This 1920's ice cream parlor tray says it all: ice cream was not just a passing fad—it was here to stay! THF156260
“America is the only country in the world where ice cream is a staple article of food.”
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!
Detroit confectioner Fred Sanders was among those who claimed to have invented the ice cream soda. One hot summer evening in 1876, he supposedly ran out of fresh cream for his cream soda drinks and substituted ice cream. This Sanders store photo is from 1937. THF234709
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.
This electrically lit sign, from about 1940, would have attracted attention from the counter or shelf of a soda fountain. THF156259
Banana splits, like the one pictured on this 1920's tray, made their appearance soon after the invention of the ice cream sundae. THF47250a
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.
Before grocery stores had built-in freezers, this insulated counter-top dispenser from about 1930, advertised Eskimo Pies at the same time that it kept these novelties chilled. THF45668
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.
In this 1925 photograph, motorized vehicles are lined up ready to sell Harry Burt’s Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers. THF234711
Dixie Cup Sundaes, Popsicles, and Drumsticks also made their appearance during the 1920's.
Ice Cream on the Road and Roadside
Trucks, automobiles, and highways all “fueled” Americans’ passion for ice cream. By the 1930's and 1940's, 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.
In this 1942 photograph, a truck driver stands ready to transport cartons of Sharpless Ice Cream from its plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The billboard above points out how the ice cream carton’s “Tray Pac” design conveniently fits into the freezer compartment of a home refrigerator. THF115908
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 1930's, 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.
The familiar orange roof and blue cupola of Howard Johnson’s enticed weary motorists, as seen on the cover of this circa 1950 menu. Take a look (below) at some of the ice cream treats customers could enjoy at that time. THF101406; THF101407a
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.
Soft-serve ice cream had become a staple of the menu at McDonald’s by 1989, the date of this “Turbo Cone” Happy Meal toy. THF101204
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.
This 1988 Colombo brochure claimed that its soft-serve frozen yogurt was a healthy alternative to ice cream—though the high-fat toppings often ironically made up for any lower-fat advantage of this frozen dessert. THF234725
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.