It is not surprising that the Norwich Historical Society collection includes quite a few ice harvesting tools such as saws, tongs, and pikes.

Before modern refrigeration, foods were kept cold by placing them on blocks of ice harvested from ponds and rivers. Farmers cut and stored ice for their farms, but also for the cities. Ice harvesting was a big business in the 19th century.

Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, was the first to ship ice to the West Indies. He went on to make a fortune shipping ice around the world. Even Queen Victoria purchased ice from Massachusetts in the 1840s.

Unloading Ice in Cuba

The booming ice business sparked the invention of specialized ice cutting equipment such as saws and tongs to improve the harvesting of ice.

Ice Saw and Ice Bar, collection Norwich Historical Society

When ice reached a thickness of between 14 and 24 inches it was ready to cut. First a horse-drawn scraper removed the rough snow crust. Then the men marked the area to be cut. A 5-inch deep grid pattern was scored into the ice in rectangles. Then the men, using large hand saws, separated the blocks, knocking them free of each other. The blocks, guided by horses or men with pike poles, were floated down narrow channels to the shore. The heavy rectangles were stored in the icehouse with sawdust or hay for insulation. In the summer, the heavy blocks weighting anywhere from 25 – 40 pounds were lifted with ice tongs.

Photo, Dartmouth College Collections

Ice was harvested on the west side of the Connecticut River near Lewiston. In the early 1900s, the Lewis family cut ice from the Connecticut River, stored it in their Lewiston barn, and peddled it door to door in the summer.

Later, as lakes, ponds, and rivers suffered from pollution, water quality became an issue. This problem disappeared in the 1930s and 1940s when ice could be frozen from sanitized water in refrigerators.

This simple tool is another example of how one artifact can be a portal to a wide variety of topics ranging from global trade, to the industrial revolution, to domestic life, or to environmental history.