Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.
While working as archivist for the Congregational Church of Needham, I came across a tattered poster advertising a Strawberry Festival the church held in 1890. The more I looked at that poster, the more questions I had about it. Today we tackle the question: How could the price of ice jeopardize an entire Strawberry Festival?
Whoever made the poster for the 1890 Strawberry Festival for the Congregational Church in Needham seemed awfully anxious to reassure visitors that the price of ice wouldn’t affect the availability of ice cream.
Which raises the question…. How could the price of ice jeopardize an entire Strawberry Festival?
People couldn’t make their own ice at home in 1890, so where did they get it?
Electric refrigerators capable of making ice and keeping food cold weren’t widely available for residential (and by extension church use) until 1913. Even then, most people relied on the old system in which ice companies cut blocks of ice from frozen lakes during the winter, stored that ice in a commercial ice house, and distributed it to customers for use in ice boxes until after WWII. (The Jamaica Plain Historical Society has an interesting article on the New England ice harvesting industry here.)
So it is reasonable to suppose that any ice used to make the ice cream served at the Strawberry Festival in 1890 (and any ice required to keep it cold) had to be purchased from the local ice company.
How much did ice cost in 1890?
Given the mechanical nature of the ice harvest and storage technologies available at the time, it makes sense that the price of ice could vary widely from year to year, depending on the weather the previous winter (and how thickly the nearby lakes froze as a result) and the demand for ice to counter the heat of summer.
On its price card for 1890, the A. D. Lougee ice company cited a poor ice harvest the previous winter as the rationale for charging its customers in nearby West Newton and Newtonville, Massachusetts 70 cents per cwt (hundred pounds) of ice (minimum purchase 50 lbs).
To put this in perspective, the average daily wage in 1890 was a mere $1.53.
The prospect of spending 20-50% of your entire day’s wages on a block of ice must have made ice seem very expensive indeed. Especially if you were in charge of making the ice cream.
- How could the Friendly Society stage the 1890 Strawberry Festival when they’ve only been around 79 years? (Once Upon a Time in Needham)
- Harvesting Ice on Jamaica Pond (Jamaica Plain Historical Society)
- 1890-1920 Ice Cream Pudding Recipes (Suite101)
- 1890 Card from A. D. Lougee Ice Co, West Newton and Newtonville MA (Heirlooms Reunited)