Cracking America’s Ice Addiction

Near 21st and Hamilton, December 17, 1898 (
Keystone Setting, East Portal of the Tunnel near 21st and Hamilton Streets, December 17, 1898 (

Because they could, the American Ice Company encased Old Glory in a 5-ton slab of ice, propped it up on a wagon and hauled it down Broad Street. Delighted spectators at the Founder’s Week Industrial Parade cheered the chilly float, awed at the impressive chunk from the same glacier that supplied their own kitchens. Many customers would buy as much as 5 tons before the year was out—50 pounds at a time—and they’d buy as much again in 1909. And yet again in 1910.

America had an ice addiction.

A good place to start: 6th and Market Streets in the 1780s, where the Presidents House had an 18-foot-deep, stone-lined, octagonal ice pit providing the elite with pristine river ice, all year round. By the late 1820s, Philadelphia’s appetite had grown to more than 19 tons per day, or about 7,000 tons every year, more than could be cut from the Schuylkill River, even venturing as far upstream as Norristown. In the 1830s, the city’s major ice harvester, Knickerbocker, searched out sources along the Perkiomen Creek, up the Lehigh River, anywhere cold met water. And when those sources fell short during unseasonably warm winters, they packed ice in schooners and shipped it down from Maine.

By the 1840s Philadelphians used 30 tons of ice—every day. Ice harvesters cut as much as they could, imported the rest and stored aggressively, anticipating warm winters and hot summers. Knickerbocker’s icehouses in Maine held 400,000 tons from the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers.

Delaware Avenue - Knickerbocker Ice Company Whaft, September 29, 1899, detail. (
Delaware Avenue – Knickerbocker Ice Company Whaft, September 29, 1899, detail. (

The addiction grew even more intense. In 1880, each and every Philadelphian consumed 1,500 pounds. Eighty-one companies employed nearly 1,300 who kept the city chilled with 500 ice-filled, horse-drawn wagons. Still, demand outgrew supply.

Until “artificial ice.” Pennsylvania had five plants by 1889. Thirty years later, it had over 200.

Knickerbocker’s at 22nd and Hamilton and 9th and Washington were said to be the largest in the world. And they had another facility along the Schuylkill at Spruce Street. There seemed no end to the supply or the demand. Between 1880 and 1914 American ice consumption more than tripled.

What an opportunity for a monopoly, for the creation of an “Ice Trust” merging Knickerbocker and others into the grandly-named American Ice Company in 1899. The following April, American Ice doubled prices in New York City, paving the way by bribing elected officials. Distraught citizens heckled their mayor with cries of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” Next election, they froze him out of office.

As Philadelphians awaited the announcement of their price hike, an Inquirer reporter interviewed an American Ice official. He hedged: “Prices for the coming summer have not been fixed yet, and if I were to hazard a guess I would not know whether to say they were going up or going down.”

“‘But that is all bosh,’ declared the ice factory superintendent,” who saw no reason to increase prices in Philadelphia: “In New York there is practically no competition. Here in Philadelphia there is plenty of it. Outside of the Knickerbocker Company there are four independent natural ice companies capable of furnishing an almost unlimited supply if called upon to do so. … I can name no less than twelve artificial ice companies already in operation… having a capacity of 360 tons per day, almost ready to begin. Of the artificial ice companies output the trust controls probably thirty per cent. So you see, the trust hasn’t everything its own way here, as it has in New York, and there will be no doubling up on prices, I assure you.”

Haddonfield Ice Plant Wagon at Finnesey & Kobler, Brown and 27th Sts. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).
Haddonfield Ice Plant Wagon, Finnesey & Kobler, “The Model Shop,” Brown and 27th Streets (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

But prices did rise. It wasn’t so much a matter of supply as it was a matter of power. The Ice Trust and its successors had it, would keep it and would wield it. That is, until the electric refrigerator short circuited their vast, frozen empire.

[Sources: Vertie Knapp, “The Natural Ice Industry of Philadelphia in the Nineteenth Century,” Pennsylvania History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (October, 1974); Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); “No Advance in Price of Ice – Philadelphia Will Not Follow New York’s Example,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1900; “New Ice Making Plant in the “City of Brotherly Love,” Industrial Refrigeration, Vol. 6. Nickerson & Collins, 1894, pp. 13-16.]

One reply on “Cracking America’s Ice Addiction”

My family was in the business when some of my great uncles emigrated from Donegal at the turn of the 20th century. At the height, they owned a coal yard, Standard Ice & Coal Co., at 25th and Sedgley. My dad went into the business after WW II, and as kids, we use to play in the silos. I worked in an American Ice Company icehouse one summer during college, too.

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