Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Summertime when ice wasn't easy -- July 23, 2020 column


Of all the momentous issues with which the founding fathers had to grapple, one of the most perplexing was ice.

In his letters, George Washington often expressed his frustrations about being unable to preserve ice, historians at Mount Vernon tell us.

Writing his friend Robert Morris from Mount Vernon on June 2, 1784, Washington confided the ice in his icehouse is “is gone already,” and asked Morris to send a description of the size, manner of building and management of his icehouse in Pennsylvania.

“My house was filled chiefly with Snow,” Washington added, asking Morris if he had tried keeping snow and if he thought snow was key to Washington’s defeat.

Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, quickly obliged. From Philadelphia on June 15, he wrote nearly 600 words of detailed description of his icehouse, which, in case you’re wondering, was 16-feet square and 18-feet deep, with two sets of stone walls, wood and straw above and gravel below.

Morris tells Washington he tried saving snow one year and “lost it in June,” but he can keep ice from winter until the next October or November. If the icehouse were bigger, ice would last until Christmas, he thinks, and if the walls were lined with straw, even longer.

Morris further recommends ice be broken into small pieces and pounded with heavy clubs so it consolidates into a mass so solid it requires a chisel or axe to cut off pieces.

So, Washington had his slaves rebuild his icehouse on Morris’s model and kept tinkering with the design. If you visit Mount Vernon, you can see his icehouse cut into a hillside.

Slaves also did the hard and dangerous work of hauling large blocks of ice from the frigid Potomac River in the dead of winter, pulling the blocks to shore, dragging them to the icehouse and soaking them with water, so they’d freeze into a mound, historians tell us.

And that is how the father of our country and his wife came to enjoy cool drinks and iced cream, as it was then called, long after winter had passed.

“In the warm season, ice is the most agreeable thing we can have,” Martha Washington wrote in 1793. (I’ve updated 18th century spellings and punctuation for clarity.) She loved entertaining women friends at weekly parties with ice cream and lemonade.

Washington’s icehouse was for his personal use as were icehouses built for later presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but only the very rich could afford their own.

In 1793, an enterprising tavern owner built an ice well in Alexandria, a few miles from Mount Vernon. City Tavern, now known as Gadsby’s Tavern, at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets, offered the finest accommodations of the era, so, of course, it needed ice for guests.

That ice well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough for the tavern and local people who wished to buy it. In 1805, tavern owner John Gadsby sold ice for 8 cents a pound.

Magnificently restored a few years ago, the ice well has received several preservation design awards and is a magnet for visitors who peer for free into the subterranean well from the city sidewalk.

Today, we can’t help being struck not only by how much colder winters were in the 18th century but also by the amount of thought, labor and perseverance needed to thwart the process of melting.

In the past, the stories of early achievements of our young country failed to recognize the work of enslaved people. Times have changed, and we now understand much of our celebrated progress was won through the muscle and backs of the enslaved.

Preserving ice enabled the fortunate few to keep fresh meats longer and have more variety in their diet. In time, the treat became an expectation.

Ice is still transitory, of course, but these days we hardly worry about it melting. More cubes are always popping out of the icemaker in the fridge -- until the icemaker stops working and human intervention must once again be employed, in the form of low-tech ice trays.

We moderns worry about many things, but ice isn’t one of them. And for that we all can be grateful in the sizzling summer of 2020.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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