What Is an Ice House and Why Should I Care?

by Ben SanfordFebruary 23, 2018

A Brief History of Refrigeration Before We Get to Ice Houses

When we want to enjoy an ice cold glass of water or a fruity drink on ice, we simply reach into the freezer and pull out a few ice cubes. Many of us even have a refrigerator that will dispense ice cubes into a glass on demand. But before electricity, how did people enjoy cold libations and food that needed to be kept cool?

Before refrigerators were a thing, people used ice houses. An ice house is a structure used to keep food and other perishables cool throughout the year, no matter the temperature outside. People have been industriously keeping their food cold for hundreds of years with the help of ice houses — cuneiform tablets describe the construction of an ice house in 1780 BCE in northern Mesopotamia; archaeologists have found ice pits in China that date back to 7th century BCE.

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The Genesis of “Modern” Ice Houses

While ice pits and boxes have been in use for thousands of years, the commercialization of ice began in America, around 1637. The governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, maintained a patent that allowed him to monopolize the sale and storage of ice in Great Britain for fourteen years. Many pre-Civil War Southern residences, including the White House, used ice houses in order to keep ice frozen through the summer.

As ice became a commodity, Southern plantation owners would have ice shipped in from the North, sealing their ice houses with sawdust in order to keep them properly insulated. In 1799, sawdust-insulated ships began carrying New England ice as far as the Caribbean. Wealthy homeowners in England and the Southern United States would line their ice houses with brick in order to more efficiently keep them insulated.

The Impact of the “Ice King”

In 1833, Frederic Tudor gained the reputation of “Ice King,” as he became the sole advocate for the use of ice in the Caribbean. He would later ship almost 12,000 pounds of ice to places as far away as India. Because of Frederic Tudor, ice became an industry that everyone wanted to cash in on.

From the 1880’s until as late as the 1920’s, ice was shipped around the world in order to fill up ice houses in people’s backyards and basements. By the mid-twentieth century, an employee of Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas, Joe C. Thompson, began selling blocks of ice alongside perishable items like milk and eggs.

Keeping in mind his working-class customers, Thompson opened his shop at 7am and kept it open until eleven in the evening. By 1952, the shop’s merchandise had shifted to include mostly convenience items and was renamed Seven-Eleven.

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The Transition From Ice Houses to Freezers

With the advent of the ice trade, ice boxes also became popular. Similar to ice houses, wooden ice boxes were insulated with sawdust, cork, or brick, but were small enough to fit inside a kitchen. With the advent of electricity and other modern technology, ice houses became less and less prevalent.

Today, the term “ice house” has been reinvented to refer to an open-air beer joint, popular now in Texas. Beer sold at an ice house has been kept cool using ice as opposed to refrigeration, and, according to this New York Times article which delves into the culture of modern-day ice houses, tastes better because of it.

History has it that these Texan ice houses were once storehouses for ice that had been shipped all the way from Maine. Unlike the ice houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, these southern ice houses are linked closely to working-class neighborhoods, who use the cool environment as community leisure space after a long day of work.

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About The Author
Ben Sanford
Ben is a real estate agent and freelance writer. He's lived on the east coast his entire life and is just as "at home" on a snowboard as he is in the office. When not writing about local real estate markets and researching hot new tips for homeowners, he can be found working on his home renovation projects with help from his wife Melissa and their kids, Josh and Cheyenne.