Ice Harvesting: Local History, Literature & Culture

Local Living History & Ice Harvesting

Filling the Ice House (1934) Harry Gottlieb. Oil on canvas, 40 3/8 x 60 3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor, 1964.1.19

Historically, living without refrigerators in New England required strategies for prolonged food storage and preservation. In the November/December Seasons edition of Learning Ahead, we looked at different forms of food preservation such as curing, salting, and canning. Early New Englanders didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators, but they did harvest ice from frozen lakes and ponds in order to keep food stored without spoiling. The frozen chunks of ice harvested were kept insulated by materials such as sawdust in a dark, cool place so that the ice would last beyond the winter months. 

The ice harvesting industry in Massachusetts even sent frozen chunks of ice all over the world. Ice would be shipped across the Atlantic to London and was one of America’s biggest cash crop commodities, measured by weight.

Given New England’s ice harvesting traditions, many local historical societies and museums demonstrate the tools and methods used when harvesting ice from frozen lakes and ponds. Witness firsthand how ice harvesting was done in New England through living history demonstrations.

Further your learning about the local ice harvesting industry by utilizing an online resource made available by the Southwick Historical Society: Southwick’s Harvested Ice Empire.  Filled with photographs and informative materials, the web page chronicles the rise and fall of the booming ice harvesting industry in Southwick where, thanks to a nearby railroad, it was possible to harvest and transport ice straight to New York City.


Download our Jan/Feb edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

[Image attribute: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

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