The Van Trump Report

How Refrigeration Transformed Agricultural Trade in America

One of the most important inventions for agricultural trade was something that most consumers today can’t imagine living without – refrigeration. The original idea to use refrigeration for farm goods is credited to dairy farmer Thomas Moore of Maryland who was simply looking for a better way to get his butter to market.

First, it’s important to understand the history of refrigeration. The seasonal harvesting of snow and ice is an ancient practice estimated to have begun earlier than 1000 BC in China. The Greeks and Romans placed large amounts of snow into storage pits and covered this cooling agent with insulating material. However, ice and snow was mostly used to cool drinks as most food preservation was done through traditional methods of salting, spicing, smoking, pickling, and drying. There was also little use for refrigeration since the foods it primarily preserved — fresh meat, fish, milk, fruits, and vegetables — did not play as important a role in diets as they do today. In fact, North American diets up until the early 1800s consisted mostly of bread and salted meats.

In the U.S., ice was first shipped commercially out of Canal Street in New York City, where it was cut, to Charleston, South Carolina in 1799. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much ice left when the shipment arrived. New Englanders Frederick Tudor and Nathaniel Wyeth saw the potential for the ice business and revolutionized the industry through their efforts in the first half of the 1800s. Natural ice supply became an industry unto itself — and a large one at that.

As ice became more widely available, Thomas Moore had his ingenious idea to use it to keep his butter from melting on the 20 mile trip from his farm in Montgomery County, Maryland to the village of Georgetown. He coined the term “refrigerator” in 1803 to describe the box he’d created that consisted of a cedar box with an interior tin liner, and thick rabbit skin cover for a lid. Ice was put in between the cedar exterior and tin interior. The box kept his butter hard even in warm weather. He also realized that he could sell his butter at a premium price to his competitors, whose butter often melted in summer months.

Moore saw his invention as an improvement for all farmers. Up to that point, farmers had to travel at night if they wanted to keep their goods cool. He was so excited by the idea that he invited Thomas Jefferson to view his new invention. Jefferson was impressed and took notes and drawings of the refrigerator and even purchased one for himself. Moore got a patent for his refrigerator in 1803 and made some decent money through the sale of the rights. However, that was just the beginning of refrigeration’s impact on the agricultural industry.

Ice became a mass-market commodity by the early 1830s with the price of ice dropping from six cents per pound to half of a cent per pound. Consumer demand for fresh food, especially meat and fresh produce, led to huge diet shifts between 1830 and the Civil War, fueled by the dramatic growth of cities and the improvement in the economic status of the general populace. But as cities grew, so did the distance between the consumer and the source of the food.

Beginning in the 1840s, refrigerated railroad cars were used for short trips of dairy products. These so-called “refer cars” were filled with blocks of ice on each end that were insulated with materials like sawdust or cow hair. Open false ceilings at the top of the rail car’s interior allowed for circulation, and fans blew across the ice blocks to create an “air-conditioning” of sorts. A refrigerator car of the late-1800s could only travel about 250 to 400 miles before it would need re-icing. At icing stations built strategically along the rail lines, employees would climb a ladder to the top of a rail car and re-ice the load from above by opening a small trap door. It took 9,000 to 11,000 pounds of ice to fill a car’s bunkers, and each car on a transcontinental trip would require several stops to be re-iced.

Refrigerated railcars were quickly adopted by the meat-packing industry. The cars helped establish mid-Western cities, especially Chicago and Kansas City, as the slaughter centers of the country. The use of refrigeration in railcars also created regional produce specializations, such as Georgia peaches, Washington apples, and Florida citrus. There were different car designs based on the type of cargo, whether meat or fruit. The first refrigerated car to carry fresh fruit was built in 1867 by Parker Earle of Illinois, who shipped strawberries on the Illinois Central Railroad. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until 1949 that refrigeration systems made it into the trucking industry, and by that time, the technology was well past using ice! (Sources: History Magazine, Conduit Street, Wikipedia)

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