- Historic Sites
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Not long ago, while I was in the midst of preparations for an exhibition on early American trade with India, an extraordinary memento of that trade serendipitously appeared at the Peabody Museum of Salem in Massachusetts. Anne Halliday, a retired social worker from Cape Cod, brought in a large, ornate, inscribed silver-gilt presentation cup that had been in her family for many years. Miss Halliday said that her father, a great explorer of the nooks and crannies of Cape Cod during the twenties, had probably acquired the cup for his small collection of sea chests, ship’s clocks, and other things from New England’s sea-faring past. But Miss Halliday didn’t know for certain where the cup was from; she’d seen it for the first time when the family sorted through the father’s things shortly after his death in 1928. The cup spent the next half-century on her brother’s farm in Tennessee. Not until it was returned to her a few years ago did Miss Halliday notice the inscription and realize the object’s historical significance.
The inscription reads: “Presented by Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief, India, to Mr. Rogers of Boston in Acknowledgement of the Spirit and enterprize which projected and successfully executed the first attempt to import a cargo of American ice into Calcutta—Nov22nd, 1833.”
A mysterious relic recalls a time when ice was worthless in New England and priceless in Calcutta, and a fortune awaited the man who figured out how to get it from one place to the other without its melting
Eager to learn more, Miss Halliday went to the Heritage Plantation Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The staff there directed her inquiry to the Peabody Museum because of its important collections related to American trade with Asia. For us at the Peabody the appearance of the presentation cup was a minor miracle, permitting a completely unexpected, major addition to an exhibition and offering a fresh look at the origins of an unusual traffic.
Although surprising when first encountered, the ice trade was a mainstay of New England’s nineteenth-century commerce. The name most closely associated with it is Frederic Tudor, a Boston merchant who pioneered the transport of ice to the tropics in 1806. Tudor managed to keep far enough ahead of his imitators to become known as the Ice King. Despite the introduction of artificial refrigeration beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the trade he founded continued to grow until the 1880s.
We knew about Tudor, but none of us had ever heard of “Mr. Rogers,” and he was not mentioned in any of our sources on the ice trade. Fortunately we knew that Tudor’s business papers are preserved in the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, and they seemed the best place to start looking. The papers, I soon found out, are vast: letters, diaries, account books, patents, and many other documents—an unexpectedly rich resource on mercantile Boston in the nineteenth century, providing rare insight into the life of a Yankee entrepreneur. Among the papers are a series of diaries kept between the years 1805 and 1838. I began my search in the 1833 diary, the year the inscribed cup was presented to Rogers. Sure enough, there were entries mentioning Rogers and the first shipment of ice to India. Rogers. Tudor, and Samuel Austin, Jr., were partners in the venture. Tudor wrote in his diary that this particular shipment of ice represented the culmination of twenty years’ innovation, experimentation, and hard work. In looking through the diary, I found that 1833 had been an unusually turbulent year, even for a great risk taker of tremendous energy and determination. Tudor, who had just turned fifty, was two hundred thousand dollars in debt from losses in coffee, and while this inaugural Indian venture worked out well, it would be years before he could get clear. No sooner had the success in Calcutta become known than one of his partners, Austin, tried to capture the trade for himself. In the midst of this mercantile turmoil, Tudor fell in love with a girl of nineteen and married for the first time. Just two months later his bride discovered, in her own grim words “that the marriage privileges were shared with a woman who [had] lived with him with occasional interruptions since 1824.” But in business as in private life, Tudor prevailed. He was the only one of the three partners who succeeded in the ice trade with India, and his marriage lasted until his death in 1864 and produced six children.
His inscription on the cover of his diary for 1805—the year he started bringing ice to the tropics—suggests the depth of his determination: “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love or business.”
Tudor’s first shipment of ice to the tropics went to Martinique. The 130-ton cargo was harvested from a family pond in Saugus. The venture was not a financial success; Tudor had to solve problems of inefficiency in harvesting, of loss in transit and in storage. He also had to develop a market. In Martinique Tudor himself demonstrated how his product could be used to make ice cream; he promoted the use of iceboxes for keeping food fresh; he fostered the medical application of ice in reducing fevers. He sold his ice cheaply to encourage customers and build his market, and he secured monopolies to ensure that market.