30 Sep 2013

Lost Capitol Hill: The Ice Famine of 1906

aaChapinWhen we left the Chapin-Sacks company last week, it looked as if they were headed for bigger and better things. Plans were afoot to not only increase their core business of butter and ice cream, but to expand into other fields, including the production of ice. It would not work out well for anyone concerned.

In order to expand, the Chapin-Sacks company needed to built ever larger buildings. Fortunately, the land next to their factory on 1st Street northeast was empty, and they bought it as necessary. Along here, they built an ice factory. Unfortunately, in their quest for greater market share, Chapin and others in the company went to far: They conspired with the American Ice Company, another large vendor in DC, to set the price of ice in the District. Since they controlled 75% of the ice market, this was fairly easy for them to do, and soon, ice vendors were doing as they pleased – selling short weight, or not even bothering to weigh the ice that they sold at inflated prices.

The effects were immediate and unfortunate. Principally, an “ice famine” with people unable to buy ice at all. This meant that milk sold in the District was not properly cooled, and was thus – according to the New York Times “in such a condition as to irritate the stomachs and intestines of the infants.” Also according to them, the “infantile death rate has gone up week by week.”

Fortunately, the Sherman antitrust act gave the authorities the means to combat this menace, and the miscreants soon found themselves under indictment. Both Arthur Chapin and Samuel Redman were charged, and looking down the barrel of a $5,000 fine – that would be about 125,000 in today’s dollars – and a year in prison. Unsurprisingly, neither was ever actually jailed, but the ice famine was over, and it soon became possible to buy ice in the District again.

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The Chapin-Sacks company’s 1917 building on M Street Northeast (LOC)

Later that year, another law looked to hamper the Chapin-Sacks company: The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This time, the company was prepared. Well before the law was to take effect in the beginning of 1907, the company was ready. Not only did they have their factories up to code and inspected, but they published large advertisements stating that “Washington’s Greatest Ice Cream Manufacturing Plant, Chapin-Sacks Mfg. Co., Will Safely Pass Inspection.” Below was a picture of the plant, and along with their slogan “The Velvet Kind” was the statement that they made “Pure Ice Cream.”

Clearly, whatever they were doing, it worked, and in 1917, they expanded once again. This time, they went on, somewhat incoherently, about how they had just built “The New Home of America’s Greatest Ice Cream Industry.”

Seven years later, Arthur Chapin died – of ptomaine (ie food) poisoning. Whether this came from eating improperly cooled food was not mentioned in his obituary. He was still running the business at the time, but thereafter, Sacks sold the business to Southern Dairies, a large ice cream conglomerate. Sacks himself died in 1943. In neither case does their obituary mention their part in the great ice famine of 1906.


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