A luxury, a common product, a rarity: the uses of ice over time

Three centuries elapsed between the start of operations at the Royal Ice Factory and the opening to the public of the museum dedicated to this pre-industrial complex, now a National Monument. Between the 18th and 21st centuries, Portugal witnessed a radical change in consumption habits, in line with what happened in other parts of the western world.
Although the use of ice has been known since Antiquity, the truth is that it was a precious commodity, only available to a few. Before the invention of refrigerators and electrical refrigeration systems, ice was rare and difficult to preserve: it could be obtained directly from natural snow, or through a production process such as that used in the Royal Ice Factory, taking advantage of natural waters that solidified during the cold nights in the mountains.
From the 17th century onwards, there is a growing demand for ice in Europe, whether for refreshments, snowy drinks and ice cream, or for medicinal use. In Portugal, for over a hundred years, ice was almost exclusive to the Royal House and Hospital de Todos os Santos, in Lisbon. In fact, recognizing the difficulty of conserving ice during the summer period – when, after a long journey, this precious commodity arrived at Terreiro do Paço –, King José I issued a royal charter that gave priority to the transport of ice in case of excess river traffic on the Tagus. As soon as it was landed, the ice was sent to supply the Court, some fancy cafes and, finally, the hospital.
With the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems and the refrigerator, which  slowly became common in Portuguese homes, the use of ice became widespread, and no longer the privilege of a few. Thus began the decline of the Royal Ice Factory, mirroring a highly transformative social process in the consumption of what came to be known as «white gold». Ice could now be produced quickly, and became part of everyday life.
The story of ice, however, does not end here. If it started out as a rare commodity and later became a product of common use, the future holds great uncertainty and indicates that perhaps ice will return to its initial condition: the scarcity of water on the planet and global warming are already patent in Serra de Montejunto. Nowadays, even if there were no refrigerators and freezers, the Royal Ice Factory could no longer operate: one of the 44 freezing tanks still retains rainwater, but the last time that water froze there was before 2010. A warning not to be ignored.
Um criado oferece espumas heladas numa bandeja, séc. XVIII – Cocina Valenciana, Museu de Artes Decorativas, Madrid

A servant offers iced foams on a tray, 19th C. XVIII – Cocina Valenciana, Museum of Decorative Arts, Madrid

Prato com asa para neve França, fábrica Baccarat, modelo Gladstone Cristal transparente incolor, lapidado e gravado Monograma de D. Maria Pia, MP, encimado por coroa, gravado e dourado Palácio Nacional de Sintra Inv. PNS4415 © PSML | Foto: e.m.i.g.u.s, 2018

Snow plate with handleFrance, Baccarat factory, Gladstone modelColorless transparent crystal, faceted and en-graved.
Monogram of D. Maria Pia, MP, topped by a crown, engraved and gilded
National Palace of SintraInv. PNS4415© PSML | Photo: e.m.i.g.u.s, 2018″

Um vendedor ambulante de gelados, em Lisboa (1908, fotografia de Joshua Benoliel).

An ice cream street vendor, in Lisbon (1908, photograph by Joshua Benoliel).
© Lisbon Municipal Archive | JBN000177

O famoso Café Gelo, no Rossio, em Lisboa (1961, fotografia de Artur Goulart). Arquivo Municipal de Lisboa / Arquivo Fotográfico.

The famous Café Gelo, in Rossio, Lisbon (1961, photograph by Artur Goulart).
© Lisbon Municipal Archive | AJG002151