The first ice in Sydney arrived in 1839. It had been harvested from North American lakes and carried through the tropics in a heavily insulated sailing ship, the Tartar.
The ice trade was conducted by American and Norwegian entrepreneurs. Merchants in Australia, India, the West Indies and elsewhere built ice houses, where this precious commodity could be preserved and sold to the public.
In early colonial times preserving food was a challenge. Without any form of refrigeration, salting, pickling and smoking were among the few options available. Fresh meat, milk and vegetables spoiled quickly in Australia’s hot summer climate.
The first load of ice arrived in Sydney from Boston in January 1839 followed a year later by a second shipment. The shippers also supplied ‘refrigerators’ – ice chests that could be used to keep food cool.
Then there appeared to be a hiatus until the trade resumed in the 1850s. Adelaide’s first shipment of ice was advertised by theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin in 1848.
While the trade in natural ice continued elsewhere into the early years of the 20th century, in Australia, it was replaced in the 1860s by manufactured ice. An account in the Adelaide Observer in 1861, which gave the value of the American ice trade as a million and a half sterling, said:
The large consumption of ice which these figures indicate shows how great a want the ice machines now at work in these colonies are calculated to meet.
By a very simple process, in which the evaporation of ether and the use of salt water are the main elements, Nature is successfully imitated, and Australia is supplied with a production that previously had to be brought from a distant country.
Australia had pioneered the manufacture of ice, when James Harrison of Geelong developed a prototype based on an 1834 British design for vapour-compression refrigeration.
Harrison was a partner in The Sydney Ice Company, formed in 1860. While the domestic refrigerator was still in the future, people in metropolitan areas could now have regular visits from the ice man and ice chests became a fixture in many suburban homes.
(Note: There were several ice-houses in and around Concord until the late 1940s: George Street, Concord West; St Luke’s Oval area; and Burwood where Westfield is now.)