Let there be ice: In 1868, New Orleans taught the world a new way to keep cool
“Yesterday was decidedly a warm day,” opined the Daily Delta newspaper of New Orleans on May 17, 1860, “a day which opened the pores of all creation, and made one sigh for an ice house.” Such grumbling was commonplace during broiling Crescent City summers — until 1868, which saw the opening on Tchoupitoulas Street of the world’s first documented commercial ice production facility. While New Orleans had for decades featured numerous ice storage facilities, when the Louisiana Ice Works started up, it began the process of taking some of the edge off of sweltering, sweaty, sultry summers in the Crescent City.
NOW: By the end of the 19th century, ice manufacturing plants dotted the city, and with the eventual introduction of air-conditioning cool indoor air became commonplace. A hundred years later, air conditioning is an afterthought and refrigerators provide a seemingly endless supply of ice. But with Freon and other refrigerants believed to be somewhat damaging to the environment, New Orleans and the world are left to search for more efficient, earth-friendly methods. Wrote author Salvatore Basile in his surprisingly lively book, “Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything”: “We love it. We can’t do without it. And it’s doomed. (Or is it?)”
- The Louisiana Ice Works didn’t officially open for large-scale commercial business until 1868 — and in so doing became the first such facility not just in the city but in the world. But it was producing man-made ice for consumption at least as early as 1865, if not earlier. In July 1865, the Times-Picayune trumpeted that it had received a block of ice from the Works, and the True Delta newspaper followed suit in October, declaring an 800-pound block of the manufactured ice had been on display in front of the paper’s office the entire day and that “a finer block of ice was never brought to this or any other market, and it attracted the universal admiration of all passers-by …”
- How did this engineering miracle on Tchoupitoulas Street work? By drawing water from the Mississippi River, filtering it, applying purifying salt elements and blasting it with ammonia and heat, which resulted in man-made ice that the T-P called “as pure as any we get.” The three-hour process reportedly produced 600 pounds of ice in a single batch, with the frozen stuff being sold for less than two cents a pound. The cheap, plentiful source of ice ended the city’s dependence on imported natural ice, and the ice works could barely keep up with overwhelming local demand.
- Concerns among a skeptical public concerned about the cleanliness of the Ice Works’ product were allayed in June 1868, when a professor of physics and chemistry at the College of Jesuits announced via newspaper ad that the manufactured ice was pure and unadulterated, and equal to any in quality and durability, and [I] recommend its use to the public.” More than 10 local physicians and druggists signed the ad as well, and dozens of customers testified to the ice’s quality.
- The Louisiana Ice Works’ success prompted the company to seek investors — essentially, franchisees who bought the patent rights — to open their own ice plants in other parts of the state.
- News of the miracle ice maker in the Crescent City gradually spread across the country over the last half of 1865, with newspapers in many states — including ones in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y. — noting that the Louisiana Ice Works was on the cutting edge of the cooling community and already meeting demand for its product beyond Louisiana. In November 1865, the Norfolk Post excitedly reported, “It is perhaps not very generally known that they have an ice manufactury in New Orleans which is capable of supplying about one half the quantity of ice consumed. We have seen and used the manufactured article, and find the works of man equal in this respect to those of nature.”
- The wonderment even made the Louisiana Ice Works a tourist destination, with out-of-towners visiting the facility with wide eyes. Take an April 1869 excursion to the Big Easy by a contingent from Illinois, part of which ventured to the ice plant. The Times-Picayune noted that among the visitors, “the greatest delight was manifested in the simple but seemingly wonderful process of artificial ice making.”
- The precise name of the company remains a little slippery, with newspapers referring to it as both the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company and the Louisiana Ice Works. In general, it appears that the former name referred mostly to the corporation and its executives, while the latter was used to describe the facility itself.
- Also somewhat curious is the exact location of this very first manufactured ice plant. It appears that at the very beginning, the factory sat at the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Orange streets. However, the company’s executives seem to have shifted the operations several blocks southwest down Tchoupitoulas to the more well-known location at the end of Delachaise by 1868. It’s possible that a small-scale, prototype facility started up in 1865 at Orange Street, and when the company officially opened for commercial business, it shifted to Delachaise.
- The company financed its launch largely by the sale of stock, offering each share for $50, a hefty price tag for the time. In October of that year, the company sweetened the deal for prospective stockholders by offering to deliver five pounds of ice daily to anyone who bought shares. The immediate goal was to raise $250,000 through stock purchases, at which time the company would officially kick into gear and commence its formal commercial operations with another $250,000 projected down the road. Several additional sales and auctions of stock shares took place in 1868.
- The fundraising worked, and by June 1868 the factory had three machines chugging along each day, with a daily production goal of 30 tons.
- Before the creation of what became known as “artificial ice,” New Orleans received shipments of massive blocks of so-called natural ice from, primarily, Boston, where magnate Frederic Tudor had cornered the market by harvesting enormous amounts of ice from frozen ponds, loading them on ships bound for the South and trains chugging out West, and becoming rich in the process. However, such an undertaking was clunky, inefficient, time-consuming and dangerous; workers often died in the process, and one-third of each shipment of ice melted by the time in arrived at its destination.
- For decades, the concept of man-made ice was viewed as folly, with prospective inventors enduring ridicule and scorn for their endeavors. Such was the case for Florida physician John Gorrie, who, despairing at all the lives in his community taken by disease and heat, created a prototype of a freezing contraption in 1845 and applied for a patent five years later. For his efforts, Gorrie was laughed at by peers and the public, and challenged by competitors trying to horn in on his discovery. He died a broken man in 1855. Gorrie’s invention, however, served as the model for what became the Louisiana Ice Works in 1865.
- One of the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company’s most lauded managers turned out to be Albert J. Michaelis, the company superintendent who oversaw swift expansion of the company in the late 1870s and early 1880s, including the launching of several satellite plants throughout the city. Michaelis’ entrepreneurial and management success made him quite popular, winning him a spot on the City Council. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the State Senate in 1884. Michaelis retired from the Louisiana Ice Works in 1885 and moved to El Paso, Texas, to help run a similar factory there, but he returned to NOLA in August 1887 and died two months later in Peoria, Ill., at the age of just 37.
- While the original ice works expanded its own base of operations, it wasn’t long before competing corporations budged their way into the NOLA ice market, touching off prolonged and often nasty jockeying and chest-thumping among the firms. The Big Easy ice wars included price wrangling, cost hikes, public and media outrage against said hikes, and the formation of various alliances, conglomerates, and production and distribution deals.
- So what ultimately happened to the great Louisiana Ice Works? By October 1888 the firm’s second factory on Front Street had gone into receivership and was put out to bid for purchase, and a year later the Ice Works’ bondholders were called together in the wake of a court ruling ordering the foreclosure of the Tchoupitoulas site. The property was gradually auctioned off, and finally, on April 27, 1893, prominent banker Isidore Newman bought the property for $61,000, formally closing the book on a company that had changed the game and rewrote the rules of refrigeration.
The age of ice and air-conditioning in New Orleans didn’t just create cool comfort; it also saved lives by the hundreds if not thousands. Deaths triggered by heat ailments and other diseases related to sweltering surroundings were more than commonplace; they were just expected and accepted. But the ability to produce ice and to cool buildings — combined with pioneering medical treatments — brought about a drastic reduction in mortality stemming from disease and heat-related ailments. It was then that the government and the populace finally recognized that man-made cooling wasn’t just a luxury, but a societal necessity.