Pair of metal ice tongs. They were purchased by Museum Victoria in 1969, and are undated.

Ice tongs were used to carry blocks of ice used in ice chests and refrigerators, in factories and meat departments to transport large blocks of ice, and for domestic use. Older ice tongs are mostly made from cast iron due to its strength, because ice blocks could be extremely heavy.

These tongs were initially made with two pointed tips, which were stabbed into the ice block, holding it between the two sides of the tongs. Later ice tongs were developed with ridges on each side to grab the ice more effectively without chips breaking off.

Physical Description

Pair of metal ice tongs (cast iron?) with pointed ends.


These ice tongs are probably typical of tools used to carry ice blocks for food preservation.

Ice was the principle means of refrigeration until the early 20th century. In the United States and Australia non mechanised refrigerators, iceboxes, were used to keep perishable food fresh. Iceboxes continued to be used as the primary source of refrigeration for many families into the mid 20th century. Figures from the United States show that in 1923 iceboxes outsold mechanical refrigerators but that by 1944 refrigerators were outselling iceboxes by more than two to one. (Iereley 1999: 246) Figures for Australia are less comprehensive: a survey of appliance purchases in 1923 does not include refrigerators. By 1955, refrigerators are recorded: 77% of all homes in Brisbane, 83% in Sydney, and 67% in Melbourne. By 1964, it was estimated that 94% of all Australian households owned a refrigerator. (Dingle 1998: 124)These figures are supported by recorded oral histories, which demonstrate that in Australia many families were still using iceboxes in the late 1940s and 1950s. (Coleman; The-real-keneth-williams-story; Narrative 708)

An article in the New York Mirror from 1838 provides a clear definition of the standard icebox: it 'is a double box, the outside of mahogany or other wood, and the inside of sheet-zinc [or tin], the space between being three or four inches. By filling this space with finely powdered charcoal, well packed together, the box is rendered almost heat-proof, so that a lump of ice weighing five or six pounds may be kept twenty-four to thirty-six hours, even more, if the box is not opened too often, so as to admit the hot air from without. Of course while it is closed the air contained within it, being in contact with the ice, is reduced to nearly the same temperature; and meat is preserved perfectly sweet and good, the same as in winter. The interior of the refrigerator is provided with shelves for the reception of dishes, bottles, pitchers, etc.; and thus, by very simple contrivance, joints of meat are kept good for several days, wine is cooled, butter hardened, milk saved from "turning", and a supply of ice kept on hand for the more direct use of the table.' (Quote in Ierley 1999: 168)

The means of insulation described above was not standardised; fur pelt, hair, cork, wool, felt, ash and later asbestos were all used as insulating materials. The placement of the ice was also not standardised, though by the end of the nineteenth century it was generally placed in a tray at the top of the unit. A pipe for melted water ran from the ice tray to a drip tray underneath the icebox. This configuration allowed for air to circulate, enhancing the cooling effect - 'the denser cool air descending to the bottom and displacing the lighter warmer air, which rose to the top.' (Ierley 1999: 169)

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