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Of Ice and Cream, to Sell it!  

Of Ice and Cream, to Sell it!  

Looking back from where we are,  it is hard to believe that in the 19th century, one of the most coveted imports from the United States was ice and an enterprising American even made a huge fortune selling it to India! This businessman from Boston, Frederic Tudor (1783-1864), also incidentally introduced another staple – ice cream – which was basically brought in to ensure that there was more demand for his ice. The story is riveting!

You may ask why was India, home to the snow-capped Himalayas, importing ice all the way from the United States, in the first place? The answer can be found in the not so well known history of the ice trade in India.

For a country like India, known for its hot summers, it comes as no surprise that there was always a demand for cold water and ice. One of the oldest references to ice being used as a coolant, is in the 7th-century text Harshacharitra, a biography of King Harshavardhana of Kannauj by Banabhatta. The text mentions that the buttermilk consumed by the King was kept in pails packed with ice, which most probably was brought in from the Himalayas.

Painting of Abul Fazl in the court of Akbar  | Wikimedia Commons 

The flavoured ices, which today are called ice-lollies or sorbets, originated in China around 618-79 CE and travelled to Central Asia and Europe through the Silk Route in the 13th century CE. It was brought to India by the Mughals from their homeland in Central Asia. In his memoir Baburnama, the first Mughal emperor Babur bemoans the lack of ‘ice and ice water in India.

It was only after the conquest of Kashmir in 1586, that large quantity of ice began to be imported for the imperial Mughal household using horses and elephants. Another source was the Churdhar peak near Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh, which was said to be covered with snow throughout the year. The Mughal chronicler Abul Fazl writes in his book Ain-i-Akbari (1590 CE):

Illustration of ice pits in Allahabad | Wikimedia Commons

To cater to the heavy demand for ice, ice pans were established at Delhi and Agra.  Historian Percival Spear in his book ‘History of India’ writes

[the ice pans] were strewn with straws of various kinds. Water pots were provided and should the weather promise a cold clear winter night, water was poured into cloth-bottomed pans, which were then fitted onto the earthen squares or hollows. On a good night, ice would form at a depth of one-and-a-half inches in these pans.

The ice was made and stored in December and January, and the supply lasted all the way until August.

The arrival of a large number of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries led to an even greater demand for ice. It was sourced from the Himalayan rivers which would freeze over in winter. But getting the ice down to the plains was a very expensive and labour intensive process. Ice slabs had to be cut using axes and saws and transported across long distances. It was only the very rich, who could afford to serve ice.

Frederic Tudor, the man who made a fortune from ice  | Wikimedia Commons 

It was an enterprising American, in faraway Boston, who revolutionized the ice trade in India. Frederic Tudor (1783-1864), a Bostonian businessman experimented for years on different techniques to preserve ice. Over time, he discovered that packing ice in sawdust was key to preventing it from melting. Sawdust was almost free as it was a byproduct of the lumber trade. Soon, Tudor through his Tudor Ice Company began exporting slabs of ice, packed in sawdust to the West Indies and Brazil.

In 1833, a fellow Boston merchant proposed that Tudor sell ice to India, some 16,000 nautical miles away. On 6 September 1833, after a journey of four months, a ship ‘Tuscany’ arrived in Calcutta from Boston with 180 tons of Ice-cargo. The arrival of this Ice reportedly created a sensation among residents of Calcutta. JH Stocqueler, the editor of the newspaper Englishman, wrote of being woken up by his hysterical orderly who had seen slabs of ‘snow’ at the Calcutta docks. The editor dispatched his orderly with a piece of cloth and a basket to get some of the ice. But writes Stocqueler, the faithful orderly had neither wrapped the ‘ice in cloth nor closed the basket lest the ice became too warm.’ as a result, he returned home empty-handed.

Ice crusher, designed to support specialized 19th century drinks | Wikimedia Commons 

The Tudor Ice Company built ice-Houses in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta to store ice. However, the company faced a peculiar problem. Most locals in India, as well as the West Indies and Brazil, had no idea what to do with the ice. Given this predicament, Tudor hit upon an innovative idea – making ice cream! The Company began aggressively promoting a new dish called the ‘ice cream’ which was then popular in the United States. It is the Tudor Ice Company which is said to have introduced and popularized ice cream in West Indies, India as well as Iran – all to create a market for their ice!

The earliest recorded reference to ice cream in India comes from Bombay when noted Parsi merchant Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy served it for a housewarming party at his house in Bombay in 1834.  Everyone loved it so much that both the host and his guests fell ill with a cold! Ice became almost a kind of status symbol among the Indian elite and there was such a demand for ice that it was even rationed when supplies were short. At such times, you had to show a doctor’s certificate to buy ice.

Vivekanandar Illam | Wikimedia Commons 

By 1855, new techniques of manufacturing ice emerged and it became no longer necessary to import ice from far off United States. Ice soon became available in cities across India. The Tudor Ice Company sold their ice-houses in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The Calcutta ice-house on Hare street was pulled down and the Small Causes Court stands in its place, today.  The Bombay ice-house building was sold to Jamshedji Tata and it now houses the prestigious KR Cama Oriental Institute. The Madras ice-house was sold to Biligiri Iyengar, a noted advocate who converted it into his residence. It is here that Swami Vivekananda stayed during his visits to Madras and hence it has now been converted into an exhibition centre known as Vivekanandar Illam.

Today, we take ice as well as ice cream for granted. New technology has made manufacturing ice almost an instantaneous process. Incredibly, the company which started it all, the Tudor Ice Company, is still in operation in Boston and sells…what else…but Ice!

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