- Historic Sites
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
In 1824 Tudor had the good fortune to team up with Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, whose hotel at Fresh Pond in Cambridge gave access to some of the best ice in the region, relatively free of air bubbles, salts, and other impurities. More important, however, was the fact that Wyeth had invented a simple and highly effective two-bladed horse-drawn ice cutter. One of the two grooves cut by the first pass across the ice was used as a guide for the next pass, and so on, until a series of perfectly parallel grooves had been cut. These were overlaid at right angles by another set of grooves to produce a grid from which ice blocks of uniform size could be harvested. The scored sections were cut and hauled out, using another device designed by Wyeth, and then stored in an insulated icehouse where preservation had been greatly improved by Wyeth’s simple innovation (later patented) of packing sawdust between the blocks of ice. By 1825 two decades of technological and marketing improvements had made Tudor’s ice business profitable, but it was ten more years before he achieved his goal of providing New England ice to the world.
Everybody invited everybody to dinner to taste claret and beer cooled by the ice.”
On April 12, 1833, Tudor recorded in his diary that Samuel Austin had approached him about a shipment of ice to Calcutta. The two men quickly reached terms, and by April 29 Tudor was busy fitting out the vessel: “Over to Charlestown twice today to look after the ship Tuscany preparing to take ice to Calcutta in India. The first experimental cargo. This undertaking has been long my wish to make but have not before been able. It now comes to me without effort and I engage in it taking an interest of 1/3, S. Austin, Jr. 1/3, and Rogers 1/3 and the latter goes out in the ship.” In characteristic style Tudor complained that his knowledge and skill were not respected: “Much discussion about the cargo of ice for Calcutta and interference on the part of the owners of the vessel in the plan of the loading.” Tudor was certain of his methods:
“The space allotted for the ice will admit about 60 cords [each cord measuring four by four by eight feet] to be put on board. Fitted first with a sheathing of boards one inch from the skin of the vessel—then six inches straw was the bottom—6 inches hay stuffed and rammed in the sides, then 1 foot boards or lumber on the bottom—then a foot deep straw on the sides and bulkheads, one foot thick of dry straw rammed in hard—boarded under the beams, and a foot of straw or perhaps 20 inches all dry and connecting with the straw of the bulkheads and sides so as to make an unbroken stratum on top, sides and bottom.”
On May 5 he wrote: “The loading of the Calcutta cargo is commenced today on account of the favorable overcast sky.” Loading was critical; tight packing and good insulation could reduce to 30 percent the loss of ice on the three-month journey. The blocks were fitted together as snugly as possible; any spaces were filled with insulating material, sawdust, wood shavings. The task took three days: “She has 60 cords on board and fitted in a most thorough and expensive manner & if she does not carry her cargo safely to Calcutta & arrive with 2/3 of it, no ship ever will and the undertaking should be abandoned.” May 12: “Sailed this day the ship Tuscany Capt. Littlefield for Calcutta with 180 tons of ice—an experiment I have been desirous of making for 20 years.”
Armed with information about the ship and its captain, I came back to our museum’s extensive archive of shipping records. To my delight, I found a list of voyages that the commander of the Tuscany , Clement Littlefield, had compiled in 1834: “an abstract from my commencement of my going to sea in eighteen hundred and fifteen up to the present time.” In sharp contrast with Tudor’s diary, Littlefield’s is brief and limited to a chronology of destinations and cargoes. Yet it’s clear how much importance he attached to having carried the first ice to India: “… took in a cargo of ice for Calcutta and sailed the 12th of May being the first ice that ever crossed the equator I arrived in Calcutta Sept. 10th with one hundred tons of ice witch [sic] astonished the natives …”
I knew from later entries in Tudor’s diary that the Tuscany had landed with two-thirds of its cargo intact. I wanted to learn more about the reception of this strange cargo that had elicited the elegant and costly silver-gilt cup. A colleague was able to put me in touch with two historians in Calcutta who were investigating the icehouse eventually built to store American ice. Soon I was the recipient of some fascinating information.
In Martinique, Thdor demonstrated how to make ice cream and showed how iceboxes could keep food fresh.
Although there was a small ice manufactory at Hooghly, forty miles upriver from Calcutta, its production was modest, seasonal, very costly, and of poor quality. Ice was skimmed from the surace of water in clay pots left overnight in a reed-lined pit filled with water and saltpeter, added to lower the temperature further. The crystalline blocks from the Tuscany ’s hold delighted British inhabitants long used only to Hooghly slush, and the ice astounded the native population.