From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, when the refrigerator was introduced to the home, the icebox was the place to keep foods cold. Iceboxes were typically made of wood, lined with tin or zinc and insulated with sawdust or seaweed. Water pans had to be emptied daily.
Initially municipally-consumed ice was harvested in winter from snow-packed areas or frozen lakes and stored in ice houses. With metropolitan growth many of the sources of natural ice became contaminated from industrial pollution or sewer runoff. As early mechanical refrigerators became available, they were installed in large industrial plants producing ice for home delivery. Able to produce clean, sanitary ice year-round, their product gradually replaced ice harvested from ponds.
The ice man became an American institution, delivering ice as needed when consumers posted the ‘Ice Today’ sign in their windows. “He stopped his wagon in front of each house and hollered ‘ice man!’ or sometimes rang a bell,” says Mars Hill, NC resident Theresa Hammack. Mars Hill is 19 miles from Asheville, where the Carolina Coal and Ice Company built a large ice plant in 1896.
“The ice man worked with the ice pick, a saw and a pair of tongs. He could cut a nickels worth or a big piece that went into high finance, such as a quarter or even 50 cents worth. Only commercial or rich folks ever bought that much. A nickel piece of ice was about all a small boy could carry.
“The ice man would put a piece of heavy cord around it for a handle. When you began your return journey by holding the ice away from your leg, but as your arm tired the nickels worth of ice would melt on your britches leg and run down in your shoes, if you were wearing any.
“If you stopped to play marbles you had to think up a good reason why it melted. Just to tell your mama it was a sorry grade of ice that melted fast didn’t work. If you had to get 10 or 15 cents worth of ice to make homemade ice cream you had to take your express wagon. Sometimes I shudder at the ignorance of the younger generation. Not knowing how big a nickel’s worth of ice is. And how cold water is when you empty the drip pan from under the ice box.”
Sources: Mars Hill [NC] Retirement Community newsletter, Vol. 1, Issue 7