In 1805, Frederic Tudor decided to make his fortune by selling ice to people in tropical climates.
Most people thought the 23-year-old was crazy, but Frederic Tudor knew something most people didn’t. His wealthy family had the luxury of an ice house, and he had experienced the joys of cold mixed drinks and ice cream in the summer. He figured he could get the rest of the world addicted to the stuff.
And so in 1806, he launched his business by sending to Martinique a brig full of ice cut from his family’s pond. He told his sales agent to give it away to bartenders.
“A man who has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again,” Frederic Tudor wrote.
His first venture failed, and so did his second, third and fourth. In the end, Frederic Tudor made his millions and revolutionized the way the world ate and drank.
He was born in to a Brahmin family on Sept. 4, 1783, the day after the signing of the treaty that ended the American Revolution. His father, William Tudor, had studied law in John Adams’ law office, become George Washington’s first judge advocate general and started a lucrative law practice in Boston.
William Tudor liked to live large and followed the new upper-class fashion of drinking alcoholic beverages with ice. His 23-year-old son Frederic seized on the idea of bringing the luxury of ice from Massachusetts lakes and ponds to the tropical masses in the Caribbean.
In 1806, he sent his first shipment of ice to Martinique amid much derision. “No JOKE,” reported the Boston Gazette. “A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”
Ice turned out to be a harder sell than Frederic Tudor imagined. He was trying to sell it to people who had never once experienced anything cold. They didn’t have ice houses, and they didn’t know how to keep ice from melting. He and his partner – his brother William – lost money on the deal. William dropped out of the business, founded the North American Review and co-founded the Boston Athenaeum.
Frederic Tudor stubbornly persisted, sending another shipment of ice to Cuba. Again he lost money.
So did his father – in a real estate speculation gone disastrously wrong. Frederic Tudor kept shipping ice, losing money but learning ways to keep ice cold. Sawdust, for example, worked better than straw.
But then Frederic Tudor spent parts of 1812 and 1813 in debtors prison after his business partner swindled him.
He kept going. “Let those laugh who win,” he wrote.
He borrowed money, bought ice in Massachusetts and an icehouse in Cuba and set sail for the Caribbean. “Pursued by sheriffs to the very wharf,” he wrote. Finally, he made some money on his crystal blocks of Yankee coldness.
Frederic Tudor expanded his business to Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, developing new sales techniques along the way.
He gave bartenders free ice for a year after teaching them how to keep it frozen in a ‘refrigerating jar’ and how to make cocktails like the Smash. He sold ice to Havana coffee shop owners and the keeper of the Tivoli Gardens after teaching them how to make ice cream.
During one mild winter, he faced an ice shortage. So he sent his ship’s captain to take a detour to Labrador and hack off part of an iceberg. Tudor also ventured to the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine to find enough ice to ship.
In 1825 came another big turning point: Frederic Tudor met Nathaniel Wyeth, a hotel owner. Wyeth invented a horse-drawn ice plow that cut ice from ponds far more cheaply and efficiently than the laborious hand labor then used. Tudor hired Wyeth as his foreman and expanded his ice-cutting operation.
In 1833, Frederic Tudor gambled that a shipment of ice would survive the voyage to India. He was right. The arrival of the ice caused a sensation, especially among the colonial British administrators.
Henry David Thoreau heard about it. He watched as Tudor’s men divided Walden Pond into a chessboard pattern and cut ice into square, two-foot blocks. “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges,” wrote Thoreau.
The same year he sent ice to India, Frederic Tudor, 50, met 19-year-old Euphemia Fenno. They married the next year and had six children.
Frederic Tudor finally achieved the success he craved, earning the nickname ‘Ice King.’ At one point he owned ice houses in Havana, Jamaica, New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile, Ala., Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Sri Lanka and Singapore.
But he had created a market for ice too big for one company to serve. By 1855, 12 companies shipped ice from the Boston area.
In the run-up to the Civil War, American ships carried more tonnage of ice than any other commodity except for cotton.
People had come to view ice as a necessity to preserve food and medicine. When the Civil War broke out, two-thirds of Boston and New York households received ice deliveries every day.
And in 1862, a bartender named Jerry Thomas published The Bartenders Guide, with recipes for America’s cocktails – most of which used ice.
Wenham Lake Ice
Between 1844 and the early 1850s, the remarkably pure ice from Wenham Lake in Massachusetts became a fashionable luxury among the British aristocracy. The best London hotels put up signs advertising Wenham ice. It was said you could read a newspaper through a block of Wenham Lake ice two feet thick.
Wenham ice inspired the popularity of cocktails like sherry cobblers and mint juleps in London. No fancy dinner party was complete without it, and Queen Victoria insisted on it.
A competitor to Frederic Tudor, the Wenham Lake Ice Co., had promoted the stuff.
By 1850, Norway and Sweden began to export ice. One ice company bought Lake Oppegaard in Norway and rechristened it “Lake Wenham.”
Frederic Tudor died in 1864, his fortune said to amount to $200 million in today’s dollars. His estate in Nahant, Mass., became a country club. His great-granddaughter Tasha Tudor illustrated nearly 100 children’s books and received many honors for them.
The ice business thrived, with Massachusetts supplying ice around the world from ponds in Boston, Cambridge, Arlington, Ayer, Stoneham, Wakefield, Woburn, Andover and Lynnfield.
By 1880, 22 icehouses stored 30,000 tons of ice next to Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain. In Vermont, 5,000 men cut ice on Lake Champlain.
But artificial refrigeration eventually overtook the need for natural ice. The commercial ice maker, invented in 1854, allowed people around the world to make their own ice for cocktails and ice cream.
How To Make a Smash
Dissolve sugar in water in a cocktail shaker; add mint and spirits. Shake well with ice and strain through a fine strainer into a rocks or old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish.
Images: Wenham Lake By Daderot. – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1029494. This story about Frederic Tudor was updated in 2020.