Frederic Tudor

New England's "Ice King" Exported Ice as Far as India

Illustration of ice harvesting in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1855
Harvesting ice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1855. Ballou's Pictorial Newspaper/public domain

Frederic Tudor came up with an idea that was widely ridiculed 200 years ago: he would harvest ice from New England's frozen ponds and ship it to islands in the Caribbean.

The mockery was, at first, deserved. His initial attempts, in 1806, to transport ice across great stretches of ocean were not promising.

Fast Facts: Frederic Tudor

  • Famous as: "The Ice King"
  • Occupation: Created business of harvesting ice from frozen New England ponds, shipping it south, and eventually even shipping Massachusetts ice to British India.
  • Born: September 4, 1783.
  • Died: February 6, 1864.

Yet Tudor persisted, eventually devising a way to insulate great quantities of ice aboard ships. And by 1820 he was steadily shipping ice from Massachusetts to Martinique and other Caribbean islands. 

Astoundingly, Tudor expanded by shipping ice to the far side of the world, and by the late 1830s his customers included British colonists in India.

Something truly remarkable about Tudor's business was that he often succeeded in selling ice to people who had never seen it or used it. Much like tech entrepreneurs of today, Tudor first had to create a market by convincing people they needed his product.

After facing countless difficulties, including even imprisonment for debts he incurred during early business troubles, Tudor ultimately built a highly successful business empire. Not only did his ships cross the oceans, he owned a string of ice houses in America's southern cities, on Caribbean islands, and in the ports of India.

In the classic book Walden, Henry David Thoreau casually mentioned "when the ice-men were at work here in '46-47." The ice harvesters Thoreau encountered at Walden Pond were employed by Frederic Tudor.

Following his death in 1864 at the age of 80, Tudor's family continued the business, which prospered until artificial means of producing ice surpassed harvesting ice from frozen New England lakes.

Early Life of Frederic Tudor

Frederic Tudor was born in Massachusetts on September 4, 1783. HIs family was prominent in New England business circles, and most family members attended Harvard. Frederic, however, was something of a rebel and started working in various business enterprises as a teenager and didn't pursue a formal education.

To get started in the business of exporting ice, Tudor had to purchase his own ship. That was unusual. At the time, ship owners typically advertised in newspapers and essentially rented space on board their ships for cargo leaving Boston.

The ridicule attaching itself to Tudor's idea had created an actual problem as no ship owner wanted to handle a cargo of ice. The obvious fear was that some, or all, of the ice would melt, flooding the hold of the ship and destroying the other valuable cargo on board.

Plus, ordinary ships would not be suited to shipping ice. By buying his own ship, Tudor could experiment with insulating the cargo hold. He could create a floating ice house.

Ice Business Success

Over time, Tudor came up with a practical system to insulate ice by packing it in sawdust. And after the War of 1812 he began to experience real success. He obtained a contract from the government of France to ship ice to Martinique. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s his business grew, despite occasional setbacks.

By 1848 the ice trade had grown so large that newspapers reported on it as a marvel, especially as the industry was widely acknowledged to have emerged from the mind (and struggles) of one man. A Massachusetts newspaper, the Sunbury American, published a story on December 9, 1848, noting enormous amounts of ice were being shipped from Boston to Calcutta.

In 1847, the newspaper reported, 51,889 tons of ice (or 158 cargoes) were shipped from Boston to American ports. And 22,591 tons of ice (or 95 cargoes) were shipped to foreign ports, which included three in India, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay.

The Sunbury American concluded: "The entire statistics of the ice trade are highly interesting, not only as evidence of the magnitude it has assumed as an item of commerce, but as showing the indefatigable enterpirse of the man-yankee. There is scarcely a nook or corner of the civilized world where Ice has not become an essential if not common article of trade."

Legacy of Frederic Tudor

Following Tudor's death on February 6, 1864, the Massachusetts Historical Society, of which he was a member (and his father had been a founder) issued a written tribute. It quickly dispensed with references to Tudor's eccentricities, and portrayed him as both a businessman and someone who had aided society:

"This is not the occasion for dwelling at any length on those peculiarities of temperament and character which gave Mr. Tudor so marked an individuality in our community. Born on the 4th of September, 1783, and having thus more than completed his eightieth year, his life, from his earliest manhood, had been one of great intellectual as well as commercial activity.
"As the founder of the ice-trade, he not only commenced an enterprise which added a new subject of export and a new source of wealth to our country -- imparting a value to that which had no value before, and affording lucrative employment to great numbers of laborers at home and abroad -- but he established a claim, which will not be forgotten in the history of commerce, to be regarded as a benefactor of mankind, by supplying an article not of luxury only for the wealthy and the well, but of such unspeakable comfort and refreshment for the sick and enfeebled in tropical climes, and which has already become one of the necessities of life for all who have enjoyed it in any clime."

The exportation of ice from New England continued for many years, but eventually modern technology made the movement of ice impractical. But Frederic Tudor was remembered for many years for having created a major industry.

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McNamara, Robert. "Frederic Tudor." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Frederic Tudor. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Frederic Tudor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).