In the 1800s, ice from the Great Lakes was in high demand. By 1830, Americans had come to rely on foods that required refrigeration. Ice harvesting had become a way for farmers to supplement their income in the winter.
The job was a difficult and often daring task. Snow would be scraped off of the ice field and holes were made to measure ice thickness. Next, a grid would be marked for the ice plow to follow when cutting blocks two-thirds of the way and completed by the workers sawing to completion. Blocks could be up to 300 lbs. Ice would then be loaded onto horse-drawn flatbeds and transported to ice houses where it was stored until summer when it could be sold.
The ice was stacked and packed inside the ice house. Sawdust was used for insulation and placed in between layers of ice. Some ice houses stored over 1,600 tons of ice. The work these men did each long day was dangerous and cold. Once a luxury, ice became a common household and business commodity by 1900. The ice delivery man would weigh ice blocks and deliver ice by horse-drawn covered wagon to homes and businesses. Each order was carried into the home and placed on the top shelf of an icebox to keep food fresh.
Improved ice harvesting and storage techniques revolutionized American businesses and diets. For the first time, meatpackers, dairies, and produce growers could ship their products across great distances. Brewers could regulate the temperature of their facilities to produce beer year-round. And restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and home cooks could keep a variety of fresh ingredients on hand.