Ice Harvesting, Cutting Ice, Hudson River, 1912
Suggested Teaching Instructions
The ice industry thrived as the icebox grew in popularity and became a common appliance in homes, hotels, stores, and restaurants. Iceboxes were made of wood with an interior metal lining. Prior to the icebox, people preserved and stored food in root cellars, underwater in nearby lakes or rivers, or in springhouses. The icebox preserved food relatively well and was also used to store the ice necessary for iced drinks and such delicacies as ice cream.
Ice from the Hudson River was harvested in the winter months when the ice was fifteen to twenty-five inches thick. The river was transformed into an ice field as the workers marked and cut square blocks of ice, known as ice cakes. The ice was stored in large icehouses built alongside the river. From the icehouses, the ice cakes were shipped year round to New York City and other regional destinations. The workers came from all around. Some were farmers looking for winter work, while others managed to sustain employment year round at the icehouse by doing carpentry work or by loading and delivering the ice.
Most farmers who would come to work in the ice fields would also bring a team of donkeys or horses. The farmers were enthusiastic about bringing their teams because the animals also received a daily wage. A wage for an ice field worker could be $1 a day while the horse would earn $2 a day! The workers and animals that came to the ice fields to work from far distances were also offered free room and board.
Working in the ice fields and icehouses was very hard and dangerous work. The men who comprised these teams suffered through severe cold and dangerous conditions on a regular basis. The men went out daily, no matter what the temperature was. When men walked on the ice, they would sometimes hold a ten-foot pole parallel to the ice. This pole would to save their lives if the ice gave way under their feet. If the man did fall through a hole in the ice the pole would, hopefully, be longer than the hole was wide, therefore bracing the fall and supporting the man’s head above the water. There was little chance of surviving a fall into the icy water without this pole, not only because of hyperthermia, but also because of the swift river currents moving under the ice. These currents could carry a man quickly under the ice, drowning him.
Grown men were not the only ones employed by the large icehouses. Young children were often employed to “pick the diamonds” off the ice. Children were paid to walk on the ice with pails and pick up the animal manure off the ice. It was essential that this be completed because the ice was used not only for refrigeration purposes, but for drinking too.