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.”
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]