The Movement of Ice Cubes: From Calcutta to Massachusetts Avenue

By Hannah Walters (Boston). Hannah explores the surprising ice industry, from how one of Boston’s oldest companies moves ice using GPS technology and a special, green truck, to the commonly forgotten odyssey ice cubes once made in the 19th century (without refrigerated shipping containers).

While waiting for my coffee order, I hear the cascade of ice cubes flowing out from buckets and into a stainless-steel container tucked beneath the bar. In most food establishments, the sound of crashing ice is ambient, but this time, I paid closer attention to the chorus of tumbling cubes–a typical yet critical commodity.

Ice is at the heart of our food supply chain. Take away ice and the supply chain liquefies, filling our landscape with a putrefied swill of Pepsi, strawberries, and red meat. The transport of raw materials that feed our cities all hinges on what food logistics professionals call the secure cold chain. It is protected, critical and fed by frozen water—ice.

Brookline Ice is found throughout much of Boston.

Brookline Ice is found throughout much of Boston.

Alan Tainsh knows the value of ice well. His job is to make sure that the cold chain never breaks, at least not by a missed ice delivery. Alan works at Brookline Ice Co., a company founded in 1924 that fills hundreds of ice orders a week. The company, currently located in an area of Boston known as Jamaica Plain, will soon have an additional production site closer to downtown. Their new facility will churn out anywhere from 200 to 400 tons of ice per week. That’s nearly one pound of ice per person living in Boston. Considering that ice is just frozen water, this quantity might surprise you; yet, packaged ice is a $2 billion a year industry with independent companies, like Brookline Ice Co., making up around $700 million dollars of those sales.

What might surprise you even more than ice’s current demand, however, is how lucrative ice was one hundred and fifty years ago. In 19thcentury New England, in fact, ice was a bustling, highly important, internationally traded commodity and would continue to be so until the early to mid 20th century.

“The Frozen-Water Trade”

In the 1800s, Jamaica pond–where Brookline Ice Co. is located–provided Bostonians with ice for summertime drinks and food storage.

Illustration of an ice harvest in Massachusetts.

Illustration of an ice harvest in Massachusetts.

The Library of Congress holds hundreds of black and white photos of weary men and horses drawing saws through frozen lakes in order to load a cart with blocks of ice for nearby cities. They laboriously unload rough-cut blocks of ice, packed in sawdust, into wooden barn-like structures. These ice harvesters delivered their blocks to many U.S. cities, but also to places and purposes far beyond the ice cream cones Coney Island or the mint juleps of New Orleans.

Cutting ice using horse power.

Cutting ice using horse power.

In 1830s sweltering Calcutta, India, for example, men stood on loading docks to greet a ship from Boston carrying thousands of pounds of ice. That image too, is an accurate portrayal of the historical ice industry. In the mid 1800s, Boston was at the heart of the global ice trade, and indeed Calcutta did receive 180 tons of ice from Boston in 1833. Brazil, England and the Caribbean were all ice importers during this period, taking in tons of ice from Boston in a single shipment. Frederic Tudor pioneered the trade when he discovered that little ice would actually melt away if all the ice blocks were covered in sawdust and packed snuggly together in the hull of the ship as the vessel glided through cool ocean waters.

Receiving ice before the advent of electric freezers, therefore, was not just an isolated, American frontier burden that many today might imagine it to have been; truthfully, ice was an international commercial trade, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Tudor.

This public announcement poster from 1910 illustrates how linked ice was to international food safety, as recent as World War I. Image from the Library of Congress.

This public announcement poster illustrates how linked ice was to international food safety, as recent as World War I.

The Movement of Ice Today

Now, the idea of shipping ice 16,000 miles is preposterous. Yet, just because these trans-Atlantic shipments of ice don’t occur anymore–and are virtually never thought of today–doesn’t mean that ice companies like Brookline Ice Co, aren’t still important. Instead of crossing oceans, intra-city delivery is now crucial to the urban food system.

In an interview with Alan, the director of business development at Brookline Ice, he walked me through their system of supplying ice into and around Boston.

Alan laughed when I asked my first question: “How many deliveries do you do a week?” “Hundreds,” he replied through his chuckle, “July is our Christmas.”

Regardless of season, food establishments need a considerable amount of ice. In one book for restaurant professionals, I found estimates of how much ice a manager should have stocked for each customer. The book included a chart titled “Ice Usage Guide.” It reads that in a restaurant, a manager should supply one-and-a-half pounds of ice per person. In a bar, the ice supply should be three pounds per seat. A convenience store should expect for every drink a customer purchases that they will require half that volume in ice (i.e. 12 oz drink, six oz ice). Hospitals need 10 pounds of ice per bed.

Ice ordering guide for managers. Found in text meant for food professionals, titled "Professional Guide to Alcoholic Beverages" by Robert and Kathleen Lipinski.

Ice ordering guide for managers. Found in text meant for food professionals, titled “Professional Guide to Alcoholic Beverages” by Robert and Kathleen Lipinski.

Yet, when summer hits or when refrigerators and ice makers fail, the demand for ice doesn’t follow tidy, textbook guidelines. Alan explained that many of their deliveries are “on demand,” meaning a client has just called asking for ice ASAP. During our interview, which was at 8:30 in the morning, Alan told me, “I’ve already got two calls from Starbucks saying they’re going to need ice today. They already know they are going to run out. The ice machines can’t keep up.” Many on demand deliveries, in fact, are because ice machines break, or as described in a prior article, the power can go out during a heat wave, making food safety a major concern for big, high-end restaurants in the Boston area who have freezers packed with expensive meat and dairy.

Brookline ice seems to have adapted to this volatility. Each truck has GPS tracking, which allows Alan to know each driver’s location. If an order comes in from a cafe on the 1600 block of Massachusetts Avenue, he can radio a truck making a scheduled delivery on the 1400 block to have them fill the last-second order. On demand calls are so anticipated, in fact, that trucks always load up with extra ice before leaving the Brookline Ice facility.

Although many food items are delivered early in the morning when there’s less traffic, Brookline Ice delivers all day long, seven days a week. I myself have seen several Brookline Ice trucks sitting in mid-afternoon traffic, which you’d hardly expect to see of a baker’s delivery truck. This consistent movement around the city is in part because the demand for ice goes all day long; especially if a machine breaks or doesn’t produce enough ice to meet the demand of thirsty customers on an exceptionally hot summer day in the city.

The Brookline Ice Truck

Much like how horsepower was crucial to cutting ice blocks from lakes in 19th century, the delivery truck is crucial to Brookline Ice’s success.

Brookline Ice Co. Truck

Brookline Ice Co. Truck

Each truck leaves Jamaica Plain with a set delivery route, usually with around 10 to 15 stops. Each container on the truck is equipped with a thermostat to keep the interior somewhere between zero to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Alan explained that drivers constantly open and close truck doors to unload ice, so it’s best to keep the inside of the container well below 32 degrees. Interestingly, the truck engines do not have to stay on to keep the thermostat going. Each truck has two fuel tanks, one of which powers the thermostat, keeping the back compartment cold while the engine is turned off. “The thermostat can run off the truck’s fuel supply for one to two days” Alan noted. In an image below, you can see the external unit that cools the truck’s container. You can hear it hum and vibrate as you walk by, while the motor itself is off. Brookline Ice owns their own fleet of trucks—a signature green color—but they also lease trucks during the busy summer months with extra drivers coming on to help.

Brookline Ice Co Truck. The white, vented box above the truck cabin hums and vibrates as you walk past, even with the engine off. It is constantly cooling the trucks' storage compartment.

Brookline Ice Co Truck. The white, vented box above the truck cabin hums and vibrates as you walk past, even with the engine off. It is constantly cooling the trucks’ storage compartment.

The history of ice shows how combinations of food and technology have the power to change economic landscapes. The rise of household refrigeration brought about the complete demise of an international ice trade, yet the development of refrigerated trucks and GPS technology are cornerstones for the intra-city delivery offered by Brookline Ice Co. As important and influential as ice and the technology to move it has been in both eras, our dependence on frozen water and the secure cold chain, is almost as invisible as ice itself.

Posted in Boston