Science & Technology

He’s an Ice Guy

This history alum literally wrote the book on refrigeration.

Rees: With refrigeration, “suddenly you could eat anything you wanted anytime you wanted to.” Juliana Rothbaum

Jonathan Rees MA’92, PhD’97 made a fateful discovery when he got off the elevator in the UW’s Wendt Commons Library. The future Colorado State University–Pueblo history professor often went there to research his doctoral thesis on the steel industry. Every time the doors opened at his favorite study floor, the first things he saw were century-old bound volumes of the industry journal Ice and Refrigeration.

Curious, he began flipping through them. Later he stumbled on a museum exhibit in Oshkosh about the history of Wisconsin’s ice industry. Soon he found a cool scholarly niche — the history of refrigeration, a rarely examined part of American history.

He was astonished to learn that the ice harvesting machines used in Oshkosh looked like ordinary farm equipment, but with different blades. “I quickly realized that cutting ice off lakes wasn’t that different from cutting furrows with a plow,” recalls Rees, the author of Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (2013) and other books on the subject.

Ice harvesting peaked in Wisconsin between 1880 and 1900. A regional company controlled the business from extraction and storage through distribution. Every winter, its gangs of workers descended upon the Fox River and the state’s pristine lakes. They harnessed horses shod with spiked shoes to contraptions that had razor-sharp blades. With industrial precision, they sliced and diced thousands of blocks of ice. Then they shipped the frigid fruit of their labor around the Midwest, much of it to Chicago meatpackers and Milwaukee brewers. Thanks to refrigerated train cars and cold brewing, those businesses boomed, forever changing Americans’ dining habits.

The U.S. has always led the world’s refrigeration industry. A Boston merchant invented the field in 1806, when he exported ice to the Caribbean. Fifty years later, iceboxes, which kept foods cold with the help of blocks of ice, were commonplace.

“People went from having access to perishable foods briefly to having them all the time,” says Rees. “From the 1870s to the 1920s, it felt like we were the richest country on Earth. Ice ended seasons. Suddenly you could eat anything you wanted anytime you wanted to.”

Rees keeps close to heart the advice of his thesis adviser, the late J. Rogers Hollingsworth, who told him, “There are no limits to what you can write about.” With that in mind, he has done a scholarly about-face. His new hot topic is his forthcoming book on the history of the chili pepper in America.

“I definitely consider myself a food historian,” he says. “I know some people who study the history of stoves, but [chili peppers are] a different kind of heat.”

Published in the Spring 2024 issue


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