The Frozen Assets of New England
When the brothers William and Frederic Tudor agreed to put together what money they had in the summer of 1805 and invest it in a scheme to sell ice to the West Indies, they held the plan close to their chests. They had dreamed up the idea after spending some pleasant weeks on the family farm, Rockwood, near Boston. It was just a few miles inland from this city, the great port that seethed with shipping and merchants, many of whom had made fortunes trading around the world in all kinds of luxury goods. New England itself had little of value to export: there was no iron or coal or cotton, and the farmland was picturesque but poor. Most of Boston's trade was secondhand: the Yankee merchants had a sharp eye for other nations' goods, which they bought and sold as their ships scoured the world for bargains.
Just to the north, the port of Salem had more or less cornered the market in peppercorns, reexporting in 1805 7.5 million tons of the spice, which was greatly valued as a food preservative in the days before refrigeration. And in 1783, the year the younger Tudor brother Frederic was born, a syndicate of Boston merchants had made a fortune from a shipload of ginseng that they sold in Canton. The herbal root, rare in China, where it was greatly prized as an aphrodisiac and a tonic, had been found growing in abundance in North America, and the first Boston cargo was said to equal ten times the annual Chinese consumption. But even the shrewd merchants of Massachusetts had failed to realize that each winter a local product of dazzlingly high quality was left to dissolve away each spring, while in the tropical islands of the West Indies and the plantation states of southern America it would be worth its weight in gold. That, at any rate, was how the Tudor brothers saw it, and why they wanted to keep their scheme for selling ice in tropical climates a secret. Once Boston merchants got wind of their brilliant plan, they would face stiff competition.
The elder brother, William, who was twenty-six years old and a Harvard graduate with some worldly experience after traveling in Europe, was just a bit skeptical once he had considered the practical problems of the venture. But Frederic, not quite twenty-two and the maverick of the distinguished Boston family, was convinced it would make them a fortune, and that within a few years they would be, as he put it, "inevitably and unavoidably rich." As it turned out, Frederic did make his fortune selling ice, but there was nothing inevitable or unavoidable about his eventual success. The fact that he prospered at all, after suffering years of ridicule and hardship, was more of a miracle than something preordained. Then, as now, the notion that it was possible to cut lake ice in winter in New England and sell it the following summer 1,500 miles away in Cuba or Martinique, with no artificial refrigeration to prevent it from melting, was thought to be ridiculous.
Nevertheless, the plan did make some sense. The Tudor family was privileged. The brothers' grandfather Deacon Tudor was a self-made baker and merchant who had sailed from Devon, England, in 1715, at the age of six. His mother was a young widow who had remarried in America, well enough for John to receive a basic education. John did sufficiently well in business to send his youngest son, William, to Harvard to study law. He also bought the hundred-acre farm, Rockwood, as a kind of rugged country estate where the family could spend the hot summer months away from their town house in Boston. At Rockwood, like a few of the better-off Bostonians, the Tudors had an icehouse that was stocked in winter from a pond on the farm that usually froze solid in January and February. As children, Frederic and his brothers and sisters enjoyed ice cream in the summer and took their drinks cooled with chunks of crystal-clear ice from Rockwood Pond. This was a great luxury. In Europe, icehouses--traditionally underground and lined with brick or stone--had long been a privilege of the wealthy, who could afford to excavate them on their estates and had the manpower to fill them in winter with ice from their frozen ornamental lakes.
From The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman. Copyright 2003 by Gavin Weightman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Hyperion Publishing.
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