By Elliot Carter
The American Ice Company once operated five ice factories and numerous storage facilities in Washington, supplying 85% of the city's ice.
The American Ice Co. was a massive New Jersey-based conglomerate that dominated the ice trade along the East Coast. It was formed in 1897 by business tycoon Charles W. Morse who in unrelated business ventures would go on to cause the Panic of 1907 and be indicted for war profiteering during World War I.
Ice was a new and important industry on the East Coast in 1800’s. Ice King Frederic Tudor first developed a method of exporting Maine lake ice on a commercial scale in 1806. He marketed his ice as a luxury good to customers in the South and the Caribbean. Large profits also came through business-to-business sales to breweries, pork packers, butchers, and hotels.
By the mid century, New England ice houses were the center of a global industry that supplied locations as far away as India and Singapore. Prices dropped and ice became a household necessity for the middle class. By the end of the century the ice trade was becoming increasingly centralized as industrialists like Charles W. Morse bought out rivals and expanded the vertical integration of their operations.
In 1911 the American Ice Co. split up “to avoid the expenditure of time and money necessary to defend the pending action of People vs. American Ice Company.” Like Standard Oil and other monopolies, they were targeted as an illegal trust. The distribution business ended up becoming the Knickerbocker Ice Co, and the production business spun off as the Ice Manufacturing Co.
The ice trade faced difficult waters in the early 1900s. They had pioneered advances in machine produced ice (so called “plant ice") and refrigeration technology. These advances inevitably made their way into consumer goods and household ice boxes started to chip into the profit margins of companies like the American Ice Co.