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Feeling the heat: The luxury of ice in Joseon

Cutting and transporting ice from the Han River, circa 1920s. Robert Neff Collection
Cutting and transporting ice from the Han River, circa 1920s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

It is said that, as time passes, everything changes ― unfortunately this is not true in regards to Seoul's oppressive summers.

In the late 19th century, it wasn't uncommon for the more affluent residents of Seoul to abandon the city and seek relief in the mountains or along the coasts. Those who were left behind had to contend with, in addition to the heat, swarms of flies during the day and mosquitoes at night. Life in Seoul was miserable.

The heat also made it difficult to keep food from spoiling and ice became a luxury that few could do without.

Of course, the palace and court favorites had little problem obtaining ice.

Harvesting ice in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Harvesting ice in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The Korean government maintained two large ice storage facilities at Seobinggo and Dongbingo, where huge slabs of river ice (nearly two meters long and about 12.5 centimeters thick) were covered with straw and preserved throughout the year. Court officials and others who possessed bingpae ― an ice ration card ― were regularly able to obtain a certain amount of this valuable commodity (based on their rank) for their own use.

The common people, however, had to either purchase ice on the black market or from ice merchants. The black market ice ― obtained illegally from one of the government ice storage facilities ― was probably considered to be safer but much more difficult to obtain and so most people had to rely on local ice vendors.

Many of the Korean ice vendors sold ice taken from the river, but other less-scrupulous vendors sold ice from rice paddies which, considering the fields were fertilized with night soil (human waste), was deemed unsanitary and facilitated the spread of diseases such as cholera.

Early Western residents also had difficulty obtaining good ice.

The Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
The Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

In a letter to her family in the summer of 1893, Sallie Swallen ― an American missionary ― happily informed them that her husband had made her an icebox and that they had ice delivered twice a day.

"We think we are fortunate that we can get ice," but it wasn't cheap ― every day she paid nearly 280 Korean cash (about nine American cents). Despite the price, she felt it was money well spent as it kept "all the food so nice."

There also were other perks. She could make ice cream ― a rare delicacy in Korea ― and had a steady supply of "almost ice-water." The latter was made by boiling water and, once cooled, pouring it into glass bottles that were then placed on the ice to cool. No one dared use the purchased ice in their drinks.

Eventually the Westerners began to make their own ice. In the winters, Horace N. Allen, the American Minister to Korea, had his Chinese servant freezing water every day. According to Allen:

"I had lots of kerosene tins out … and he freezes them full of well water, then heats the tin a little and knocks out the block. I could get paddy field ice, but prefer to freeze the good well water so that we can use the ice without danger."

A military vehicle loading ice at the Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
A military vehicle loading ice at the Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

Of course, as Allen soon found out, the ice had to be stored correctly if it was going to last throughout the summer. In a letter to his sons he complained:

"Our ice has given out. A week ago there was a good supply, but when it gets so low it turns in and melts all at once. I am going to build the house up just twice as high for next winter so I can put in as much again."

Realizing there was a market for safe ice, Lucien Martin ― a French hotelier ― established the Astor House Ice Plant in late spring 1909. According to his advertisement, his plant was able to supply "pure artificial ice made with the best and most up-to-date machinery. The purity of the ice is guaranteed as it is made from water supplied by the Seoul Water Works and filtered again before use."

The entrance of the Ho Yang Ice Plant in Seoul, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
The entrance of the Ho Yang Ice Plant in Seoul, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

Not only was his ice safe, it was also cheap ― only two sen (about one American cent) a pound. The company also delivered the ice to its customers in Seoul.

Despite the introduction of modern ice-making to Seoul, small shops continued selling blocks of ice. Not too many years ago, there was a small shop in my neighborhood that sold large blocks of ice to the fish merchants in our market. Unfortunately, like many things, it is now gone ― unable to compete with modernization.

Ho Yang Ice Plant employees, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
Ho Yang Ice Plant employees, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection



Cutting and transporting ice from the Han River, circa 1920s. Robert Neff Collection
Cutting and transporting ice from the Han River, circa 1920s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

It is said that, as time passes, everything changes ― unfortunately this is not true in regards to Seoul's oppressive summers.

In the late 19th century, it wasn't uncommon for the more affluent residents of Seoul to abandon the city and seek relief in the mountains or along the coasts. Those who were left behind had to contend with, in addition to the heat, swarms of flies during the day and mosquitoes at night. Life in Seoul was miserable.

The heat also made it difficult to keep food from spoiling and ice became a luxury that few could do without.

Of course, the palace and court favorites had little problem obtaining ice.

Harvesting ice in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Harvesting ice in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The Korean government maintained two large ice storage facilities at Seobinggo and Dongbingo, where huge slabs of river ice (nearly two meters long and about 12.5 centimeters thick) were covered with straw and preserved throughout the year. Court officials and others who possessed bingpae ― an ice ration card ― were regularly able to obtain a certain amount of this valuable commodity (based on their rank) for their own use.

The common people, however, had to either purchase ice on the black market or from ice merchants. The black market ice ― obtained illegally from one of the government ice storage facilities ― was probably considered to be safer but much more difficult to obtain and so most people had to rely on local ice vendors.

Many of the Korean ice vendors sold ice taken from the river, but other less-scrupulous vendors sold ice from rice paddies which, considering the fields were fertilized with night soil (human waste), was deemed unsanitary and facilitated the spread of diseases such as cholera.

Early Western residents also had difficulty obtaining good ice.

The Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
The Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

In a letter to her family in the summer of 1893, Sallie Swallen ― an American missionary ― happily informed them that her husband had made her an icebox and that they had ice delivered twice a day.

"We think we are fortunate that we can get ice," but it wasn't cheap ― every day she paid nearly 280 Korean cash (about nine American cents). Despite the price, she felt it was money well spent as it kept "all the food so nice."

There also were other perks. She could make ice cream ― a rare delicacy in Korea ― and had a steady supply of "almost ice-water." The latter was made by boiling water and, once cooled, pouring it into glass bottles that were then placed on the ice to cool. No one dared use the purchased ice in their drinks.

Eventually the Westerners began to make their own ice. In the winters, Horace N. Allen, the American Minister to Korea, had his Chinese servant freezing water every day. According to Allen:

"I had lots of kerosene tins out … and he freezes them full of well water, then heats the tin a little and knocks out the block. I could get paddy field ice, but prefer to freeze the good well water so that we can use the ice without danger."

A military vehicle loading ice at the Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
A military vehicle loading ice at the Seoul Ice Plant, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

Of course, as Allen soon found out, the ice had to be stored correctly if it was going to last throughout the summer. In a letter to his sons he complained:

"Our ice has given out. A week ago there was a good supply, but when it gets so low it turns in and melts all at once. I am going to build the house up just twice as high for next winter so I can put in as much again."

Realizing there was a market for safe ice, Lucien Martin ― a French hotelier ― established the Astor House Ice Plant in late spring 1909. According to his advertisement, his plant was able to supply "pure artificial ice made with the best and most up-to-date machinery. The purity of the ice is guaranteed as it is made from water supplied by the Seoul Water Works and filtered again before use."

The entrance of the Ho Yang Ice Plant in Seoul, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
The entrance of the Ho Yang Ice Plant in Seoul, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection

Not only was his ice safe, it was also cheap ― only two sen (about one American cent) a pound. The company also delivered the ice to its customers in Seoul.

Despite the introduction of modern ice-making to Seoul, small shops continued selling blocks of ice. Not too many years ago, there was a small shop in my neighborhood that sold large blocks of ice to the fish merchants in our market. Unfortunately, like many things, it is now gone ― unable to compete with modernization.

Ho Yang Ice Plant employees, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection
Ho Yang Ice Plant employees, circa 1953-54. Robert Neff Collection




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