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'Ice' book examines the American love of staying cool

'Ice' author Amy Brady explores the cultural history of ice in the United States.
Cate Barry
'Ice' author Amy Brady explores the cultural history of ice in the United States.

It’s been a little chilly lately in Vermont but hot summer days will be here soon, and along with it comes pitchers of iced lemonade, creemees, and other cool treats. It’s easy to take ice for granted when it’s always available but that has not always been the case.

Environmental writer and historian Amy Brady dives into the cultural history of ice in the United States in her new book, “Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks, a Cool History of a Hot Commodity.Vermont Edition producer Andrea Laurion recently spoke with Brady from her home in Connecticut.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So you're an environmental writer and historian, but I have to ask the question that first came to mind when I saw your book: Why ice?

[Laughs] It's a great question, one that I get often. The reason is because, you know, I, personally, am obsessed with ice. I love it an icy glass of tea or water, especially on a hot summer day. And most people I know, here in the United States, feel similarly. They want ice in their drinks, they love ice cream, and they like being in air conditioning in the summer. What is interesting to me is that if you go almost anywhere else in the world, that's not the case. Americans are uniquely obsessed with ice and with feeling cool in a temperature sense. I couldn't find a good answer for why that is, so I did the research myself. And this book, I think, offers a pretty fascinating answer.

I have to ask about Frederic "Ice King" Tudor. I mean, he was really a character. Can you tell us about his role in popularizing ice in the United States?

I think America's obsession with ice directly links to Frederic Tudor. Frederic was born and grew up in Eastern Massachusetts, so a New Englander, to a very wealthy family. And that's important because he was born in the late 1700s. At that time, only wealthy people, even those living in the North, where ice formed naturally on lakes and rivers, only they had access to ice around because they had land. And on land, you could build ice houses, which were these contraptions that people who harvested ice out of lakes and rivers could store blocks of ice year-round, and they would stay there without melting. In his early 20s, Fredric landed on the idea that if he could figure out how to ship those blocks of ice out of his family ice house to people living in warm climates around the world, he could make a killing, because who can tell how much people would pay for comfort, and a sense of cool. It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually, he figured out how to do it, sparking an appetite for ice throughout the tropics, and then, the American Southern states and territories.

And you wrote in your book about how the ice in Maine in the remote in their remote lakes was really highly prized for its purity. Could the same be said for Vermont or other remote parts of New England?

 Oh, absolutely. Maine and Vermont both played very important roles in the early days of the ice trade. You see, Frederic launched the ice trade in about 1806, but it didn't catch on in the United States until around the 1840s, 1850s. That time period coincides with the peak of the Industrial Revolution, which any history major out there will tell you, this was a filthy, filthy time in American history. Factories and factory farms were just letting loose their detritus into the nearby rivers and lakes that flowed by their factories. The bodies of water that ice was being harvested out of particularly around New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, it was undrinkable, it was unfit for human consumption. The only way that those ice companies could stay in business is if they move their businesses to more remote areas in places like Maine and certainly in Vermont.

In the 2020s, at least one in four Americans owned at least two refrigerators. Can you tell me about the ways that refrigeration and ice, how that is contributing to global warming?

One of the most notable legacies of the ice industry is the rise of electric refrigeration. Just as Americans quickly adopted ice boxes into their homes in the late 19th century, Americans very quickly adopted electric refrigeration because it was so much more reliable than ice boxes. It kept your food much colder. In many ways, electric refrigeration has been a huge benefit and it still is a huge benefit to our lives and our lives would look much different if it didn't exist. At the same time, the popularization of this technology means that now there are approximately 110 million electric refrigerators in operation in this country alone. Most of those refrigerators are the biggest energy draw of any appliance in any average American home. Collectively, worldwide refrigerators and the cooling industry, at large contribute more carbon to the atmosphere than the air airline industry.

Broadcast live on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.