Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Gibson House Icebox

Have you ever thought about what life was like before refrigerators? In 1830, a new invention changed the way Americans handled food: the icebox. 

Gibson House Museum 2004.11
At the Gibson House, an icebox can be found on the ground floor. It is a large, dark-brown box made from hardwood that looks almost like a drawer or large chest. It has multiple compartments to store different types of food; the compartments are lined with tin or zinc to insulate it. It is currently located in the kitchen, but originally it would have been kept outside the back door of the kitchen, on top of a zinc plate. 

Ice harvesting began here in Boston in 1805. Ice was harvested in the winter from frozen lakes and ponds and was delivered from house to house by an “iceman.” Frederic Tudor, one of the Gibsons' neighbors in Nahant, founded the Tudor Ice Company and later became known as Boston’s “Ice King.”  

The primary location of local ice harvesting in the 1850s was Jamaica Pond. By 1874, the Boston Globe reported that the Jamaica Plain Ice Company was cutting about 5,000 tons of ice a day. Prior to delivery, it was stored in insulated sheds that could contain up to 80,000 tons of ice. Once the ice was delivered, people would store it in their icebox, just like the one at the Gibson House.

By 1850, families were receiving ice deliveries once a week. Families would leave a card outside their door indicating how much ice they needed. During World War I, while men were off fighting, many women took on the job of delivering ice.

Iceboxes improved the American diet by allowing people to preserve food, as well as consume food from more distant locations. It is important to note that in the early years of ice delivery ice was primarily enjoyed by the upper-middle class because of the expense of maintaining an icebox in one’s home. In the twentieth century, however, iceboxes persisted in poorer households, while wealthier ones switched to electric refrigerators.

Ice cream mold.
Gibson House Museum 1961.51
In the nineteenth-century, the primary purpose of ice was to preserve food, but it was also used for making ice cream. During the Victorian period, ice cream was a dessert that signified a family’s wealth. Every summer, Samuel Hammond, Charlie’s first cousin and neighbor, took his ice cream maker from their house on Beacon Street to their home in Nahant, where ice from their ice shed was used to make the ice cream. Servants used hand-crank ice cream makers to mix the ingredients together, and then they used ice cream molds to create interesting designs. The Gibson House Museum has a large collection of different ice cream molds that the family likely used to create lavish desserts for visitors. 

The Gibson House was recently awarded a grant from Mass Humanities, with support from the NEH, to develop a new house tour focusing on the lives of the many young, immigrant women who worked as domestic servants at the Gibson House.
Stay tuned for the launch of this tour in Spring 2021!

- Tessa White, Suffolk University (Curatorial Intern, Spring 2020)

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