When Everyone Wanted to Be the Iceman

New York in the 1890s saw the rise of iceboxes. The city stayed hot in the summer, and food had to be brought in from further away than ever, so ice was harvested in the winter, stored all year long, and delivered to keep food fresh and cool. There were 1500 ice trucks in New York at the time, and deliverymen were a welcome sight. This led to raunchy jokes about all the housewives an ice man would see every day. Those joke inspired J. Fred Helf to write the hit novelty song, "How’d You Like to Be the Iceman?”  

An iceman had to be in good physical shape, which made his presence all the more concerning to husbands who were away. Unlike other delivery men, he had to come inside, and ensconcing ice in the box sometimes required chipping away at the block until it fit. It wasn’t unusual, after all that work, for the lady of the house to offer the ice man a drink or snack. It’s no wonder that he came to be perceived as a working-class lothario—sort of a 19th-century version of a buff pool boy.

“How’d You Like to Be the Iceman?” capitalized on the idea that icemen had it made. In the opening verse, the narrator admires a brownstone mansion and asks the servant if Mr. Vanderbilt is in. “I thought it the house of a millionaire,” the song continues, “but he told me the iceman resided there.” Subsequent verses describe the iceman trading ice for kisses at customers’ homes and enjoying free drinks at the cafe. (These are referred to as “tin-roof cocktails,” capitalizing on a joke with a double meaning about tin-roof cocktails being “on the house.”)

Read about the ice business, the song, and the ever-popular iceman at Atlas Obscura.

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As a kid, a neighbor on my street still had a real ice box. In summer when they had ice delivered the ice man would chip off some pieces for us to suck on.
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