The Iceman Cometh

blocks of ice

Two happy girls are delivering large blocks of ice.


What better way to keep cool in than with these giant blocks of ice, delivered by two smiling girls. It is 1918 and since you don’t have a refrigerator, you will need to order ice and fill your icebox or cellar with it. Every time your block of ice melts, you will need to order some more. It certainly makes you appreciate modern refrigerators, even though the old system was a lot more environmentally friendly since it avoided using the freon and other gases that make today’s refrigerators work.

In the old days, ice would be cut during the winter and then kept in a warehouse, packed in hay to insulate it to keep it from melting.


cutting ice

This is a picture of men cutting blocks of ice on the lake. The photo was taken in the 1800s but the methods had not changes much over the years. The ice harvested in this way would be the iceman’s inventory which he would deliver on a regular schedule to his customers, in much the same way that the milkman would deliver bottles. In this case, though, there is no iceman but two girls lifting the huge blocks of ice. This is because it is World War 1 and the men are off to fight, so women are filling the jobs that they traditionally did. It looks like the one on the left is especially enjoying her job.


Wartime labour shortages led to women joining the workforce in unprecedented numbers. We often think of World War 2’s Rosy the Riveter as the typical woman entering the work force during the war years. And while it is true that many women were hired to work in factories, they were also needed to work on farms, in stores and in physically demanding jobs like delivering chunks of ice.

World War 1 was the first time that women in Canada, Britain and the United States entered the paid work force outside of the home in significant numbers. After the war, many of these women had to give up their jobs when the men they had replaced returned from the war. However their experience in the workforce led to redefining the role of women and contributed to women gaining the right to vote.

A Hard Life During the Great Depression

A Poor Family During the Great Depression

Poor Farm Family During the Great Depression


This photograph shows what it meant to be poor in rural America during the Great Depression. This house, little better with a shack, with sagging roof and shoddy construction was home to a family of ten in 1935. In this moment frozen in time, we can see the cramped little house, and imagine the leaky roof, the dirt floor, and cold drafts coming whistling through the log walls.

Zooming in closer, we can pick up some interesting details about the life of this poor American family. Below is a closeup of the area of the photograph around the door, showing the woman and her daughter in better detail.



Great Depression Family

The woman, presumably the mother, is wearing a light dress with a faint patter, as well as a cap. She is very young to have already given birth to 8 children. We can assume that all she has known is a life of want and hard work.

She is walking along the side of the house, perhaps going to the laundry which is hanging from a line out front. Behind her is her little daughter. She is holding her dollie, probably the only toy that she owns. And behind her stands an open door. We can see the faint outline of some wooden furniture, perhaps a chair. And there is a large jug by the door. What does it hold? Water? Moonshine?

The house is roughly built, and the roof is in bad shape. If we zoom in on the roof we can see that it has been patched with uneven home made shingles. And there is a single chimney stack which will be connected to a wood stove, where this woman will make all the meals for her large family – when there is enough to eat.

Roof of the House

And here is a picture showing a closeup of the clothesline. The wife would likely have been responsible for washing all of the laundry by hand and then setting it out to dry. Imagine keeping up with washing the cloth diapers of a huge brood of kids – no disposable diapers back then – with no running water and just a wash tub or basin.

Laundry Hung Out to Dry

Their meager belongings are drying in the wind, flapping over a bleak lawn strewn with assorted papers and junk, the jetsam of Great Depression poverty.

We can look back and feel glad that our society has moved forward and most people in North America – though certainly not all – enjoy a better standard of living. And yet I cannot help but think that even though our lives have gotten richer in a material sense, we have lost something. This family, though poor, was self reliant. The husband and wife both worked, and the older children all helped with the younger ones. They struggled but at least what they had was earned by them.

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