Here Comes the Iceman

[Today’s excerpt was suggested by SB Bill (Hinesburg SBs). The iceman as sex symbol? Really? What’s today’s equivalent? Find out in tomorrow’s Silverback Digest. SB SM]

Today’s selection — from Ice by Amy Brady. In the pivotal years between 1880 and 1920, ice delivery was big business in America, making a cultural hero out of the “iceman”:”[A woman named] Lillian … remembers life before electric light, before vacuum cleaners, before modern refrigerators.“ She also remembers the iceman who visited her house every week when she was a girl. She remembers him driving his truck to her house, lifting 50-pound blocks of ice from the back, and carrying them with a pair of tongs into the kitchen, where he’d heave them into the upper part of the icebox. “‘He tracked a lot of dirt in,’ she said. ‘But mother didn’t seem to mind. She thought he was as handsome as I did.’“ As ice became more popular among working-class Americans, natural and manufactured ice companies competed ruthlessly to woo customers. They promised ice delivery on a weekly basis; all a person had to do was display their ice card in the window, showing how many pounds to deliver.“ Icemen were as common in those days as milkmen. Every morning, they filled their wagons–and eventually gas-powered trucks–with blocks of ice, which they delivered door to door in almost every city and county in the country. Icemen were strong and vital, and something about their particular combination of muscle, sweat, and coolness sparked the popular imagination. Consider the 1908 ditty ‘All She Gets from the Iceman Is Ice,’ sung by Ada Jones. The singer laments that ‘there’s something in [the iceman’s] business that affects his temperature’; he’s just too cold, it seems, to give her what she wants.

“As Cole Porter’s 1948 hit ‘Too Darn Hot’ reminds us, there’s a clear correlation between cooler temperatures and an inclination for lovemaking. In the 1932 film The Dentist, W. C. Fields plays a well-to-do dentist who reacts with a mixture of shock and disgust to the news that his daughter is marrying the iceman, a burly gent known throughout the neighborhood as a real cad. Eugene O’Neill’s 1939 play The Iceman Cometh gets its title from a running gag between protagonist Theodore ‘Hickey’ Hickman and his fellow traveling salesmen, who are convinced that one day they’ll come home to find their wives ‘rolling in the hay with the iceman.’ Newspaper comics leaned in to the sexed-up iceman stereotype. One recurring gag was to have an older husband–presumably too old to be much fun in bed–greet the wide-eyed iceman in the kitchen, saying something like, ‘The wife isn’t here–just give me what she always gets.’“ Even the Saturday Evening Post, a newspaper known for its wholesome content, published a short story in 1954 called ‘Judy and the Iceman.’ It ran alongside an illustration of a teen with red-painted lips surprising an iceman with a stolen kiss. As a writer for the Washington Evening Star once put it, the iceman is ‘the theme of song and story,’ especially romances.

“But on what was such a reputation built?“ The ice historian Jonathan Rees (left), author of Refrigeration Nation, poses one theory. ‘[Icemen] were symbols of male virility,’ he writes, ‘particularly since they often visited housewives while their husbands were out working.’ Unlike the milkman, who left his goods at the doorstep and went on his way, icemen came into homes to put ice directly into iceboxes. The work was strenuous, and it wasn’t uncommon for a housewife to offer her iceman a refreshing glass of water or a bite to eat, perhaps a chair on which to rest a moment. By entering the private, domestic spheres of housewives–something few other deliverymen did–icemen were seen by some as crossing a forbidden threshold.“The fantasy was fed by the iceman’s typical brawniness. These were men who could–because they had to–balance a 50-pound block of ice on their shoulder while dangling another from a pair of metal tongs. In major cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., icemen would carry both blocks simultaneously up six flights of stairs or more, an impressive display of ‘virility’ if ever there was one. Perhaps history’s most famous iceman was the football legend Harold ‘Red’ Grange of the Chicago Bears, who delivered ice in summer to stay in shape.

“Icemen appeared in more than romances, however; they often made cameos in comedies, too. In one of the most famous episodes of The Three Stooges, the inept trio try their hand at ice delivery, only to have the blocks of ice melt to the size of cubes before they get them up the stairs. In The Girl Can’t Help It, an iceman spots curvaceous Jayne Mansfield as he’s lifting a block of ice from his truck. The sight of her raises his temperature, melting the block into steam. In Horse Feathers, Chico Marx plays a highly sexed iceman who chases Thelma Todd, a routine powered with something more than slapstick silliness. The cultural critic Christopher Miller has argued that ‘unlike the milkman, as pasteurized and homogenized as his ware, the stereotypical iceman, at least in eastern cities, was a recent Italian immigrant.’ Thus, his ethnicity turned him into someone not only to joke about–but to fear.“

In the heyday of ice delivery, icemen would visit homes about once per week. By 1895, approximately three thousand horses were pulling 1,500 ice wagons in New York City and the still-separate city of Brooklyn, which together formed the largest market of consumable ice in the United States. Ice wagons working for natural-ice companies filled up at piers, where icehouses stored blocks of ice shipped from Maine or the northern Hudson River tributaries. Wagons for mechanical-ice companies filled up at plants that operated at the edges of the cities. Some wagons could hold a few hundred pounds of ice, others up to several tons.”

author: Amy Brady 
title: Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks–a Cool History of a Hot Commodity 
publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy.

Remember, the contemporary equivalent of yesteryear’s Iceman will be revealed in tomorrow’s Silverback Digest. SB SM

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