American Ice in British India : the art of keeping cool!

In this post, we revisit (through art) the “coolest” places in British India – ice houses!

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Now khus khus tatties (mats) fail to cool
And punkah breeze defying
The mercury marks 95
And we are almost frying…”

This poem could well have been composed in today’s time.

Indian summers have always been notoriously difficult, but unlike the 1830s when this poem was published, today, we have easy access to cooled water. We’ll get to the poem in just a bit!

Chilled water is somewhat of a necessity for many of us today. But in the 15th century, chilled drinks were a luxury available only to the royals. The British, even as they tried to emulate the Mughals, were unable to afford the Rs. 1 per pound ice from the Himalayas. And so, they resorted to manufacturing ice in the plains. The process, as described by Fanny Parkes (the 18th-century travel writer) was labour-intensive.

Ice Pits at Allahabad : Fanny Parkes’ Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Picturesque (1850)

Ice – in a slushy form- was thus became available to the administrative elite in colonial India. Here’s a painting of an Abdar – this indispensable domestic worker in the summers was usually employed by British officers to keep their drinks cool. 

An abdar cooling bottles. Painting; gouache on mica, Patna, ca.1870. Collection of the V&A.

But in case you’re wondering, this technique produced nothing like the ice we know today.

Ice, as we know it, came to India in 1833. While the British in India were desperately seeking ways to beat the summer heat (hanging wet khus on window openings, hiring punkhawalas, getting away to a hill station), far away in Cuba, a young man, unable to get a chilled drink thought of an idea. 

In 1805, when Frederic Tudor came up with the idea of exporting ice to the tropics, everyone laughed at him.

By the 1860s, Tudor had amassed a fortune of millions and has been famous since then as the “Ice King”.

Frederic Tudor; painting by Francis Alexander ca. 1830 Public Domain. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

On 12 May 1833, Tudor despatched a shipment of ice to India. After sailing 4 months, passing through the Equator twice, the ship carrying 180 tons of ice reached India – but only with about 100 tons of ice. Still, the ice that arrived instantly uplifted moods.

Detail from a painting by Louis Dodd that shows a Frederic Tudor ship unloading ice-cargo at Calcutta. Dodd was known for his maritime paintings. This painting has been featured in full as a cover for a book (left). We reproduce a detail owing to copyright restrictions.

Frederic Tudor’s biggest challenge was preserving the ice. During the journey to India, Tudor insulated the cargo hold with a mixture of straw, bark and sawdust, so most of the ice survived the journey.

The people of Calcutta, jubilant at the thought of having ice all year round (at a reasonable price), offered to build an Ice-House – through crowdsourced funding.

The Ice House_Calcutta by Frederick Fiebig 1851 : Photo Print

In his essay, The Nineteenth-Century Indo-American Ice Trade, David G. Dickason reproduces a poem that originally appeared in The Englishman in 1837. 

Now kus kus tatties fail to cool
And punkah breeze defying
The mercury marks 95
And we are almost frying.
Still, some relief we may enjoy,
For with our "dall' and rice, Sir,
Liquids become a luxury
From Yankee Tudor's Ice, Sir.
This blessing answers very well,
For sundry other uses
One, as a friend to you I'll tell,
To Comfort it reduces.
Send for a spon (choose a light brown)
At Bathgate's you can get it,
Make a large wig to fit your crown
And with Ice water wet it.

In Calcutta, Indian businessmen such as Dwarkanath Tagore were part of of the committee trying to fund the initiative to ensure a regular supply of ice in the city. The Ice-House was located at Hare Street next to the Metcalfe House.

By 1836, 12000 tons of ice had been shipped to Calcutta and 10 years later, this figure had spiralled to 65000 tons.

Soon, the popularity of American ice reached the other port-cities of India — Bombay and Madras.

Landing Ice at Bombay.; engraving published in The Graphic, Nov. 1880.

The city of Bombay received its first ice-cargo in September 1834. The city had an advantage of being the first destination for ships coming in from Boston. This called for the Bombay’s first Ice-House, which was built through subscription funds raised by Bombay Times & Journal of Commerce (later TOI). They crowdsourced nearly Rs.3900/- to build the Ice House which was erected by 1843. In Bombay, ice sold for 4 annas (25 paise) per pound.

Meanwhile in Madras, an Ice House was erected in 1841-2.

Tudor Ice House, Madras_1880; Christies

David G. Dickason points out the numerous customs and business subsidies Tudor received from India’s British rulers. For example, in Madras, ice was a duty-free item joining the ranks of pearls and precious stones. Here, Tudor even received a 20-year lease on the Ice-House starting 1845!

In 1874, entrepreneurs in Madras manufactured ice locally using a steam processor at the International Ice Company spelling the end of Tudor’s ice exports to the city. The Ice-House was acquired by the Government of Madras and it stands at the same spot, remodelled as the Vivekananda House.  

From Madras, the idea spread to Calcutta. The Bengal Ice Company, the second artificial ice maker in India, was formed in 1878. The Calcutta Ice-House was demolished in 1882; the one in Bombay was demolished in the 1920s.

The Ice-House in Bombay was the circular structure on the left

What remains with us though, is Tudor’s story – the man who despite his early failures, never gave up.

He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow,
despairs of success – has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love, or business

Frederic Tudor ( first page of Tudor’s’ “Ice House Diary” )



3 things that we dig : events & conversations at Museums

Be sure to check out our Events calendar for updates!

A workshop on Sufi Poetry by Nishast Dilli at National Museum New Delhi is one of the must-do on our list !
The Museum will be also remain open till 9pm during 17-20 May. Register Here
Salarjung Museum (Hyderabad) is hosting a Photography contest in collaboration with Bhagyanagar Photo Art Club. The winners will be awarded cash prizes! Get in touch with : [email protected] for details.
Every year, The MetGala rakes up memes, conversations and debates. This year, a host of Indian news channels “broke the story” on YouTuber Emma Chamberlain wearing a choker that (may have) belonged to the Maharaja of Patiala. To cut through all the noise, please head to this post by Sarmaya India.
For the record, historian Peter Bance has clarified that Emma’s choker is a copy – disrespectful yes, but not “stolen”.

That’s all for this week 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

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American Ice in British India : the art of keeping cool!