ODU Historian Studying Historic Trade in Natural Ice – And its Modern Impact
November 27, 2019
Old Dominion University history professor Ingo Heidbrink is part of a three-country, $1.5 million study to examine the trade in natural ice between countries which produced it and countries where it was needed.
The study, funded by the Research Council of Norway and including researchers from Norway, England and the United States, examines how the trade in natural ice was an agent of modernization and economic integration in late 19thand early 20thcentury industries such as fisheries and brewing.
The research has important implications for understanding how a climate-dependent industry must adapt to changing environmental patterns, which parallels the concerns that industries such as agriculture or renewable energy production face today.
But this story is here to answer the important questions. Is the historic ice trade like it is pictured in the Disney movie "Frozen?"
"It's exactly like 'Frozen,'" Heidbrink said. "The opening scene where the horse-drawn sled carries blocks of ice cut from a frozen lake is very accurate with the details. It's a perfect description of this industry.
"The rest of the movie isn't so accurate," Heidbrink added, meaning the trade likely didn't include talking snowmen and princesses who shot icicles from their fingertips.
However, popular portrayal of the natural ice industry shouldn't diminish its importance for study, Heidbrink said. The ability to harvest and ship ice around Europe before artificial refrigeration was vitally important in the growth of medicine, where complications from surgical procedures were reduced with the use of ice. Lager beer, especially popular in continental Europe at the time, requires ice during the brewing process.
And a supply of ice was a key driver of the internationalization and industrialization of fisheries, as the ability to preserve their catch allowed fishermen to travel great distances to known fishing banks. "For an industrialized fishery with steam trawlers, you need three things - you need a crew, you need coal and you need ice," Heidbrink said.
At the turn of the last century, the trade in natural ice was the largest export-based industry for Scandinavian countries outside of timber.
It was also highly dependent on seasonal climate. In years when there wasn't much natural ice cover on freshwater lakes in Norway, the demand for the product in Germany - where natural ice development varied greatly from year to year - would soar. That led to ice companies attempting to forecast the next winter's weather. It also helped inspire innovations to try to maximize the amount of product they could harvest and ship, or even to abandon the harvest of natural ice and to invest in artificial ice-making with its high up-front costs and permanent need for energy.
"Today, you can think about any business that more or less depends on the weather," Heidbrink said. "Agriculture is a prime example. Wouldn't farmers want to know what type of season to expect when deciding what to plant? Or wouldn't renewable energy companies want to know future weather prior to making million-dollar decisions on solar farms or windmills?"
The research will be featured in an exhibit at the Norwegian Maritime Museum in cooperation with the University of Southeastern Norway. There are plans to travel the exhibit to England's University of Hull and Old Dominion University.