Delivering blocks of ice to an overheated city

Thanks to many decades of home refrigeration, few New Yorkers remember what it was like getting a block of ice delivered by the iceman, and having to rely on that delivery to help keep cool on summer days.

[The iceman cuts a chunk of ice on the sidewalk, Photo: Museum of the City of New York]


“These hot humdrum summer days bring to mind nostalgic memories of the old horse-drawn ice wagon coming down the street,” detailed one New York Times writer in 1960.

“This was the time, of course, before modern life was filled with newfangled machinery . . . memories of such things as ice boxes and drip pans come to mind when we think of the neighborhood iceman turning the corner into our block.”


[Delivering his goods in a wagon with an engine, not pulled by horses. Photo: New York Public Library]

Like the milkman or coal delivery man, the iceman was a local fixture, delivering chunks of ice to apartments on his route that had an “ice today” card visible in the window.

“With a slicker-like black cape adorning his back, and a pair of heavy gloves to protect his hands from the load, the iceman would lift the block of ice with a pair of tongs, place it on his back over his shoulder, and perhaps walk up two, three, or even four tenement flights,” continued the Times.


[The iceman typically delivered to apartments, but this block of ice was left on Mulberry Bend in 1897. MCNY]

“With a heavy sigh, he would drop the block—usually weighing from 20 to 40 pounds—into the bottom of the icebox.”

Icemanicetenement“It was at that moment that the woman of the house usually said to him: ‘I think I’ll need another chunk, about 10 pounds!’ And off he went to go through the entire process once more.”

Cooling off by stealing shards of ice was apparently a popular activity for kids, who would chase the ice wagon down the street and hop into the back without the iceman knowing.

“Once you reached it, the next problem was to climb up, pick up whatever chips of ice your probing fingers could find—and get off fast,” wrote the Times.

“The entire process had to be done quickly, and quietly, to avoid having the driver stop his horse, get off his wagon, and come around to catch the apprentice thief in the art of trying to cool off on a hot summer day.”

The ice delivery companies, though, weren’t necessarily on the side of their customers, as the actions of these greedy ice barons makes clear.

[A block of ice glistens in front of a row of West Side tenements. NYPL]

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9 Responses to “Delivering blocks of ice to an overheated city”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    These people did not have to go to the “gym”!!!! Their work supplied their cardio! what a lovely picture! Thank you!!!!

  2. Tilman Hill Says:

    Blocks of ice were delivered to us at 115 Mott Street in the late 1940s. Big blocks, carried with tongs, up several flights of stairs and into the icebox. It must have been fearfully hard work.

  3. A.B. Nickerson Says:

    Reblogged this on the Fusionists' Journal and commented:
    I remember, but from a southern viewpoint!!

  4. Rich T Says:

    Sometimes dealing with the icebox could lead to complications.

  5. Jonathan W. Phillips (former artist in residence CP - 1986-89) Says:

    This story should remind us that ice was once a perishable commodity that helped build fortunes and supplement farmers’ incomes upstate. When ice was farmed and shipped to the City, it originated usually in upstate New York, literally up the Hudson River. Blocks of ice were regularly harvested during the long cold winter, stored underground, covered in straw for insulation, and then sold through the warm months at an increasing profit.

    The manipulation of ice prices and Tammany’s share in fixing those prices, was one of the cyclical defining scandals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    Our ice made it half way around the world to India, where it sold in return for sterling. One of the dangers of shipping was the temptation to overload the ship on the way out of port, because it was certain a given amount of ice would be lost to evaporation and melting. If a ship got hit by a storm as it was laden out of port it would often flood the hold and go down. That was the fate of the Galatea, which was captained by one of my wife’s Great-great-great grandfathers. Consequently, his son was forced to leave school and go to work on the railroad – a fortuitous job choice for him, as it turned out, in the late 1850s.

  6. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Big Thanks to RICK T. for his wonderful old cartoon strip!

    I was expecting someone to mention the famed title of the Eugene O’Neill play and yet, no one ‘cometh.’

    One more important facet in the delivery of residential block ice. Here in the midwest (and I expect it was true in NYC) a special piece of cardboard was provided by the ice company. This served as a sign for the family’s window. The cardboard had numbers printed on it. You had to rotate the cardboard to read the numbers – printed straight, then printed on it’s left side, then the number would be upside down and finally the number would be on it’s right side. The numbers would be: 5 — 10 — 15 — 20. These indicated the amount of ice you desired — like: 20 pounds of ice because you were having company in the summertime.

    These cardboard signs are highly desired collectibles as well as the huge iron ice tongs. Some enterprising decorators use them to hold papertowels. They merely hang them on the walls in their kitchens!

    This is a splendid website, offering a variety of topics, images and comments. I am grateful…

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Audrey! I always appreciate your insight.

  8. Gojira Says:

    My Uncle Frank was in iceman in Brooklyn in the late 1930s; I inherited his ice tongs when he died, and they hang proudly in my kitchen. I still remember his hands from the years of physical labor he did – they were like double-thick porkchops with five sausages stuck into them.

  9. chester hartwell Says:

    During the anti-trust suit it was revealed the boards of both leading ice companies Knickerbocker and American had the same board members. That, pollution and the advancement of refrigeration hailed the downfall of these companies and the natural ice business though lake ice continued as well as commercial refrigeration of ice blocks well past WWII. Heck our summer home had no electricity in the late 1950’s and my job was to empty the ice melt tray 3x daily. Every town had a subterranean ice house well into the 1960’s, some even later.

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