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Ice house (building)

Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy: domed icehouse (ghiacciaia) half-sunk into a shaded slope

Ice houses or icehouses are buildings used to store ice throughout the year, commonly used prior to the invention of the refrigerator. Some were underground chambers, usually man-made, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes, but many were buildings with various types of insulation.

During the winter, ice and snow would be cut from lakes or rivers and taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, often straw or sawdust. It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months. The main application of the ice was the storage of foods, but it could also be used simply to cool drinks, or allow ice-cream and sorbet desserts to be prepared. During the heyday of the ice trade, a typical commercial ice house would store 2,700 tonnes (3,000 short tons) in a 30-by-100-foot (9 by 30 m) and 14-metre-high (45 ft) building.[1]



A cuneiform tablet from c. 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse in the northern Mesopotamian town of Terqa by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari, "which never before had any king built."[2] In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the seventh century BC, and references suggest they were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great around 300 BC stored snow in pits dug for that purpose. In Rome in the third century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops. The ice formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top.[3]

In the UKEdit

The ice house entrance, Eglinton Country Park, Scotland, United Kingdom

Ice was often imported into the UK from Scandinavia up until 1921, although from around 1900 the import of ice declined sharply due to the development of factories in the UK where ice was made artificially. Usually, only large mansions had purpose-built buildings to store ice. Many examples of ice houses exist in the UK, some of which have fallen into disrepair. Good examples of 19th-century ice houses can be found at Ashton Court, Bristol, Albrighton, Bridgnorth, Grendon, Warwickshire, and at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk, Petworth House, Sussex, Danny House, Sussex, Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, Rufford Abbey, Eglinton Country Park in Scotland, Parlington Hall in Yorkshire and Croxteth Hall Liverpool, Burghley House, Stamford and Moggerhanger Park, Moggerhanger, Bedfordshire. A domed example with circular tie-access from above and side-entrance survives at Stoke Park, Berkshire. An unusual example of an ice house that was converted from a redundant brick springhead can be found in the former grounds of Norton House, Midsomer Norton, Somerset.[4]

The Ice House at Moggerhanger Park, Moggerhanger, Bedfordshire. The Ice House is open to the public on selected dates between May and September

One pair of commercial ice wells has been preserved in London, beneath what is now the London Canal Museum at King's Cross. They are around 30 feet in diameter and were originally 42 feet deep. They were built in 1857 and 1863 by the Swiss entrepreneur Carlo Gatti.[5]

The ice house was introduced to Britain around 1660. Various types and designs of ice house exist. However, British ice houses were commonly brick lined, domed structures, with most of their volume underground. Ice houses varied in design depending on the date and builder, but were mainly conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice. They usually had a drain to take away any water. It is recorded that the idea for ice houses was brought to Britain by travellers who had seen similar arrangements in Italy, where peasants collected ice from the mountains and used it to keep food fresh inside caves.[6] Ice houses may also be known as ice wells, ice pits or ice mounds.

Game larders and venison larders were sometimes marked on Ordnance Survey maps as ice houses.

Bruce Walker, an expert on Scottish Vernacular buildings, has suggested that the relatively numerous and usually long ruined ice houses on country estates have led to Scotland's many legends of secret tunnels. The appearance of ice house entrances lends itself to the uninitiated making such deductions, seeing as how ice houses are found in ha-ha walls, house and stable basements, woodland banks, open fields, etc.[7]

In the Republic of IrelandEdit

In 1985 a passage was discovered beneath Ardgillan Castle, Co. Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. This passage was found to be the ice house that was known to exist on the grounds, but whose location had not been rediscovered until this date.[8]

In the U.S.Edit

Ice houses allowed a trade in ice that was a major part of the early economy of the New England region of the United States, which saw fortunes made by people who shipped ice in straw-packed ships to the southern U.S. and throughout the Caribbean Sea. Most notably was Frederic Tudor (known as Boston's Ice King) who formed the Tudor Ice Company in the early 19th century. In winter months, ice was chopped from a lake surface and often dragged by sled to the ice house. In summer months icemen delivered it to residences in ice-wagons, where it would be stored in an icebox, which was used much like a modern refrigerator.

A c. 1930 commercial icehouse near Ambler's Texaco Station in Dwight, Illinois, United States
Coney Island former icehouse, Brooklyn, New York City

As home and business refrigeration became more common, ice houses disappeared. The home ice delivery business declined, and was virtually gone by the late 1960s. Smaller ice houses, usually no more than a sawdust pile covered by a makeshift roof or tarpaulin, continued to be maintained to store ice for use in local events such as fairs. Today, most ice for daily consumption is made in a home freezer, while bulk ice is manufactured, distributed and sold like other retail commodities.

Southern ice housesEdit

In Texas, former ice houses are a cultural tradition. Ice merchants diversified to sell groceries and cold beer, serving as early convenience stores and local gathering places. The widespread US 7-Eleven convenience store chain developed from ice houses operated by the Southland ice manufacturing company in Dallas and San Antonio in the 1930s, which were first known as Tote'm stores.[9] Today many Texas ice houses have converted into open-air bars. In central Texas, southeast Texas (especially the Houston area), and the Texas Hill Country, the word "icehouse" has become a colloquialism for an establishment that derives the majority of its income from the sale of cold beer.[10]

Southland was not the only company in the Southern U.S. to develop a convenience-store corporation from an ice business. Munford, Incorporated, of Atlanta, Georgia, began in the early 20th century by vending both ice and coal from mule-drawn wagons, as the Atlantic Ice and Coal Company.[11] By the 1970s, Munford, Inc., operated a large chain of convenience stores with the name Majik Market. (The company was sold in 1988 and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1990.)[12]

Modern ice manufacturing and vending buildingsEdit

An Ice House America ice making and vending building in Socorro, New Mexico, 2017

Modern ice houses include automatic ice making and automatic vending.[13]


While most European and U.S. ice houses conserve ice merely by insulation, elsewhere evaporative cooling techniques have been used. One ancient type of cooling structure is the Persian Yakhchāl.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Ward, Tom (1975). Cowtown : an album of early Calgary. Calgary: City of Calgary Electric System, McClelland and Stewart West. p. 192. ISBN 0-7712-1012-4.
  2. ^ Stephanie Dalley (1 January 2002). Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities. Gorgias Press LLC. p. 91. ISBN 978-1-931956-02-4.
  3. ^ James, Peter; Nick Thorpe (1995). Ancient Inventions. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-40102-6.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Ice Wells: Underground ice storage wells". London Canal Museum. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
  6. ^ Book of the British Countryside. Pub. London : Drive Publications, (1973). p. 249.
  7. ^ Walker, Bruce (1978). Keeping it cool. Scottish Vernacular buildings Working Group. Edinburgh & Dundee. Pages 564–565
  8. ^ "". Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  9. ^ "7-Eleven, Inc. – Company History". Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  10. ^ The Kitchen Sisters, NPR, "Texas Ice Houses Melt Away", June 30, 2006.
  11. ^ Munford, Inc.: A Brief History by Dillard Munford, 1974, accessed 20 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Majik Market Not Alone," Orlando Sentinel 04 Jan 1990, retrieved 20 May 2015.
  13. ^ "Vending Models". Ice House America. Retrieved 29 December 2017.

Further readingEdit

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