Monday, May 28, 2012

Occupational Images: Ice Men

Part of an intermittent series featuring "occupational" images that have appeared online.

With the recent heat wave we've been having here, my mind naturally turns to cooler things. Like ice. Many nineteenth-century farmers harvested ice for domestic use (hence the ubiquitous "ice houses" of surviving farm complexes). Here's how one resident (born in 1917) of Allegany County in upstate New York remembered ice harvesting:

"As I recall, the blocks of ice were about 2' x 3' and the thickness depended upon how deep the water had frozen. I believe it needed to be at least ten inches thick. The average farmer, like my father, had what we called an ice saw. This saw was about five feet long with sharp teeth about one inch high and about one inch between the points and had a handle on one end. For large cutting jobs where railroad cars or big ice houses were to be filled, the contractor could buy specially made sleds that could be pulled by one horse. It had a saw for each runner, two feet apart with a marker two feet over, that ran along the side of the previously cut side. Then the standard saw, which I described first, was used to cut the three foot blocks which the horse sled had cut into six inches deep earlier. A big iron chisel was dropped into the slot and the block was pried apart easily. Big tongs that could open up to two feet were used to pull the cakes of ice out of the water. There were smaller tongs of several sizes made that were used by the ice man who put the ice in the ice box in your kitchen. A pike six or eight feet long with a sharp point on one end and a hooked point below the straight one allowed a person to push the floating cake of ice away from him or to him so that he could reach it with the tongs. A neighbor, Charlie Hosmer, used to work on the Andover Pond, where ice was loaded onto railroad cars as well as farmers sleds years ago and he said that it was not only hard work but you were wet most of the time and your clothes would freeze on you.

Before the ice is put into the ice house the floor is covered with several inches of sawdust, then a layer of ice is put on the sawdust with the blocks about six inches from the side and an inch space between each block. Then an inch or two of sawdust is used to cover the first layer of ice and so on for each subsequent layer of ice until the building is filled. Then the top layer is covered with six or more inches of sawdust to keep the heat from penetrating the ice and thawing it. When some ice is removed, the remainder is carefully covered."
(Frank O'Brien, Frank, The Cows are Out, 1994, via this website)

Of course, ice was also harvested for shipment to factories, cities, and around the world. When the first large block of ice from a Massachusetts Lake arrived in London in 1845, it was left in a shop window and attracted crowds of curious onlookers. Some insisted on touching the block to confirm that it wasn't glass. Later in the century, however, ice blocks became commonplace, and city-dwellers who needed coolant for their ice boxes expected the regular arrival of a cart like the one show here:

Icemen, like other tradesmen, stood proudly with their tools and had their pictures made. Some even carried dripping blocks of ice into the photography studios.

At least one ice crew had their photograph taken as a group, holding the tongs, axes, and shovels of their trade.

This last image is my favorite. It shows a dapper iceman sometime in the 1870s. He carries two pairs of ice tongs and a sturdy ice axe similar to the "Boston Pattern" shown in Alvin Sellens's Dictionary of American Hand Tools. According to Sellens, ice axes featured a narrow blade to "cut and dress" blocks of ice and a hook "to maneuver a block into a desired position" (30). To top it all off, this iceman looks like he just walked off the pond, wearing leather gloves, a felt hat, and a fantastic knit sweater.

I don't know about you, but I'd happily trade this heat for a January day that required a sweater and a cigar.

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