When iceboxes were cool

Crystal Ice delivery truck
1940s Crystal Ice delivery truck in Phoenix, AZ. Typically the floor of the truck would be littered with ice chips. This iceman appears to be using something similar to a log carrier rather than the big tongs I saw being used in Oklahoma City.

Before electric refrigerators were introduced, Americans used iceboxes. Those of you more than a few years younger than I probably never had one and frankly, I don’t particularly remember the one my family had. What I do remember is the iceman who delivered the big blocks of ice that cooled the ice box contents. He’d park at the front curb, open the back of his truck and, wielding giant tongs, grab one of the ice blocks. He’d sling it over his shoulder, which was covered with some sort of padding, and take it inside. While he was inside, I’d stand at the back of the truck, eating ice chips from the floor. (Hmm, how sanitary was that?) Quite a treat in the middle of an Oklahoma summer in the days before air conditioning.

Well, long story short, I once told one of my siblings about the iceman and the ice chips and was promptly assured that I must be imagining the whole thing because I’d have been too young at the time — if, in fact, I’d even been born.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about memory, tricks of memory, misremembering things from the past, etc., and I recalled the ice chips story. Had I imagined it? Perhaps only read about it? Just seen some pictures? I’d tried before and failed to find any information about home ice deliveries in Oklahoma City in the 1940s. But yesterday I came across a website called Ice Box Memories. On the off chance that someone might actually be tending the site, I fired off a note asking if they could supply any information. They did. And it seems that in all likelihood I did eat those ice chips. Hurray!

In this early photo, an iceman using tongs carries a block of ice on his shoulder in the manner I recall. (Image: Ice Box Memories)

Here’s the letter (and yes, I forwarded it to all my siblings):

Hi Susan!!

You’re not imagining it!!  It’s very likely you DID experience getting the chips of ice from the iceman!!

That said – we are thrilled you found us on the Internet!  It’s people like you with your questions/memories that are the reason we have our Web page – to keep the memories of the Iceman alive!!  Thank you for finding us.

When I read your question to my husband, he said “Of course she did….I did too and I was born in 1948!!”  He then reminded me that when he was 5 years old, he would ride along with an Uncle who delivered ice to homes and restaurants around Springfield, Massachusetts in a truck. He remembers the chips of ice his uncle would give to the kids along the route too.  He also told me about how he remembers going to the Springfield Ice Company (where his uncle got the ice to distribute) and picking up and playing with more ice chips and the “snow” (the result of the cubing process) and making/throwing snowballs in the middle of summer.

Ice deliveries across the USA were still going on until shortly after the end of WWII – late 1940s to the early 1950s.  Once the war was over, metals that were banded from consumer use during the war were again being used in the making of refrigerators and other household appliances.  (That is a whole other story about how the war impacted appliance making in the USA!) The 1950s were the time of the house-building boom and blossoming economy due to the war being over and the men returning home from the war and starting families. Electricity was the way to go!!

The icebox had started going away as early as the late 1930s in bigger cities (NYC and Chicago). The 1950s saw  the real end of the icebox era…..tho there were holdouts.  Speaking from my family’s ice business perspective, the last home delivery my Dad’s company made was in the early 1970s. One little old lady refused to have an “electric icebox” in her house…..it was only when she died that we closed the home ice delivery book. (My husband worked for my Dad’s company and remembers delivering ice to her house.)

(BTW: We had an icebox in our house until 1965..at that time I was in high school. My sisters and I complained it was embarrassing to have an icebox…but Dad insisted that the ice was free so why pay the electric company for making food cold the same an the icebox did!!  (The ice delivery man would come every 4 to 5 days to replenish the block of ice)  Between us sisters and my Mom – who wanted an electric refrigerator for many years, Dad finally relented and we got a Frigidaire. Of course for as long as I can remember, we always had a freezer out in the garage holding ice cream and frozen meats, etc.)

I just searched the Internet for your city’s ice companies,  (LINK: http://www.yellowpages.com/oklahoma-city-ok/ice-delivery   ) and it seems there are still quite a few.   So I suggest, if want to really verify which company it may have been, call your library. They have a research dept and probably have the pre-curser of the yellow pages or phone book from the 1940s.  We call those old books City Directories. Ask them to sent you a list of Ice Companies that were in business in 1943-48.

And if your library can’t help you – we suggest you contact your Historical Society- they should also be able to give you info.

But YES – it is very likely you got ice chips from the iceman – be it from a truck or wagon.  (And that depends on how “modern” Oklahoma City Ice companies were back in the early 1940s – did they still have horse teams?  Maybe – who knows!)

We are very happy you found us…..and we hope we were able to back-up your “memories”.
Stay COOL-

Thomas and Gail (Hogan) Lucia

I am tempted to think, imagine, or hope that some of the ice deliveries I recall were via horse-drawn wagon — not impossible in a city my mom often derided as “an overgrown cowtown” (her native Cedar Rapids, Iowa, being so much more sophisticated). However, given my childhood infatuation with horses, I must assume that had there been horses, I’d have spent my time at the front of the wagon instead of at the back scavenging ice chips.

P.S. Don’t miss my follow-up additions/corrections to this post.

42 thoughts on “When iceboxes were cool

  1. I enjoyed this, and incidentally tried to reblog but without success. This is not a luxury we ever had over here in the UK, but then it is a little cooler over here. I recall that in the 50’s we had free school milk and were obliged to de-ice it on the school radiators when we had icy weather. Mrs Thatcher got rid of free school milk early in here career and was know for a time as Margaret Thacther: Milk Snatcher. We should have known she’d be trouble.

    1. Sorry, I’m not a fan of reblogging and have disabled the option. (You can always include a reference with a link back to this post.) Glad you enjoyed this. Iceboxes were a necessity in Oklahoma. Very long hot summers and we were still experiencing remnants of the Dust Bowl days. I shouldn’t laugh at “Margaret Thatcher: Milk Snatcher” but it sounds funny. Not funny at all to get rid of free school milk. But the line on government handouts has to be drawn somewhere.

      1. No problem, I’m fairly new to this so was not aware of the re-blogging function. I think the free milk was to build up our rickety bones after the war, we also used to get orange juice which had a unique taste,which was probably to ward of scurvy.

        1. Our public schools stay open all summer and provide free or low cost meals to area children. It’s federally assisted and the idea is to make sure poor kids get nutritious meals. I’ve mixed feelings about our schools trying to be all things to all kids instead of concentrating on education.

          1. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme. We’ve worked so hard to make school meals “nutritious” that kids are refusing to eat them. Too many veggies and “healthy” foods instead of sandwiches, chips, and other typical kid foods. It doesn’t matter how nutritious it is if the kids dump it in the trash.

  2. I grew up with a Frigidaire, but my grandma still had an icebox and dry sink in the kitchen… I don’t remember her icebox at all, so she upgraded before i was very old. There is an Amish community (Jamesport MO) about 45 mins from me, but think they have all gone to gas-powered refrigerators these days. Even with our winters, too hard to keep an ice house in business for a few homes. Toured Ft Larned site in central KS and saw their ice house. Thick stone walls, of course, built on a creek, well, river bank, and deep into the ground. Insulated with straw, grasses and dirt, they could chop blocks from the river and keep it through till the fall. That amazed me given how hot and windy it is out there– much as in okc. I think your memory must be accurate for a truck… not even ice on a hot day would be more attractive than a live horse to pet! What was downtown okc like when you were little? Obviously none of the glass ‘scrapers… but the Bricktown area? Reno/Meridian area i am guessing didn’t develop till the airport grew? 25 yrs ago driving south on 35 from wichita was almost nothing till right at the edmond exit & now places to stop at every exit in the state!

    1. It’s always amazed me that ice could be insulated well enough to survive a summer on the Great Plains. Makes you realize what a luxury it was to have it in the old days.

      The First National Bank, at about 30 stories, was the tallest building downtown, by quite a lot, when I was little. When I was old enough, I could catch a bus at the corner and ride downtown (only about a mile), where streetcars ran along Main Street. Bricktown was badly run down, a warehouse district in “colored town,” literally “on the other side of the tracks.” Efforts to redevelop the district began in the ’90s and I went there once to a club, one of the first businesses to open. Thought redevelopment was hopeless. Fooled me! Amazing things have happened since then. The stockyards were a couple of miles east of Reno/Meridian, and I’m sure they drove development of the entire strip. All distant memories, though. I haven’t been back in 10 years, nor downtown in more than 20. I lived and worked on the far north side. No need or desire to go downtown.

  3. Indeed, I remember the ice trucks, ice blocks and ice tongs. Don’t remember our house getting any deliveries of ice but most of the local grocery stores certainly did. I was always a little fascinated with how they grabbed those ice blocks with those tongs and man-handled them. πŸ™‚

    1. Big blocks, too. The picture shows a block about the size I recall, but there are pictures of men carrying much bigger blocks. We may have gotten deliveries because we lived so close to downtown and to at least one ice company I recall. Areas farther out maybe didn’t get deliveries, although the edges of town weren’t that far out back then.

  4. I have a memory of the ice and and running after the truck for ice chips –but I also have a memory of being out in the Wisconsin countryside at my grandparents playing in a big log enclosure filled with sawdust and big blocks of ice–must have been around 1950.

    1. I was a city girl. No ice houses or storage in my neighborhood. Would have messed up the yards. πŸ™‚ Thank goodness there were ice companies. Can’t imagine summer in Oklahoma with neither ice nor air conditioning.

  5. What a cool story. My dad was an ice delivery man in his youth. In fact, he got his nickname “Lucky” because of it.

    He delivered ice in McKeesport, PA, which is very hilly. He parked the truck one day on a hill and jumped out and seconds later a big block of ice landed on the driver’s seat. I guess in those days the truck really was a big box with a driver’s seat, no partition between the seat and the cargo area.

    Anyway, thanks to that big block of ice my dad nickname for life.

    I never saw the truck or ate the ice chips, long before my time, but I still have a special place in my heart for them.


    1. Yikes, if that block had hit him in the head, or unexpectedly while he was driving … bad scene. He was indeed “Lucky.” So glad he wasn’t in the truck!

  6. We had an ancient ice box at the farm. As kids we’d travel to town for ice – sometimes riding home in back seat the car (in the summer) with bare feet on the top ice on the floor board – squealing how cold it was! (only with dad – mom would have had a cow and we’d be lectured about germs). We’d walk barefooted down dirt road to the little corner “grocery” at the highway crossroad. They had an ice box horizontal cooler full of pop. If you went in the afternoon, the ice would be melted and slushy so you could swish your arm almost up to the shoulder in the freezing water while fishing out some Big Red, Dr. Pepper, or grape Nehi. The freezing water and floating ice chips were the real treat.
    Fun post

    1. Those coolers full of pop were in front of every service station and mom and pop grocery in those days. We raided every one of them between OKC and Allenspark Colo. every summer. In Allenspark, there was one in the general store, right across the road from the stable. I’d fish a grape Nehi out of the ice water (there was rarely any ice left) and then go sit on a bench at the stable, watching the horses and riders come and go, talking to the wranglers, etc. I passed many, many days like that. Hog heaven.

    2. I remember the out door coolers full or water and wet ‘soda’. My grandparents owned a small boat in the 1970’s and we would spend weekends and maybe a week during the summer, when school let out, boating. The boat had a very small but serviceable icebox on it, and pump alcohol stove. The marina’s along the way all had ‘crystal’ ice lockers where you vould buy a block of ice to use on your boat’s ice box.

  7. I’m old enough to remember having seen iceboxes, and the icemen, mainly at times when we visited my grandmother’s house.

    Incidentally, my sister (4 years older) to this day still tends to use the term “icebox” in normal conversation, much to everyone else’s amusement. I’ll have to refer her to that website.

  8. We actually had a refrigerator when I was a kid, but the fact that the ice truck still delivered all over my neighborhood tells me it hadn’t been around for long!

  9. I am from India and in the forces we still use these ice boxes especially if operating in the desert . It’s the sheer thrill and joy receiving these blocks is what I could relate most to.
    Nice read.

      1. My aunt and uncle had a house (built in the 1920s) with a coal chute and a room to store the coal that fed the “octopus” furnace that took up most of the basement. (Many families bought their year’s supply of coal in the spring, when it was cheaper.) When it was delivered, even though the room was sealed off, coal dust would get all over everything in the house, necessitating a real “spring cleaning.” At some point the furnace was converted to oil, and the coal bunker became my uncle’s workshop (after he cut a doorway through the wall–no small task).

        1. “Octopus” describes the furnace I remember, although it was gas-fired. Perhaps it had been converted from coal before we bought the house. (It was built in 1909.) There was another room in the basement, a paneled “game room,” that I suppose might have been for coal storage at one time. It had a couple of windows near the ceiling that opened onto the driveway, so there could have been a coal chute there. A full bar was built across one end of the room, with a sink behind it and lots of shelves. We used to hide back there when we weren’t playing ping pong in the middle of the room. Now I’m wondering about the use of that room during Prohibition …

  10. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Born in 1934. Yes our iceman
    ice picked blocks of ice in his horse drawn wagon
    to fit our icebox. He rolled the block in burlap, and
    carried it upstairs on his shoulder and deposited
    it into the icebox.
    My job, when I was a bit older, was to empty the
    pan of melted ice from under the icebox. The
    delivery of coal was also fascinating with the
    loud noise of rumbling coal onto the concrete floor.

    1. As I commented above, I never experienced coal delivery. There was no provision for it in the Oklahoma City house I grew up in. As I recall, the heat was gas-fired. (I was born in 1943.)

  11. Born in November 1948 I remember many things as a tyke.
    In Windsor Ontario Canada south of Detroit I remember ice box especially at my grandparents born in late 1870s.They also got milk delivered by horse drawn cart and my older uncles would scare me saying shiny man was coming with his horse.

    1. I remember milk delivery, although not by horsedrawn cart. Empty glass bottles rattling in a wire carrier, left out on a back step and magically “refilled” overnight.

  12. I was born in 1944 and lived in Minneapolis Minnesota and we had an icebox. I remember the ice truck and the deliveries. Our iceman’s name was Mike and we got our dog from him. The dog was a black cocker spaniel and we named him Mike after the man who gave him to us.

    1. I’m amazed you remember the iceman’s name after all these years. But of course anyone would remember their dog’s name. My best friend in those days had a black cocker. Cockers were so popular back then, but I haven’t seen one in many years.

  13. I am a bit younger, do not recall iceboxes but boy howdy my earliest memories of being a toddler and potty training in an outhouse..woof.
    There is that marvelous scene, just after the opening one, where they say, “Where’s Tutti?”, “She’s doing rounds with the ice man.” Paraphrasing but I LOVE Meet Me in St. Louis. Margaret O’Brien was adorable on that ice wagon.

    1. My only recollection of outhouses (other than in a national park) is the summer my parents rented a very rustic cabin in the Colorado Rockies, and the only bathroom was an outhouse (necessitating a “chamber pot” in the bedroom closet). That was in addition to a wood-burning stove and a pump in the kitchen sink. I was very young but have never forgotten. I think I was traumatized!

... and that's my two cents