A card like this one from the John Jahnke Ice Company was once seen in the window of almost every La Crosse home.
In the days before modern refrigerators, families depended on deliverymen to stock their ice boxes with blocks of ice to keep perishables cold.
When more ice was needed – which could be multiple times a week during a hot summer – this sign would be hung in the window. As the iceman came around with his wagon or truck, he would know to stop at the house.
Depending on which number was pointing up, the iceman would chip off a block weighing 25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds and bring it to the house, often carrying it directly to the ice box. At the time of the John Jahnke Ice Company, the price for 100 pounds of ice was about 25 cents.
John Jahnke became an ice dealer in 1930 after taking over the business begun by his father Louis in 1921.
Before 1932, the Jahnkes’ ice was harvested during two weeks or less in late January and early February. For the 1928 season alone, the Jahnke Ice Company harvested 12,500 tons of ice from the Mississippi River.
Ice could be cut once when it was about 20 inches thick. Teams of men and mule would then transport blocks of ice to a storage house, where the ice was insulated with layers of sawdust until warm weather created a need for it.
John Jahnke’s life was made much easier when he switched to manufactured ice in 1932 as mechanical refrigeration made it possible to produce ice year-round.
Although mechanical refrigeration had been used in the ice industry since 1868, a mechanical refrigerator for domestic use didn’t appear until 1913 and was a rare sight until 1927.
Home refrigerators became increasingly popular in the 1930s, and were mass produced after World War II, resulting in 90 percent of urban families owning a fridge by 1950.
This popularity was unfortunate for ice dealers like John Jahnke, whose company didn’t appear in the La Crosse city directory after 1934. Despite being a necessity for every La Crosse resident in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ice industry rapidly disappeared and has become obsolete except for niche uses like picnic coolers or ice sculptures.
This window card is one of the few remaining traces of La Crosse’s ice industry and can be viewed on La Crosse County Historical Society’s online collections.
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