The Cool Economics of Colonial Ice Monopoly

In the sweltering heat of colonial cities, the ice monopoly, was far more than a historical footnote. This state-sanctioned enterprise satisfied not just sweet cravings but also met critical health needs, especially during epidemics like yellow fever.

The Cool Economics of Colonial Ice Monopoly
Ice miners ascending treacherous mountain paths at dawn, a visual testament to the perilous journey involved in keeping colonial cities cool. Credit: AGN

In the sweltering heat of colonial cities, a peculiar industry thrived—one that seems almost whimsical to the modern mind, but was a serious business affair back in the day. This was the trade of natural ice, an essential element in creating delicious, refreshing treats like aguas frescas and flavored ice creams. But beyond satisfying the collective sweet tooth, the “estanco de la nieve”—the ice monopoly—played a significant role in the colonial economy and public health. Let's delve into this frosty world that teetered between supply and demand, involved hazardous treks up mountains, and even played a role in combating epidemics like yellow fever.

To regulate the booming demand for ice, colonial authorities established the “estanco de la nieve,” a monopoly that controlled its production, distribution, and sale. In a unique twist, unlike other resource monopolies typically managed by viceregal authorities, the administration of the ice business was mostly left to private individuals. This was primarily due to the seasonality of ice sales, soaring in the summer and plummeting in the winter, making it a less reliable revenue stream for the Royal Treasury.

To assign the responsibility of managing the ice pond, a public auction was announced, aiming to secure the most beneficial terms. The selected lessor had to meet stringent requirements like averting ice shortages during hot seasons. The value of the lease depended on the area's population and climate. For instance, in 1774, the Puebla ice pond went for 3550 pesos per year, while the Tehuacán pond fetched only 70 pesos.

Extracting natural ice wasn't a cakewalk. Ice miners had to climb steep, treacherous paths in the wee hours to reach deposits often formed in volcanic and mountainous terrains. Given the challenging conditions, the lessors sometimes solicited help from native communities living nearby, who were better acclimated to the harsh weather.

From Mountain to Marketplace

Once extracted, these ice blocks were transported on mules to urban centers, a feat easier said than done. The logistical nightmare included balancing the need for a higher number of pack animals against their well-being, especially over long distances. To solve this issue, a relay system was introduced for the mules. The preservation of the ice was another concern. Blocks were wrapped in matting and covered with salt to extend their shelf life for approximately three days.

While eateries and ice cream parlors were the primary consumers, the health sector also leaned on this resource. Ice played a critical role in alleviating symptoms of illnesses such as yellow fever. This dual demand led to periodic shortages, as occurred in the mid-18th century in Veracruz during a yellow fever outbreak.

As the trade evolved, complications arose. Salvador de Sala, an administrator of the ice monopoly, lobbied for more favorable lease terms, claiming the five-year leases caused economic losses. Ultimately, he sought to transition the lease to a “saleable and renounceable trade,” essentially seeking a perpetual right to distribute ice in exchange for a one-time payment. This was approved, not least because no one else was willing to take on the risky business.

The ice trade of yesteryear illuminates the complexities of colonial economies and social structures. Whether it was climbing perilous heights, or combatting the melting en route to market, or juggling between leisure and health care needs, the icy endeavor was fraught with challenges at every turn. It's a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of those involved, who managed to keep a whole industry afloat, serving both a royal treasury and a public desperate for reprieve from the heat and disease.

Source: Nación, Archivo General de la. ‘El refrescante hielo de las montañas y volcanes de la Nueva España’., Accessed 14 Sept. 2023.