The Vault

A Nineteenth-Century Ice Map, Carving Up Northeastern Rivers

“Chase’s ice map, showing location, capacity, ownership & cutting surface of the Kennebec, Penobscot & Hudson rivers.” T.B. Chase & Son, 1894.  New York Public Library Digital Collections
“Chase’s ice map, showing location, capacity, ownership & cutting surface of the Kennebec, Penobscot & Hudson rivers.” T.B. Chase & Son, 1894.
New York Public Library Digital Collections

This map, published in 1894 by a Boston dealer in “river & pond ice,” was aimed at “ice men” who made money by harvesting and selling frozen water in the Northeast. The ice map is part of a big group of newly-digitized maps recently put online by the New York Public Library, and you should really click on the link to see it in a bigger format. (I found it after Atlantic editor Yoni Appelbaum tweeted about it.)

This map documents an industry that had been thriving for almost 100 years. As my colleague Leon Neyfakh wrote in the Boston Globe in 2014, wealthy Bostonian Frederic Tudor jump-started the global ice trade in the early nineteenth century, finally seeing success after enduring some years of mockery and false starts. Tudor’s initial idea—to ship New England ice to the tropics—changed people’s expectations about the types of food they would eat, and made other nineteenth-century industries, like meatpacking, possible.

The most interesting aspect of this map, besides the cool decorative icicle font etched around its title, is the frame of advertising around its edges. You can see the health and vigor of the ice industry in the number of businesses that supported people who cut and sold ice from the rivers. Iron foundries made “machinery for storing and shipping ice”; an insurance broker specialized in “ice house insurance”; one Boston company sold “Neverslip” Horseshoes.

By just a few decades after this map was published, improvements in refrigeration technology had rendered the Northeastern ice-cutting industry obsolete.

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Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.