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We all scream for…Ice?

January 22, 2015

When it comes to luxury goods, connoisseurs demand the best-of-the-best.  For the best watch, you buy a Rolex.  The best jewelry? Tiffany’s, Cartier, or Harry Winston. And for the best ice you go to…Wenham?

From circus queens to marketing mavens, deer informants, and the shady history of seafood, we consider ourselves fairly well-versed in the strange history of the North of Boston region.  But even this fun fact had us surprised.  Apparently, in the 19th century, Wenham Lake was the premier place to go for ice.

Mind you, these were the days before refrigeration.  One did not simply “make” ice as we do today – ice had to be “harvested” from, well, frozen water supplies.  Wenham Ice was the first transatlantic ice shipment to arrive in England, thanks to New England’s “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor.  According to one source, when the ice arrived in 1844, the customs crew was so perplexed by the shipment, that the ice completely melted while the crew stood around, most likely scratching their heads and wondering why the heck anyone would import ice.  By most other accounts, only around 75% of the ice was lost in shipment.

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We find the similarities quite astounding (Photos: http://wenham.essexcountyma.net/images/wenham_ice_lake.jpg | http://addictionjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/icegame.gif)

Whatever the true story, Wenham Ice was a hit in the UK.  It was considered to be the “purest” as it was crystal clear – a feature taken full marketing advantage of when a block of it was placed in a window display with a newspaper behind it to show that the ice was so pure you could read through it (which a [very bored] group of people did).  Sir Charles Lyell, a noted geologist, upheld this claim of purity when he visited the lake and wrote in 1849 that “The water [of Wenham Lake] is always clear and pure,” he wrote, “and the bottom covered with white quartz-zose sand. It is fed by springs, and receives no mud from any spring flowing into it…”

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Pictured: Subpar ice you can’t read through (http://publicbar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/ice_cubes_openphoto.png)

And thus, due to its superior quality, Wenham Lake Ice was established as a luxury good.  In 1845, it was written in Wilmer and Smith’s European Times that “the Wenham Lake Ice [is] coming into vogue as a luxury among the aristocracy…”   It was even said that Wenham ice was the favorite ice of Queen Victoria herself.  In fact, Wenham Lake’s ice was so luxurious that in Norway, the name of Lake Oppegard was changed to “Lake Wenham” to cash in on the Wenham ice’s reputation (this was also the first, and we assume last, case of knock-off ice).  To take advantage of its status, the Wenham Lake Ice Company also:

“sold “American Refrigerators or miniature ice-houses” so that the ice might be better preserved by the purchasers. These refrigerators, so ran the advertisement in the Times, “by the aid of a half cwt. of ice weekly, furnishes a provision safe, under the same lock, and at the same temperature, as a wine cooler, where provisions may be preserved for a long time, and wine kept always ready for use, as, undergoing no change of temperature, it may be left for weeks in the refrigerator, without the slightest deterioration.”” (Source)

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A futuristic concept for Victorians and the death of the lake ice trade. (http://www.rubbermaid.com/Assets/images/Product/2867-large.jpg)

So, what happened?  Why isn’t Wenham known as the booming ice capital of the world?  In 1873, a large fire burned down the ice houses of the Wenham Lake Ice Company.  The total loss estimated around $100,000 and the company wasn’t quite able to recover.  A second blow came with the advent of refrigeration in the late 1800’s, which made the entire ice-harvesting industry seem antiquated, time-consuming, and generally unnecessary (although a few people held on to the belief that lake ice lasted longer).  There was still some ice harvesting from Wenham Lake into the 20th century, but that died out around the 1940s.  And so came the end of the great ice empire of Wenham.

Sources:
Life in the Victorian Kitchen… (by Karen Foy)
QI: Quite Interesting – Ice
Crystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness
Commercial use of ice – Fresh Pond
Historical Collections of the Essex Institute
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