Diamonds on My Neck, Ice on My Boat: The Frederic Tudor Story

Nicknames are one of my favorite things in history, whether calling the teetotaling President Rutherford B. Hayes “Old Granny,” or referring to Louis XVIII as “the Unavoidable.” After Eleanor got a too-short haircut and an usher at a Braves game called her “sir,” we called her Elliott for years. Corinne’s been known as “Corn” ever since a teacher mispronounced her name. Nicknames: fun for everyone.

Take Frederic Tudor, AKA the Ice King. At first glance, you may interpret the Ice King as a cruel moniker related to Frederic’s standoffish attitude. But never fear; that’s just a connotation reserved for women. For Fred, Ice King was a term of reverence.

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The American Tudors were unrelated to the British ones – you know, the ones with the sexy TV series and the church-state issues and the off-with-their-heads. But they were just as interesting and almost as rich. Living in the early 19th century, Frederic Tudor was an ice tycoon, making bank off of a product the modern world didn’t know it needed. Like limitless paper in a paperless world: limitless ice in a world with no good freezer system.

At age 23, Frederic bought a boat. The best name he could come up with for this boat was “Favorite.” He then took the silver spoon out of his mouth long enough to say “Pass!” to the Harvard education that his rich dad offered him, and poured all of his sizable resources into a crazy idea he had: selling frozen water.

He started cutting large blocks of ice from frozen ponds on the Tudor family farm and loaded up the ice blocks on Favorite, coating them in sawdust for insulation.

Ice was not yet a “thing” – only the uber-wealthy used it, locally harvested from their own ponds. It was the kale salad of the early 1800s. But like an early Don Draper, Frederic created a desire in his customers that they had not previously had. He took free frozen water, coated it in free sawdust poached from the scraps of the lumberyard, and put it on cheap empty boats that were leaving Boston anyway to pick up cargo in the West Indies. His first attempt, in 1806, was to send the ice-laden boat from Boston to Martinique. The Boston Gazette reported, and I cannot make this up: “A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”

There was one small issue that Tudor had perhaps not considered when he bet the farm on this idea at the ripe old age of 23: ice melts quickly. And ships move slowly. So while he set out from Boston with a ship full of ice blocks, he would arrive at ports in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana with nothing but a really wet boat.

Unwilling to give up on this dream, though, Fred launched the Tudor Ice Company and made grand plans to ship ice to Cuba, Jamaica, India and Singapore. He cut free ice from ponds all over Massachusetts and made a moderate amount of money selling whatever hadn’t melted by the time he got to his destination. Most of the time he operated at a loss.

Fred should have spent more time working on insulation and less time trying to freeze out the competition, because his losses quickly added up. The law was after him for his debts, and he even spent some time in debtor’s prison. When he set sail for Cuba in 1815, he basically outran his financial obligations right to the ocean, “pursued by sheriffs to the very wharf.”

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Ever the optimist, Frederic tried switching from the ice biz to fruit shipping, borrowing $3000 at 40% interest (!) to buy a ton of fresh fruit in Cuba and ship it to New York. It took a month to arrive and all the fruit rotted during the journey. Complete failure.

But he was not deterred. Mayyyyybe, Fred probably thought, maybe I just haven’t dreamed big enough. Though I have screwed everything up beyond all conceivable repair, and am unable to make money on ice sales in the U.S. or South America, there may still be one hot haven on God’s green earth where ice is hard to get and highly desired: India.

High risk, high reward, this ice business.

He had some success with building ice houses in Havana, storing tons of ice there to sell, and expanded this idea to India. In 1833 he loaded up a ship with 180 tons of ice and set sail from Boston for Calcutta – a journey that would take four months. When the ship arrived at the port of Calcutta on the Ganges River, there were still 100 tons of ice intact. A win! Well – a 45% loss, but for the Ice King, that’s a win.

The Ice King was probably blasting Ice Cube’s “Until We Rich” out of his loudspeakers on a yacht at that point, because Calcutta soon became the Tudor Ice Company’s most valuable buyer, providing over $220,000 in revenue.

Even Henry David Thoreau, whom I loathe, would watch the Tudor Ice Company’s workers chopping ice from Walden Pond. He noted in his journal that “the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.” Putting aside Thoreau’s condescending tone, there was truth to this – it was said that no dinner party in London was complete without ice from New England, and Tudor’s ice was preferred by Queen Victoria for entertaining in Buckingham Palace.

Ice turned out to be a solid bet; Fred was just ahead of his time. In the next few decades, the ice plow would be invented, leading to huge leaps in efficiency for his company. The growth of the railroad would allow for faster and easier transportation of ice. And the “ice box,” an early method of refrigeration, would become popular in American homes.

It seemed the chill had thawed on the ice industry. Fred was back in business. He celebrated by marrying the first 19-year-old girl that his 50-year-old, newly debt-free ass could meet. “Cheers,” I bet he said. “Let us enjoy a cold one.”

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1 Comment

  1. Caroline…You LOATHE Thoreau? Holistically?! While he did leave us with much to question about his own personal biases and quirky behavioral responses to society (just look at his tremors over Margaret Fuller!), does he not also give us much to think about, with respect to thinking?
    Just a thought in an otherwise shining happiness with the spirit and vigor of your own thinking and writing…you’re in no way a “babe” when it comes to mature engagement with the world around. Sistory rocks! So much catching up to do.

    Like

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