piute ice cutting crew 1880s

This is an interesting historical photo I came across, and appropriate for a day like today in which much of the U.S. is gripped by the extremes of winter. In years past for many people winter meant business–specifically, ice-cutters. This is a group of ice-cutters, Paiute Indians, posing with their tools before setting to work on the Divide Reservoir near Virginia City, Nevada. The picture isn’t precisely dated, but it’s probably about 1880. Ice-cutters would go to frozen lakes and water sources, cut as much of the ice as they could into rectangular blocks, haul them to a warehouse (often on sleighs) and hoard them until the demand for ice arrived with warmer weather. In the days before mechanical refrigeration, this practice was the only way you could get ice cream, iced tea or refrigerate food in your houses–thus, ice-cutters were extremely important workers.

The practice of ice-cutting died out beginning in the 1920s, but there seem to have been some old-fashioned ice-cutters still around as late as the 1950s, before rising wages and consumer abundance made refrigerators ubiquitous. This may sound like a detail of history, but the transition from ice-cutting to mechanical refrigeration had profound implications for how people, especially Americans, chose, cooked and ate their food. A very interesting book on the history of food, which includes extensive material on the ice-to-refrigeration transition, is Fresh: A Perishable History by Susanne Friedberg.

Cool pic! In more ways than one.

Due to its age this photo is not under copyright, but it is believed to be in the collection of the Nevada Historical Society.