tropics, building a new ice house in Havana and improving how he packed and insulated the ice. Fortunately for Tudor, not only could he source ice for free (except for the labor to cut it into blocks), but the sawdust used to insulate it was also free as it was a waste product from lumber mills. Though Tudor undoubtedly deserved his "Ice King" nickname, he certainly owed some of his success to Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, who invented numerous tools for improving the ice business, including a horse-drawn ice plow that allowed the large blocks to be mass-produced.

The Ice King cometh:

  • Wherever Tudor's ice houses appeared, he created a demand for cool, refreshing beverages, ensuring a steady supply of customers. The most lucrative market in the ice trade would ultimately be India, particularly Calcutta, despite being a four-month journey from Boston. When the Tuscany arrived in Calcutta in September 1833, many onlookers thought they were witnessing a practical joke, but the brig turned out to contain 100 tons of ice—an impressive result considering the hold had originally been packed with 180 tons.

  • Clearly a risk-taker, Tudor suffered several missteps in his various business ventures, such as attempting to import a shipload of Cuban fruit in 1816 that was almost entirely rotten by the time it reached New York. He also speculated on coffee futures in the 1830s, using his ice business as collateral. Despite initially making millions, he was in debt by $250,000 by 1834. Luckily for Tudor, the ice trade continued to be profitable during the 1840s, and he boasted ice houses in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Brazil, India, and even Hong Kong. The Ice King died a wealthy man in 1864 at the age of 80.

  • The word “refrigerator” used to refer to what we now call iceboxes—large wooden boxes lined with metal and other insulating materials with an ice compartment at the top to keep perishable food cool. These were commonly used well into the 20th century, until the 1930s saw both the rise of the electric refrigerator and the mechanical ice machine.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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