Collecting Vintage Tools of the Ice Harvesting Industry

And you thought you had a tough job…

I found this ice saw, circa 1920s, out in the foundation of a Maine barn. What a frightening job it must have been to be out on a frozen river cutting ice, hoping you didn’t slip in!

About a month ago, before our Maine woods turned into the ice flows of Antarctica, I was hiking some back trails, looking for old foundations and dig sites.  I came across the foundation of an old root cellar, and in it I found this old tool which I recognized to be an “ice saw.”

I knew a bit about the practice of “ice harvesting,” but I looked online and found some amazing websites and museum collections pertaining to the historic ice harvesting business. My grandfather lived in Cambridge Mass, on the Charles River back in the 1920’s and my mother once told me that for a short time he worked as an “ice cutter” on the river. Through the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s, ice was harvested from rivers and lakes for commercial use in the North Eastern U.S., as well as in Scandinavia. 

Horses were led out onto the frozen rivers, dragging a weighted, plow-like apparatus. They would be walked in straight gridded lines across the ice, scoring the ice into squares, about four feet by four feet. Then, after a starter hole was drilled, a saw (like the one I found in the photo at the top) would be used to cut the foot thick ice into blocks.  Then they’d be chopped off, and floated and handled with unique tools, in a fashion similar to river logging. The blocks of ice would be slid, skidded, or wagoned to an insulated warehouse, where they would hibernate until they would be carried by an “ice wagon,” around town during the hot summer months, where the blocks of frozen ice would be a hot commodity.

These blocks were used in the early 1900’s to keep the first “iceboxes” (refrigerators without refrigeration) cold, or at least cool.  Further back, into the mid 1800s, these blocks were used on railroads, to keep rail cars packed with raw meat cool. They would essentially create walls of ice inside the freight cars, and hang the meat in the center of the car.  I don’t imagine it worked very well, but it had to be better than nothing!

Ice was transported for distribution in insulated railcars. Also walls of ice were used on trains transporting raw meat, which was an early attempt at “food safety.”

And even before the railroads were built, ice was cut and sold in the hot weather, even as just a novelty, where the blocks of ice were delivered to the wealthier homes, and enjoyed as a treat.  The blocks could be chipped or shaved with various tools, and added to beverages, or any various “snow cone” sort of treat.  If you can picture yourself back in that dusty age, on a 90 degree July day, a cup of ice with maple syrup drizzled over it must have seemed like magic!

Beautiful old photo of a neighborhood “Ice Wagon.”  Not sure if they had crackling music playing out of a loudspeaker like ice cream trucks do today!

The collectibles and antique tools associated with this rather short lived industry, are fascinating, but don’t often bring big money.  Not today, but they may someday, and this may be just the ground floor opportunity field of collectibles you’ve been looking for!  Most items associated with “ice harvesting” would have to be categorized as “primitives” or “country collectibles.” 

Ice saws and tools of various types will sell for only $10-$50, if they are unmarked, and rusted and weathered. These would be used only as wall decor, art projects, and man cave accents for the most part.  But if they are a rare design, with markings, and in excellent condition, they may bring a few hundred dollars.  You would have to consider them a very limited subset of collectibles, with a limited market.

An ice harvesting auger and thickness measuring iron sold for $485 in November 2015. This set brought more money than most ice tools do, because the auger is stamped with the company’s name– Snell Mfg. Co.

Ice prongs are another item you will often see for sale at your local antiques shop. They are the large heavy circular hooks, which when in use, were manipulated to clamp around the large floating ice blocks, and pulled from the top by a rope, which cause the two hooks to clamp together as it was pulled. Similar hooks were also used in logging, but they were generally larger.  These don’t sell for much money at all, to be honest. They are an example of something that is an “antique,” but not a “collectible.” When I first came across one years ago, I snatched it up (and over paid for it), thinking I had found a rare antique tool, worth hundreds.  Over the years I’ve now seen many, and they typically sell for under $50.  But…I still think they are cool, knowing what they were used for!

Vintage ice tongs don’t bring a lot of money, but they generally sell well as a vintage country decorative. This set brought $20 in October 2017.

Now, in terms of something related to this industry that can reasonably be “collected,” any ephemera and advertising is desirable.  And, as with any ephemera, if it says the right thing on it, or has someone’s signature, or has important provenance, the sky is the limit price-wise.

Also, hand ice forks, chippers and shavers are small and people do have collections of them, as there are many different types of these interesting and appealing little hand tools.  Many are marked with company names, and some may have original paint on the wooden handles, which adds value, as it would to any wooden tool or sign or small piece of furniture.

This colorful and original ice chipper or grinder, would have been used in an ice cream parlor or sundry shop.  What a great piece!  Not surprisingly, this piece brought over $600 on Ebay recently.

So the next time you are out at an antique show, or shop that deals in early American primitives, keep your eye out for an old “ice chipper.” It may cost you just twenty bucks, and you’ll have an interesting piece of an historical industry – and certainly a funky little conversation piece!


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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