In 1806, a 23-year-old entrepreneur founded an industry that would change global trade, consumption habits, and daily life forever. His impact just wasn’t immediately obvious. This is the story of Boston’s ‘Ice King’.

Frederic Tudor, ‘The Ice King’.

Clearly influenced by the frozen lakes and ponds that decorate wintry Massachusetts, Frederic Tudor and his brother William hatched a crazy – but genius – idea: ‘Harvest’ the abundant supply of free New England ice and sell it in hotter climates that would pay a premium.

A WINTRY WONDERLAND: ICE HARVESTING IN MASSACHUSETTS

‘Ice harvesting’ is a fancier, high-brow term for the process of cutting large blocks of ice from frozen bodies of water. Home to over 3,000 lakes and ponds, Tudor’s home state of Massachusetts created a seemingly endless supply of natural ice for harvesting each winter.

Apart from obvious wastage issues (i.e., melting!), the beauty of ice harvesting lay in its simplicity. One only had to cut the ice from naturally frozen water and figure out how to properly store it. The illustrations below show how ice was systematically extracted, loaded into trucks, and sent out for delivery.

Where in New England did this harvesting occur? Ironically, one of Tudor’s main ice harvesting locations was at Henry David Thoreau’s tranquil Walden Pond. In fact, Thoreau described Tudor’s workers in Walden!

These ice-cutters are a merry race, full of jest and sport… in the winter of ’46-7 there came a hundred men of Hyperborean extraction swoop down on to our pond one morning, with many carloads of ungainly-looking farming tools [for harvesting]…”

BREAKING THE ICE: TUDOR’S MAIDEN VOYAGE

In February 1806, as Frederic prepared for his first commercial voyage, the young entrepreneur faced his first problem: finding a ship. As mentioned, Tudor targeted customers in hot climates places that had never experienced cold: the West Indies and Caribbean. Once he introduced people living in scorching heat to the gift of ice, he’d gain lifelong customers.

But sending a commodity that melts on two-week trips to the Caribbean was too absurd for Boston’s shipping crews. According to Linda R. McRobbie, “no ship in Boston would agree to transport the unusual cargo”.  In fact, crews were genuinely concerned that this icy cargo would sink their ships as melted ice flooded the vessels.

Frederic was consequently forced to buy his own ship, Favorite, for $4,750. This was almost half of the $10,000 he had raised in funding (Ice Harvesting USA).

Tudor advertises his voyage to Martinique.

Before embarking on their first voyage, Frederic dispatched William and their cousin James to Saint Pierre, a bustling port on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The duo was charged with locating appropriate storage facilities and clinching orders, all while touting the virtues of ice to the local population.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, local newspapers laughed in amusement as Frederic’s Favorite set sail for Martinique with 160,000 pounds of ice on board. On February 10th, 1806, the Boston Gazette wrote:

No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

When Frederic arrived in Saint Pierre a few weeks later, he learned how difficult his “straightforward” business plan would prove to be.

William and James had made little headway in persuading the locals, and Frederic lamented how their inadequate storage techniques were falsely convincing them that ice couldn’t remain frozen long enough to be useful. Frederic bluntly stated, “their methods of keeping it are laughable”.

One carries it through the street to his house in the sun noon day, puts it in a plate before his door, and then complains that ‘il fond’ [he melts].

Another puts it in a tub of water, a third by way of climax put his in salt!

Frederic realized he faced an uphill battle and decided to show the tangible benefits of ice to local business owners in a language they all understood: sales. For example, he personally made ice cream that earned a local businessman $300 in only one night. Although that businessman previously “insisted ice creams could not be made in this country”, Frederic wrote that “after this he was humble as a mushroom”.

SLUSHY COCKTAILS & TUDOR’S MARKETING GENIUS

In 2022, Derek Thompson wrote a fascinating article about the ending ‘Millennial Consumer Subsidy’. In this paradigm, VC-backed companies willingly lost money on everything from Uber/Lyft rides to food deliveries in pursuit of customer acquisition. A New York Times piece similarly stated:

“… investors didn’t set out to bankroll our decadence. They were just trying to get traction for their start-ups, all of which needed to attract customers quickly to establish a dominant market position, elbow out competitors and justify their soaring valuations.”

Well, 200 years earlier, ‘Ice King’ Frederic Tudor utilized a similar strategy that would make today’s venture capitalists proud: hook customers by giving free ice to local bars and cafes. Tudor reasoned:

“A man who has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again.” (WSJ)

Genius.

Imagine drinking a hot Old Fashioned your entire life and then experiencing that same drink with refreshing ice cubes. Tudor also provided recipes for new cocktails like the ‘Smash’, which required ice. Tudor lost money on these promotional schemes, but successfully ‘hooked’ customers on ice.

All told, Tudor’s first shipment to Martinique garnered a loss of $4,500 (FEE). Undeterred, however, Frederic proclaimed “let those laugh who win”.

PROFITING FROM PRISON: TUDOR’S SUCCESS IN CUBA

During the next season, Tudor turned to Cuba. However, his efforts were thwarted by poor storage facilities and – more importantly – President Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo Act that prevented Tudor from exporting any ice. Unfortunately for Tudor, his Cuba shipment lost more money than in Martinique.

Frederic Tudor was also thrown into debtor’s prison three times from 1809-1813 for family debts incurred from a ruinous investment. Yet, with a cousin handling operations and Frederic providing guidance from afar, the ice business posted a $1,000 profit in 1810. This was all the motivation Frederic required to keep building his empire. When he then secured a monopoly from Cuban officials, Tudor had firmly  established a foundation to expand from.

DOMESTIC EXPANSION

Over the next decade, Tudor focused his efforts domestically, expanding into the southern markets of Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and other cities. Tudor took a similar ‘boots on the ground’ approach, traveling with “coolers of chilled beverages” to share with locals. Again, Tudor gave bars free ice and cocktail recipes, but this time he also contacted “doctors and hospitals to convince them that ice was the perfect way to cool feverish patients” (Mental Floss).

Tudor’s methods were also dramatically improved during the 1820s as new foreman Nathaniel Wyeth revolutionized the ice harvesting process by using horse-drawn plows to cut the ice (HUB History).

BRINGING TUDOR’S ‘CRYSTAL BLOCKS OF YANKE COLDNESS’ TO INDIA

One of Tudor’s “Ice Houses” in India (Heritage Lab)

After establishing a profitable ice business with customers in America, Cuba, the Caribbean and French West Indies, Tudor set his sights on another ambitious market: India.

Now, the idea of shipping a frozen commodity to Calcutta, India was truly insane. In Tudor’s day, it took four months to make the 16,000-mile journey. But to his credit, Tudor managed to keep over 50% of the ice he shipped intact, with “only” 80 out of 180 tons melting en route. Regardless, Tudor turned a profit on the 100 tons of ice that did make it.

People in India were understandably baffled by Tudor’s “crystal blocks of Yankee coldness”.

“One of the Indians braved to touch a piece of the ice, and, believing that he had burned himself, wrapped his hand in his robe and rushed away followed by a number of the alarmed onlookers.” (Ice Harvesting USA)

You know who really loved having ice in India, though? The pale, overheated, red-faced Brits that lived in scorching Calcutta on behalf of her majesty’s empire! Unsurprisingly, “over the next two decades, India became Tudor’s most lucrative market for ice exports” (Wired).

Unloading Tudor’s ice blocks in Calcutta, India (Heritage Lab)

PARTING THOUGHTS & LESSONS FOR TODAY

Frederic Tudor, Boston’s “Ice King”, died a very wealthy man in 1864 (worth $200 million in today’s money). By then, the ice trade had grown from Tudor’s kernel of an idea that was widely ridiculed in 1806 to an international and competitive industry. According to the New England Historical Society, leading up to the Civil War “American ships carried more tonnage of ice than any other commodity except for cotton”.

This fascinating map from Boston University reveals the scale of Massachusetts’ ice trade, with ice blocks from ponds like Walden traveling to far corners of the earth.

So, what can a 218-year-old story about ice teach us about business and investing? In my opinion, a lot.

Simplicity in Business Ideas

Tudor’s achievements began with a simple concept: selling natural ice in warmer climates. His venture teaches us that complexity is not a prerequisite for success. As we enter an increasingly complex era of AI and innovation, Tudor’s story reminds us that the most impactful ideas often arise from straightforward solutions.

Value and Context

The value of any product or service is not universal. Ice had little worth in Boston but became invaluable in hotter regions like India. Tudor’s ice business demonstrates the importance of scrutinizing more than the product itself, but its ‘ecosystem of value’. Find markets where ‘ice’ can becomes ‘gold’.

Educating the Market

Initially, Tudor’s ice was met with bewilderment. Today, as new products vie for attention in a digital world with declining attention spans, effectively educating customers can be as critical as the innovation itself.

Loss Leader Strategy

By offering free ice to bars and cafes, Tudor employed what we now recognize as the “loss leader” strategy. This initial sacrifice for market penetration is a testament to the adage that sometimes, to make money, one must be willing to lose it. This strategy, prevalent in modern-day businesses offering trial periods or freemium models, can be traced back to Tudor’s ice giveaways.

Proving Instead of Promising

Tudor’s ‘show, don’t tell’ approach—providing bars and cafes with a week’s worth of ice at no cost—is a lesson in the power of working alongside your potential customers.

Frederic Tudor’s story is not just a historical account but a source of insight for modern entrepreneurs. His approach to innovation, understanding of market value, emphasis on customer education, and product demonstration offers lessons that are as applicable now as they were then.

 

SOURCES

Frederic Tudor: The Entrepreneur Who Brought Ice to Calcutta (FEE)

Frederic Tudor: New England’s “Ice King” Exported Ice as Far as India (ThoughtCo.)

Tracing the History of New England’s Ice Trade (Boston University)

Frederic Tudor Brings Cocktails & Ice Cream to the World (New England Historical Society)

Crystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness (Ice Harvesting USA)

The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice (Mental Floss)

The Ice Trade: The Turbulent Tale of Bringing Frozen Water to the World (Hushed Up History)

The Ice King Was a Tudor (WSJ)

The Ice King of Boston (HUB History)