The idea of the ice-delivery man flirting with stay-at-home wives was such a trope that it inspired a hit song. Composer J. Fred Helf left Kentucky for New York in the 1890s to try his luck as a writer and seller of sheet music. In 1899, he scored his first big success with “How’d You Like to Be the Iceman?” It became a pop culture phenomenon—spawning answer songs, movie spin-offs, and merchandise. Soon every New Yorker and American knew the phrase “How’d You Like to Be the Iceman?”

This was the age before refrigerators but people did have an ‘ice-box’ where large blocks of ice where place in this icebox container and food could be stored there for a longer period of time vs be left in a cabinet or on the counter to spoil.

Ice delivery was booming in the late 1800s, particularly in big cities, where fresh ice was a necessity. As New York and other urban areas grew, people lived further and further from the sources of their food. Ice kept dairy and meat products fresh, which improved and diversified urban diets and restaurant offerings as fresh fish, ice cream, and other foods became available.

An occupation of an ice delivery man was born. Around 1,500 ice trucks (horse-pulled wagons) made daily deliveries to businesses and homes. By the 1890s, all but the poorest residents had ice boxes—insulated cabinets made to hold a large block of ice with shelves for food and a drip pan underneath. In an era when men usually worked while wives kept house, it was the woman’s responsibility to alert the iceman to the household’s needs by placing a paper ticket in the window. Using a pair of large tongs, he would sling a cake of ice onto his burlap- or leather-covered shoulder, then haul the ice into the house or apartment.

Large cities such as Manhattan and Brooklyn alone melted their way through at least 1.3 million tons of ice more than 25 percent of the entire country’s usage. That would continue for years but as more electricity became available in cities, towns and rural locations, especially by the 1930s, iceboxes were replaced by refrigerators that keep food cool without using blocks of ice. By 1950, more than 90% of homes and businesses had an electric refrigerator. The New York City iceman and others across the nation were out of a job.

It would be interesting to see if you had an ancestor who was an iceman. Get a copy of the popular song from 1899 of “How’d You Like to Be the Iceman?”

Photos: The iceman carrying a block of ice in 1930s; wagon full of ice; and icebox (aka Cold Closet) in the kitchen in the 1920s.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

Strange Professions

Granddad’s Old Job

New York Employment Cards

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