Who Invented Ice Cube Trays? History, Origins, & FAQ
Most people have gone through the whole experience of filling, freezing, cracking, and refilling an ice cube tray. Wait long enough, and the water in the ice cube trays will freeze into cubes and then twist the tray to break the ice free of its prison. Dump the ice cubes into a bowl or drink. Voila! This was an ordinary summer practice throughout the United States for decades. But when was the ice tray invented, and who invented it? Ice cube trays seem so simple and so familiar that most people don’t think about how they might have come to be.
The ice cube tray was not invented until 1928, and modern iterations were not finalized until 1933. Two men are credited for coming up with their own individual ice cube tray designs around the same time.
However, before there was a need for an ice cube tray, there was a need for ice blocks, the precursor to the modern ice cube.
Ice Before Ice Cubes
Before the invention of the ice cube tray, people bought ice from ice cutters. Before ice chests and ice makers, people had to go out to frozen lakes and rivers in the dead of winter and cut out large blocks of ice. These ice blocks were then hauled into the city, where salespeople chiseled off pieces and sold them to individuals. This was the era where the ice pick was a common household tool. People would keep ice blocks in their cellars during cool months and chip off pieces as they needed them.
Ice cutting was hard and miserable work. Large horses would haul sleds and men out onto frozen lakes where massive augers, saws, and hammers were used to break the ice out. It was cold and thankless work, but it was lucrative. The ice cutting business would not be dethroned until the invention of the electric freezer.
The Ice Cube Tray Is Born
The freezer changed the world. In the early 20th century, people were able to freeze food to preserve it better. People were also able to create ice. Before the ice cube tray was invented, people were freezing large blocks of ice in the freezer and continuing to chip off what they needed. Some habits are hard to break.
The first rubber ice cube tray was invented by Lloyd Copeman in 1928. Copeman was a prolific inventor who held many patents that created a steady stream of revenue from royalties. Copeman allegedly got the idea for an ice cube tray after slushing through the snow. When he got home, he noticed that the ice that had stuck to his boots had come off extremely easily. The rubber in his boots seemed to prevent the ice from sticking as it did to other surfaces. Seeing the ice slide off his boots gave him an idea. He drew up a rubber ice cube tray based on rubber cups that would freeze small pieces of ice that would come out easily.
Around the same time, in 1933, a man named Guy Tinkham was busy inventing a metal ice tray. The metal ice trays were made from flexible stainless steel allowing the user to twist the tray and pop the ice cubes out despite being metal. Metal was seen as being able to hold up better long term than plastic or rubber. However, the metal trays were extremely cold to the touch and caused people’s fingers to hurt when they took them out of the freezer.
Ice cube trays were invented starting in 1928 and took off in 1933. They rapidly made their way into most home freezers in order to quickly cool off drinks.
Ice Cube Trays Today
Ice cube trays are still popular, but they are not as popular as they once were. In the 20th century, most American freezers contained an ice tray, and they were used and refilled continuously. The 21st century saw a shift away from ice trays towards ice makers. Most new refrigerators contain an ice maker and ice distributor built in. Instead of filling up ice trays, waiting for them to freeze, and then breaking the cubes out, most people simply hit a button on their refrigerator, and ice comes out immediately. The rise of the ice maker and advanced refrigerator have caused the ice tray to diminish in prevalence and popularity.
Older homes, older people, and places without a new refrigerator are still likely to contain at least one ice tray. Ice trays have moved towards a novelty or niche rather than a staple. Modern ice trays can be purchased in a variety of shapes, including stars, dinosaurs, or even a team logo. Newer ice trays have even moved away from cubes and into spheres to create craft cocktails and more visually appealing drinks.
Ice cube trays might seem simple, but someone needed to invent them. The ice cube tray was born out of the old and outdated business of cutting ice blocks from solid bodies of water. Over time the massive ice blocks slowly shrank into manageable ice cubes. Today, ice cubes can be found almost everywhere in the United States, and that is due in large part to the work of Lloyd Copeman and Guy Tinkham in the early 20th century.
Featured Image Credit: Gus Gan, Shutterstock