From the Archive : The Ice Merchant’s Bill

Ice cubes chinking in a festive glass, ice cream, frozen desserts – what would we do without ice? More to the point, what did people do in the days before every kitchen was equipped with a freezer? Well, as document .4438.3 shows us, in the nineteenth century supplies could be bought from an ice merchant. Where he obtained the ice is an interesting story.

The bill in the photograph is for three consignments of “Wenham Lake Ice”. Wenham Lake is in Massachusetts in the USA and is renowned for the purity of its water. Lacking the pollutants that would lower its melting point, ice from the Lake could be harvested in giant cubes, packed in layers of sawdust and transported by railway and by ship. From the 1840s, vessels carrying Wenham ice crossed the Atlantic, losing about a third of their cargo en route.

What arrived in London was a luxury highly prized for its purity, and was even supplied to Queen Victoria’s household. The Wenham Lake Ice Company opened a shop at 125 in the Strand in the summer of 1844. Every day, shop assistants would put a large block of ice in the window and place a newspaper behind it, so that passers-by could read the print and wonder at the astonishing clarity of the product. The display attracted crowds of admirers, many of whom would never have seen such a huge block of ice before.

For Mr Hobley of Rugby to obtain supplies of the coveted Wenham Lake ice for Mr Marriott, it must have undergone another train journey. What proportion was lost in meltwater between Massachusetts and Cotesbach can only be imagined. No wonder it was expensive; this must have been for a very special occasion. The total bill for Wenham Lake ice over three consecutive days in the summer of 1874 amounted to seven shillings and ninepence, at a time when an agricultural labourer might expect to be paid only two shillings a day.

Ref: Bill Bryson “At Home – a short history of private life” [Black Swan, 2010]