New Year, New Caption This!

New Year, New Caption This! The January weather inspired us to start 2023 off with an ode to the winter season, and what better to represent the freezing cold with than ice?

This month’s Caption This put the spotlight on a fascinating practice of yesteryear: ice cutting. We regaled subscribers with the following postcard from the 1900s in our collections, which was part of a series by Montreal Import Co. titled “Canadian Sport Series”:

As per tradition, participants used their wit and intelligence to concoct some hilarious captions. A few of our favourites:

Before electricity was widely accessible, the task of storing perishable food, especially meat, during summer months was a rather challenging one. People would store their eatables in ice boxes which required large blocks of ice, cut manually from frozen banks of water such as the St Lawrence river. Slabs of ice were harvested during winter and sold to households and businesses throughout spring, summer, and fall for preserving food and other miscellaneous purposes.

Caption This participants proved to be rather knowledgable on the topic as well. According to David Nercessian, “Electric refrigerators displaced ice boxes by the 1960s though I remember large ice blocks being delivered to the neighbours as late as 1959. Large blocks were still needed by the railways for their older passenger cars in summer which carried it in insulated boxes under the floor. Fans circulated the cool air for air conditioning. By the time the last ice-cooled coaches were retired in the 70s winter ice-cutting would have been long past.”

Although not a sport, ice cutting was physically intensive, and the harvesting often took place around-the-clock.  The fact that an ice-cutter or his horse may fall through the ice added to the danger of the job.

Where did the horses come in, you may be wondering? They were involved both in the beginning and the end of the harvesting process. At first, once the ice was measured to be thick enough to last during transportation, snow was removed from the frozen surface and a grid outlining each unit of ice to be cut was carved onto it by horse-drawn ploughs. Seasonal ice cutters, many of whom were farmers and butchers, would then break off the individual slabs with large metal bars and the aforementioned industrial saws. The cut pieces of ice were then floated to shore through a pre-cut passage in the river, following which horse-drawn sleighs were used to transport them to warehouse-like buildings called “ice houses” or “glacières.” Modern vehicles and machinery such as gas engines with circular blades took the role of horses by the 1920s. 

The purpose of ice houses, which were generally small, double-walled sheds, was to preserve ice from the chilly winter months through the warmer season. The walls of several of them were insulated with sawdust or cork. For added insulation, a coating of sawdust was layered over the tops of the ice blocks. Ice could be stored in well-constructed ice houses for up to a year. This 1873 image from our archives depicts the process of transporting ice to ice houses :

Exterior; North American Boundary Commission, ice cutting party Her Majesty’s; Red River, Dufferin, Manitoba
Date: 1873
Photographer: unknown
Copyright:Public Domain
Photo #: PN026692

Although the prime days of ice-cutting are long over, it is still practised today for the construction ice hotels, ice sculptures, and other large-scale ice structures.

For video reference and more information, check out this report from the archives of Radio Canada and this documentary by NousTV on ice-cutting (both in French) 

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