Considering Risk Tolerance when Evaluating Historic Agricultural Structures

In my ongoing research on ice houses, the apparent lack of clear building trends within time periods and geographic regions continues to frustrate me. I originally conceived of my research project with the goal of developing a typology of Potomac Valley ice houses and delineating general construction periods to assist architectural historians and archaeologists. With supporting field work data, perhaps ice house or ice well remnants could be identified and dated via the shape or dimensions of the pit, construction materials, or other factors.

As far as outbuildings go, it’s a simple structure with one purpose: to preserve a huge pile of ice as long as possible, ideally until the following Winter. How much variation could there really be? British ice houses almost always took the form of a large conical brick-lined pit, covered with an earthen mound (which could also serve as a garden mount), revetted into a hillside, or covered with a conical thatched roof. One would expect to find these traditional forms prevalent among the early ice houses in America. Indeed, earthen mound or hillside ice wells can be found at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg (early 1700s), possibly the Oxon Hill Manor archeological site (18th c.), Hampton in Towson, Maryland (1790s), Lexington Manor archeological site in Lorton, Virginia (1790s), and Huntley in Alexandria, Virginia (1820s). However, my preliminary research and field work is turning up examples of subterranean conical or circular ice wells built long after the agricultural advice literature proclaimed them obsolete and unnecessarily expensive compared to square ice wells or double-walled above-ground ice houses. As early as 1806, Frederic Tudor, the first American ice merchant, proclaimed traditional subterranean ice house construction obsolete, and subsequently built the first of many above-ground commercial ice houses. American farmers, however, seem to have avoided this “new” type of ice house construction until after the Civil War.

In her comprehensive article, “Ice Houses in America: The History of a Vernacular Building Type,” Dr. Helen Tangires also finds an inconsistency in choices made by ice house builders of different periods. Similarly, historian Sarah F. McMahon found that, for the nineteenth-century construction of root cellars and related food storage methods, “contradictions in the advice [from contemporary almanacs and domestic advice manuals] suggest that sure methods remained elusive.” McMahon also touches on another reason for the lack of consistent trends in the use of cold cellars and other imperfect early agricultural technologies: the ability of the planter or farmer to tolerate risk.

Beyond just an over-reliance on tradition, most middling planters and yeoman farmers of the early republic were not in the financial position to attempt new construction methods for their agricultural or support buildings. Despite progress in agricultural science and technology during the nineteenth century, many farmers were deeply skeptical of the “improvements” proposed in popular literature and by agricultural societies. Both proponents and adopters of these new methods were derided as “book farmers” who had little real-life farming experience and did things “by-the-book.” In his Plain and Pleasant Talk About Fruits, Flowers, and Farming (1859), orator Henry Ward Beecher explored the reasons for prejudice against “book farming,” and acknowledged the difficult situation of many “good farmers” who could not “afford to risk anything on wild experiments.” Wealthy planters, however, could tolerate a higher level of risk in experimenting with new agricultural technologies and refining their methods.

In the early republic, harvesting and storing ice was an inefficient subsistence activity. Although built in England, Scotland, and other European countries since the 1600s or earlier, the ice house had yet to be perfectly adapted to American climate and soil conditions, particularly in Virginia. Even under ideal conditions, a large percentage of the ice melted away. Further, ice was a luxury good used by the wealthy for cooling wine, making ice cream, and preserving fresh meat and dairy products. Most people made do with smoked and salted meats, and cooled their butter in the spring house. The ice house, as an experimental structure with uncertain return on investment, was a marker of social status for elites in the early Federal period.



Beamon, Sylvia P. and Susan Roaf. The Ice-Houses of Britain. London: Routledge, 1990.

McMahon, Sarah F. “Laying Foods By: Gender, Dietary Decisions, and the Technology of Food Preservation in New England Households, 1750-1850” in Judith A. McGaw, ed. Early American Technology: Making & Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Tangires, Helen. “Ice Houses in America: The History of a Vernacular Building Type.” New Jersey Folklife 16 (1991): 33-43.


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