The Ice Man Cometh…




Hi y’all.  Happy Labor Day!  I hope you’re able to take advantage of the holiday to kick back and do something relaxing or fun or, better yet, both!

My latest project had a deadline of Sept. 1st and after a number of very late nights getting it polished up and ready to send in I’m kicking back a bit myself before I dive into the next project.

But on to the current post.  I was recently doing a bit of research to see if it would be possible for someone in Texas in 1890 to have access to ice in the middle of summer.   I knew, of course, that in the northern parts of the country, folks would harvest large blocks ice-harvestof ice in the winter and store them away underground or in some other manner that would ensure they would have ice available for most of the year.  But here in the south it is rare that the ponds and lakes freeze over, even during the coldest parts of the year.

So, I started digging around for info, and in the process I discovered a few interesting little tidbits.  Though some pioneering efforts into artificial ice manufacturing were already in place in the first half of the nineteenth century, the application was very limited and “natural ice” was still the most common source.

Before the Civil War “natural ice” was shipped from points north to the south via rail and ship.  In fact, ice from New York was shipped as far away as India.  (Who would have thought ice would survive a trip like that?)

The change from the use of natural ice to that of manufactured ice was slow in coming.  Many folks distrusted ice created in the crude factories, believing natural ice was healthier and cleaner (despite the questionable sanitary conditions of the water sources and collection procedures).  The push to accept artificial ice was ultimately accelerated by those in the south who grew tired of having to rely on the north for their supplies.  This grew more pronounced with the advent of the Civil War, when the south was almost entirely cut off from their ice suppliers.  It was at this time that enterprising and inventive men stepped forward to develop alternatives.

Texas and Louisiana, it appears, played a large role in the early work here in the United States relating to the development of commercial ice manufacturing. 

In 1865 Daniel Livingston Holden made several improvements on the Carre absorption machine, a device patented in France, and installed it in San Antonio.  Within two years three of the eight ice manufacturing companies in the US were located in San Antonio

In 1868 the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company of New Orleans opened the very first large scale artificial ice manufacturing facility – a plant with a sixty ton capacity.

Charles Zilker, who moved to Austin, TX from Indiana was another early entrepreneur in the ice-making arena.  In 1884, after working in and operating ice plants for a number of years, Zilker built his own plant and made a number of design improvements.  He established his first plants in Austin and San Antonio.  Later he constructed facilities in any area where he could find a sufficient supply of cooling water for the compressors and enough people to allow him to turn a profit.  By 1928 he owned plants raging from Texas to Atlanta to Pittsburg.  He eventually sold these for $1 million.

By 1900 there were over 760 ice plants in the US.  Texas was home to 77 of these, the most of any state in the union.  Beginning in the 1920s there was a gradual decline in commercial ice plants with the greater use of home refrigerators.

So there you have it – a short history of the ice industry in the United States.  Wherever and however you’re spending this Labor Day, when you raise those glasses of iced tea or soda, you can thank those enterprising fellows in Texas for helping to develop and improve on the technology that brought those nice cubes of ice to your glass.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

24 thoughts on “The Ice Man Cometh…”

  1. What great information and perfect for labor day.

    It would be interesting to know how the process worked.

    Have a great labor day everyone!

  2. Fascinating blog, Winnie. I always wondered about this myself.
    A friend has told me about how, when he was a small boy, he used to tag after the ice wagon to get a little piece of ice to suck. This would have been in the early 1940s, so I guess some people still had iceboxes even then.

  3. Interesting blog Winnie. To know where thinks originate helps in the process of understanding the process from long ago

    Winnie, hope to get your interview questions back soon


  4. Sherry,there is some great information out on the web about how this worked but all the talk of vaporization techniques, gas compression techniques, and use of petroleum ether and naptha made my eyes glaze over (LOL) so I didn’t try to include it here

  5. Great information, Winnie. Most of my stories are set in Texas and I often wondered the same thing about whether or not they would have access to ice. I’m guessing it was mostly a city thing until well after the turn of the century, but it’s great to know the possibility did exist! Thanks.

  6. Mary, fascinating isn’t it, to realize some of the things that were available ‘way back when’. I’m still blown away by the thought that blocks of ice were shipped from New York to the Carribean countries and India and didn’t all melt before it arrived.

  7. Very interesting, Winnie. I had no idea ice was manufactured that far back. And something I really found interesting was the number of women workers in that picture where they’re moving ice.

  8. Winnie, what a fabulous post. I knew about “river” ice getting stored in sawdust et al to try to last, but Ididn’t know it could be manufactured. Thanks for this.

    Thanks for featuring me at your website this month, too. oxoxoxox

  9. Karen, glad you enjoyed it and yes I would imagine that it was mostly a ‘city thing’ and also that is was not used frivolously. More likely it was a luxury item or one used for short term storing/transporting of meat and produce.

  10. Connie – Hi! And no, the subject of ice doesn’t pop up in my upcoming October release but it will find its way into the book I’m plotting out at the moment – especially now that I know a little more on the subject.

  11. Tanya, glad you learned something from the post. And Thank YOU for agrreing to be the spotlight author on my website this month – LOVED your answers to my interview questions

  12. Another interesting post. I knew ice was cut into blocks and shipped, but didn’t realize commercial production was started so early. The old adage “necessity being the mother of invention” proved true with the disruption caused by the Civil War.
    Where is the Gorrie Museum? We will be in Ft. Worth and the San Antonio area the first week of October and I’d like to see the ice machine if the museum is close by.

  13. Renee – Hi there! Glad you enjoyed the post (and I love puns 🙂

    Patricia – Hello. Actually the Gorrie Museum is in Florida. It had the only picture I could find of an early ice making machine

  14. Winnie, How interesting! My Grandfather owned the ice house when I was very little. We used to find it a cooling fun place to play. We would climb onto the tarp and straw coved ice to cool off. My Granfather was also city cop and sometimes used the ice house as a temporary jail. Mostly for unruly teens who he only held till their fathers came after them.

  15. What a cool post…pun intended. So many things were delivered in cities way back when – ice, milk, tin products, meat, produce, animal feed. Thanks for the fun glimpse of a bit of history.

  16. Connie L. – What wonderful memories! Thanks for sharing them.

    Jennie – glad you enjoyed the post. And I actually remember those home deliveries of milk when I was growing up.

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