It may seem hard to imagine now. It’s in our drinks, our custom ice packs, and our chest freezers. Back in the day, ice – yes, plain old ice – was strictly for those who could afford it. After all, in the days before freezers, the only way to get hold of ice was if you could find it occurring naturally, or make it using natural means. For instance, in ancient Egypt, they developed a way of evaporating water quickly to keep it cool, sometimes even enough to make ice. In Iran, they developed ‘yakh-chal,’ or ‘ice pits,’ which were tall buildings with ice stored underground to keep cool. A little later, the Greeks and Romans brought ice from the Alps and filled huge ice houses with the cold stuff. When the empire fell, ice fell out of favor for a little while.
In 16th-century France, Henry III showed off his wealth by displaying huge piles of ice and snow in the middle of the table to cool drinks when he had guests over, going all-out Roman Emperor and keeping his wine chilled using straight up snow. Other European rulers laughed at this hideous excess at first, but it caught on pretty quick, and soon, they were all at it.
Ice goes mainstream.
After traveling in Europe shortly after the founding of the United States, Thomas Jefferson built one in his own home. George Washington did the same soon after. Still only an option for people with money, the ice didn’t break into the mainstream when technological breakthroughs allowed for developments in refrigeration. Frederic Tudor sampled ice cream at a picnic and was inspired to start an ice shipping business. It was a total flop at first, but by the mid-1800s, he was shipping tens of thousands of tons across the country. As ice became more available, it got cheaper and cheaper, and ice houses and refrigerated boxcars started popping up all over the place. Eventually, it started appearing where we now know it best – behind the bar.
In the American South, in Mississippi to be exact, the first ice-making machine was invented in 1845 by John Gorrie. However, no one wanted it, and the idea was shelved for years until Andrew Mulh realized it could be great for the meat industry, and revamped the concept for commercial use in 1867. By the end of the 1800s, using ice to keep things cold was officially all the rage.
By the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, while most of the United States was still having ice delivered to their homes in blocks, more and more people could get it from an in-house refrigerator such as Freon, a new coolant gas, which was more widely available. The first built-in ice maker was also invented in 1953. By the mid-1950s, more than 80% of American households had a home refrigerator.
That was that! We’ve never looked back. Now, ice is everywhere, widely available and used for everything – from keeping drinks cool to reducing swelling, making musical instruments, and even building hotels! The ancient Egyptians were sure on to something.