Prices, property rights, profits … and ice?

Lynne Kiesling

The history of the commercialization of the ice market is a multi-layered case study in market processes. Who knew? This Freeman article from David Hebert, an economics graduate student at George Mason University, tells the economic history of the origins of the long-distance ice industry in the U.S. in the early 19th century:

In 1806 Frederic Tudor sailed a ship full of ice from Boston to the Bahamas. Two years earlier Tudor had begun experimenting with insulation with the goal of bringing ice to the Bahamas.  When he was ready to set sail, he found that the ship captains refused to carry his cargo for fear of damaging their vessels. So he bought his own brig, the Favorite, and set sail February 10, 1806. He arrived in Martinique with a large quantity of ice still intact and began selling. The Bahamians loved the ice, which they had never seen before. Yet that first year Tudor lost a substantial sum of money, although he proved that ice could be shipped to the Bahamas. Now the objective became doing it at a profit.  Convinced his idea would be wildly successful, he continued his attempts to drive down costs and increase demand.

How he does so is a tale of property rights over ice on a lake, how users of a common-pool resource established a system of use rights, and technological innovation to reduce costs while improving product quality. Highly recommended reading.

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