M997X.2.116 | Ice saw

Ice saw
1825-1900, 19th century
25.8 x 232.7 cm
© McCord Museum
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Keys to History

In the heat of summer, Montrealers used to have to find ingenious ways to keep food fresh. They discovered that their winter environment offered them an ideal solution: collecting ice from nearby lakes and rivers for use in summer. Beginning in mid-January every year, workers harvested blocks of ice using long, strong, specially designed saws.

Research : Josée Bergeron, under the supervision of Joanne Burgess, Ph.D, Laboratoire Laboratoire d’histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal & Canadian Forum for Public Research on Heritage, UQÀM.

  • What

    Ice cutters used the saw vertically, with the saw teeth facing them, and cut along a line traced out by an ice wagon.

  • Where

    The sawn blocks were pulled up with giant tongs and placed on sleighs that carried them to huge icehouses, where they were stored until summer. In these warehouses, which had double doors and windows, the ice was covered with sawdust and straw to help prevent it from melting.

  • When

    The ice business developed steadily from 1850 to 1940. In the early years, individuals and small companies were involved. Little by little, however, as a result of mechanization and regulation, the industry became dominated by a handful of big companies. In the 1920s, the ice business flourished, providing hundreds of seasonal jobs. But after 1940, competition from artificial ice and the advent of the electric refrigerator in most Montreal homes brought about its decline.

  • Who

    From May to October, icemen made their rounds through the city every week delivering ice. Their customers were hotels, food stores, shipping companies and families who could afford to buy their own ice. Blocks of ice were put in home iceboxes or in pits dug in the ground to keep food fresh