- 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.
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.
“It was an hour after dawn one morning in spring,” one of them recalled, “—a time of the year when the cool air and fogs of February are suddenly exchanged for the hot winds—that a ‘faithful’ domestic came to my bedside with the strange intimation that a ship was off the town laden with burruf (snow). … What could he mean? Ice from America! An entire cargo! So I at once jumped up, bathed, while my horse was being saddled, and then rode down to the ghaut. Engaging a paunchway, a small native wherry, I pulled on board the Yankee clipper. … I was allowed to peep into the abyss which contained the treasure. There it lay! in square masses of the purest crystal packed carefully and scientifically. … I hurried off giving my khansamah a wicker basket and a piece of green baize and sent him off with a rupee for a pound of ice. He soon returned with half the quantity. ‘How is this?’ ‘Master, all make melt.’ ‘Did you wrap it well up in the cloth?’ ‘No Sahib, that make ice too muchee warm.’ ‘Did you close the basket?’ ‘No, Master, because that make ice more warm.’ How many Calcutta tables glittered that morning with lumps of ice! The butter dishes were filled; the goblets of water were converted into miniature Arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon, that people might rush about to pay each other congratulatory visits, and devise means for perpetuating the ice-supply. Everybody invited everybody to dinner, to taste of claret and beer cooled by the American importation. …”
William C. Rogers remained in Calcutta to supervise storage and sales. On November 22 the governor-general, William Bentinck, the highest-ranking government officer in India, published a letter in the India Gazette under the headline THE IMPORTATION OF AMERICAN ICE: “To W. C. Rogers, Esq. of Boston. Sir, The importation of American ice into Calcutta is an enterprise so novel and beneficial that I cannot resist the desire of expressing to you my sense of the spirit and skill by which it has been planned and executed. I beg that you, under whose superintendence it has been conducted, will do me the favor to accept the accompanying small token of the gratification which I have derived from the success of this extraordinary undertaking. A few months ago such a project as that which you have realized would have been regarded as visionary and I have no hesitation in declaring to you my opinion that its accomplishment must be attended with great public benefit. I sincerely hope that you may find ample encouragement to persevere in your speculation, bringing comfort to the inhabitants of this great and populous City. I am, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant, Calcutta 22nd November, 1833. (sd.) W. C. Bentinck.”
The cup that accompanied this accolade stands nearly a foot high and is elaborately decorated in the style of William IV. Marks at the base identify its makers as Hamilton and Company, the largest and most important firm of Indian colonial silversmiths. The subsequent histories of the cup and its recipient are somewhat mysterious. One of the sources supplied to me from India indicates that Rogers sold his trophy and set up in Calcutta as a boardinghouse keeper and dentist. No one seems to know where the cup spent the century between its presentation to Rogers in Calcutta and its purchase by Anne Halliday’s father on Cape Cod.
So eager were the British to maintain a supply of American ice that within three days they raised money to commission an icehouse to preserve the commodity. “The idea of having the purest ice at three half-pence a pound during the whole year,” wrote one British resident in Calcutta, “instead of having the Hooghly slush for six weeks at four-pence the pound was irresistable.”
The availability of ice soon affected the daily menus of the well-to-do British residents. Colesworthy Grant, a chronicler of Anglo-Indian domestic life in the middle of the nineteenth century, wrote that “it was not long ere the ‘Ice-Chest’ formed an additional and handsome item of domestic furniture, which custom has now rendered almost as common and indispensable as the sofa or the side-board. The Ice-Chest is a square box, made either of mahogany or teak wood, or japanned tin, fitted with zinc reservoirs for water, and receptacles for bottles, decanters, butter-pot, meat, jellies, and what not, closely surrounding and in contact with a chamber in the centre for the ice. The whole, lined throughout with zinc, and padded with flannel and green baize, unite neatness with utility and are sold, ready made, at prices varying from thirty to about sixty roopees.”
The medical benefits of a dependable supply of ice were recognized at once, and by 1842 a leading Calcutta newspaper, The Statesman , reported that the abundant supply had enabled “our hospitals [to] extend its useful application to the poorest patients.”
That year Tudor lowered the price of ice, and The Statesman urged citizens to increase consumption in order to keep it down so that “the second and third grades of the community may now be tempted to a greater indulgence in the most valuable luxury we have ever been blessed with. …”
By 1862 Colesworthy Grant recorded that ice was no longer regarded only as a luxury. Consumption had increased to three shiploads per year, and consumers now included native Hindus and Muslims as well as the British population, and supplies of ice were sent as far as thirty miles out of the city.
The man who started it all had been deeply affronted when, a few months after that first voyage, he learned that “Lord Bentinck has presented Rogers with a silver vase in commemoration of the event of the introduction of ice from the United States to Hindoostan.” Tudor, after all, was the person responsible for the success of the venture, and he sent a letter for publication in Calcutta addressed to the governor-general, making it clear who deserved the credit for the success of the first shipment of ice and who would be able to provide a regular supply of ice to Calcutta.
In the years that followed, Tudor weathered every challenge to the trade he invented. Because of Tudor, a British resident of Calcutta wrote: “I will not talk of nectar of elysium, but I will say that if there be a luxury here—I would point to the contents of our ice-house. … The arrival of our English mail is not more anxiously expected than that of an American iceship.” Because of Tudor, Thoreau would write in Walden that “the inhabitants of … Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well. … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred waters of the Ganges.”