The "Scoop" on American Ice Cream
“America is the only country in the world where ice cream is a staple article of food.” - New-York Daily Tribune, July 1902
Ice cream may have originated elsewhere, but Americans embraced it as their own with a passion akin to baseball games, outdoor picnics, and July 4th parades. The story of ice cream in America is actually comprised of multiple stories—stories of individual enterprise, invention and accidental discovery, short-lived novelties and industry-wide changes—all leading to the plethora of ice cream choices we indulge in today.
Ice cream as we know it probably evolved in Italy, based upon a frozen dessert that merchant-explorer Marco Polo had brought back from the Far East during his travels in the 13th century. From Italy, it spread to France, England, and, eventually, to the United States. Through the first few decades of the 19th century, it was enjoyed exclusively by the wealthy, as sugar, cream, and ice were all expensive and difficult to procure.
Americans’ love affair with ice cream really kicked in with the popularity of drugstore soda fountains during the second half of the 19th century. Many druggists at this time added special counters to their establishments, dispensing concoctions of flavored soda water that promised to cure a variety of ills—ranging from constipation to indigestion to obesity.
Three Delectable Inventions
It was at the soda water counter that the first of three significant ice cream inventions came to be. Despite claims by others, Robert Green of Philadelphia is generally credited with the accidental creation of the ice cream soda. A concessionaire selling carbonated beverages at a public exposition in 1874, Green substituted vanilla ice cream for the sweet cream he ordinarily mixed with his syrup and carbonated water. Green’s profits shot up from $6 to $600 a day!
By the end of the 19th century, a second key invention—the ice cream sundae—had been introduced. This concoction was an attempt to bypass local “Blue Laws” prohibiting the Sunday sale of soda water because of its association with alcoholic beverages. The ice cream sundae—consisting of ice cream topped with flavored syrup—became known as the “soda-less soda.” Like the ice cream soda, many people claimed to have invented it. And the hot fudge topping? C.C. Brown, a Los Angeles ice cream parlor operator, supposedly introduced this to his customers in 1906.
The ice cream cone was the third major invention that significantly increased ice cream’s popularity among the American public. Although it may have originated in Europe, it is generally thought that the ice cream cone was introduced to Americans at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. When an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes, concessionaire Ernest Hamwi stepped in and shaped his crisp, wafer-like Persian pastries—called “zalabia”—into cone-shaped confections to hold the ice cream.
A Love of Novelty
The National Prohibition Act of 1919—prohibiting the legal production, sale, and transport of liquor—forced the closing of thousands of bars across the country. As a result, soda fountains experienced their heyday and ice cream became Americans’ favorite dessert—enjoyed by wealthy socialites and newly arriving immigrants alike.
The love of both novelty and convenience at this time encouraged experimentation with dozens of eat-on-the-go ice cream treats. The first of these was the Eskimo Pie, introduced by part-time confectioner Christian Nelson in 1920 as the “I-Scream Bar.” This chocolate-covered slice of vanilla ice cream quickly became a national sensation and spawned imitations like the Klondike Bar, introduced by the Isaly Dairy Company soon afterward.
Harry Burt, the owner of a candy and ice cream store, went one step further by placing chocolate-coated ice cream bars on a stick. He then hired a crew of salesmen to sell his “Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers” in specially outfitted trucks. The Good Humor man was born.
Dixie Cup Sundaes, Popsicles, and Drumsticks also made their appearance during the 1920s.
Ice Cream on the Road and Roadside
Trucks, automobiles, and highways all “fueled” Americans’ passion for ice cream. By the 1930s and 1940s, refrigerated trucks were transporting pre-packaged ice cream over newly paved highways to retail outlets across the country. Self-serve freezer cabinets in grocery stores and supermarkets allowed shoppers to purchase a variety of ice cream flavors in different size cartons to keep in their refrigerators at home.
Howard Johnson, a drugstore soda fountain proprietor, became the founder of one of the earliest and most significant roadside ice cream establishments. He grew dissatisfied with the artificially flavored ice cream made by a local manufacturer that he was serving his customers, so he experimented with making his own. Before long, he couldn’t meet the demand for this higher-quality product in his 10-seat shop and he opened up a chain of roadside stands in the Boston area. During the 1930s, Johnson franchised his “Wonderful World of 28 Flavors” concept, and the Howard Johnson’s “Ice Cream Shoppe and Restaurant” soon became a familiar sight along well-traveled highways.
Around World War II, soft-serve ice-cream was also being perfected and sold at small roadside establishments. Even Dairy Queen started out as a single roadside store in Joliet, Illinois in 1940, before becoming nationally franchised.
So Many Choices
Today, the choices of different ice cream flavors and products seem almost endless. The old-fashioned ice cream parlor has been replaced by the modern ice cream shop, epitomized by the Baskin-Robbins national chain as well as more local establishments. Hand-held novelties like ice cream bars and Popsicles are more abundant and popular than ever.
Perhaps the most interesting trend in Americans’ ice cream choices is the seeming contradiction between high-butterfat “super-premium” brands like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s and the preference for low-fat, “healthier” alternatives like frozen yogurt (first popularized by TCBY in the 1980s), sorbet, and “slow-churned” ice cream.
High butterfat “super-premium” or low-fat soft-serve—which did Americans prefer? In the end, it’s really a moot point. Year after year, reports show that plain old vanilla has consistently been the most popular ice cream of them all.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.