- Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice by Jonathan Rees
A signature feature of dining out in the South is those large glasses of water, always filled to the brim with ice. Iced tea, ice cream, frozen cocktails—Americans love ice. In Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice, Jonathan Rees provides a rich and detailed history of how ice became an American staple. Drawing on newspapers, periodicals, and industry trade journals, Rees chronicles the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ice industry as an example of "decentralized capitalism," where new technologies and shifting alliances among an assortment of characters—ice entrepreneurs, inventors, regional businessmen, and home delivery "icemen"—helped grow the production and consumption of cold comforts.
Much of the story of ice as a commodity centers on overcoming "the fact of melting" (p. 96). Chapter 1 describes the rise of a natural ice harvesting industry in areas with a natural advantage for pure ice yet near enough for distribution to urban markets; chapter 2, in contrast, looks at the emergence of mechanically made ice as an expensive competitor with great potential but also serious technical and market barriers. Readers quickly discover that this book is not just a history of ice but also a history of how this industry reshaped other industries. Chapter 3, "How Ice (and the Perishable Food It Preserved) Made It to Consumers," is a nice case study of how ice changed supply chains. The meatpacking industry was a major consumer of ice, as it depended on ice to [End Page 209] refrigerate railroad cars, consequently shifting where meat was butchered. Packing perishables in ice made it possible to sell fresh fish in noncoastal markets, and cold brewing and storage meant lager beer could be made all year long, even in the South. Chapter 4 explains how ice created new consumer trends, ranging from now-classic cocktails such as the mint julep to artificial ice-skating rinks and air conditioning. Chapter 5 and the conclusion bring the story up to the present, explaining how the refrigerator with the freezer brought the "cold chain" home (p. viii). Homemade ice put the last nail in the coffin of the ice industry.
Before the Refrigerator does not seek to be the definitive scholarly study of the history of the ice industry. For that, scholars can turn to Rees's earlier book, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (Baltimore, 2013), which documents the development of the refrigeration technologies used to preserve and transport perishable food from farm to table. In contrast, Before the Refrigerator works better for an undergraduate syllabus on America's changing foodways or as a case study of the social history of technology and American business and enterprise. Southern historians will appreciate Rees's attention to regional differences. Northern states led the early natural ice industry because of their cold winters and frozen lakes. Southern states, however, led with mechanical ice, because it was initially only cost-effective where it was hot.
At times Rees's careful consideration of new technologies and market tools overshadows the colorful human stories that readers get only a glimpse of. Rees is telling the story of a vanished industry. Yet Rees does a masterful job illustrating how, in its rise and fall, the ice industry created many industry alliances and consumer habits that are still with us today. Ice has become a taken-for-granted feature of modern living. This book is the story of how that came to be.