One of four ice houses in Beardstown Photograph courtesy of Romona Tharp's collection
Commercial Ice Companies
Before the invention of artificial refrigeration in the early twentieth century, ice from the Illinois River was harvested every winter and stored in large ice houses, the proprietors of which sold ice to shippers of fresh fish, waterfowl, and produce for train deliveries to large cities.
It is estimated that between 2,600 and 3,500 men worked for ice companies in Illinois in the late 1800s. There were 22 large ice companies in the Chicago area. In Havana, Trent & Radcliff operated the Crystal Ice Company. This and other ice companies stored and sold natural ice until refrigeration was invented.
City dwellers had ice delivered to them by horse and wagon. The iceman had to lift from 25- to 100-pound blocks, according to the order, which was placed by the consumer putting a numbered card in the window that corresponded with the number of pounds of ice they wanted (25,50,75,100). The ice was weighed on a spring scale on the truck, but an experienced delivery man could estimate the weight. The ice was carried to a kitchen using ice tongs and chipped with chisels to fit the compartment of the ice box.
Residential ice boxes, many home-made, were of oak, pine, or ash wood lined with zinc, slate, porcelain, galvanized metal, or wood. The insulator between the walls was charcoal, cork, flax straw, or mineral wool. Still, the ice lasted only one day. Chicago manufacturers in the 1800s included Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company and E.H. Stafford Brothers. Those who could not afford manufactured boxes made their own or used their wells and cellars. The ice block in the boxes usually only lasted one or two days, but helped the householders maintain a healthier diet that included dairy products and fresh meat.
The winter of 1890 was so warm that the supply of natural ice was insufficient to meet demand. People began to invent ways to make ice by experimenting with expanding, condensing, and expanding gases and liquids through tubes. Soon manufactured ice was able to supplant natural ice. In Illinois, there were eight artificial ice plants in 1889 and 29 by 1899. The Crystal Ice Plant in Havana was selling manufactured ice by 1913.