Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America

Larry Holzwarth - July 30, 2018

In the markets of ancient Athens, snow mixed with fruit and honey was eaten with the encouragement of the students of Hippocrates. Ancient Chinese people froze a mixture of milk and rice pudding by submerging it in salt laced snow. The Roman emperors brought ice to Rome from the mountains, used for the creation of frozen fruit dishes. By the Middle Ages ice cream was known in Europe, and one hundred years before the American Revolution recipes for its production appeared in writing in France. They soon were found in English cookbooks.

It is a myth that Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to America from France, as recipes appeared in Pennsylvania magazines before he was born. But he was a fan, as was George Washington. The records of a New York shopkeeper show that Washington spent $200 on ice cream in 1790 alone. It was the Quakers who brought ice cream to America and Philadelphia became famous for the quality of the confection there. As America grew, different ways of consuming ice cream developed; the cone, the ice cream soda, the sundae, the banana split, and in bars and sandwiches.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
The combination of ice cream and baseball is irresistible to some Americans. Library of Congress

Here are a few of the steps in the evolution of ice cream in America.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
Jefferson penned an eighteen step recipe for vanilla ice cream. Wikimedia

Ice Cream as a luxury food

In the days before refrigeration, ice cream was a treat for the wealthy, as it was expensive to produce, and to store. It was made by submerging the mixture of cream, sugar, and flavoring, in ice water mixed with salt, which lowered the freezing point of the water, and absorbed the heat of the cream mixture. The method was known as the French Pot method. In France a device known as a “sorbetiere” was equipped with a lid and a handle connected to a paddle for stirring the mixture as it froze.

George Washington – who had ice houses at Mount Vernon – was fond of peach ice cream, served with a maple syrup flavored whipped cream. Flavorings for ice cream in colonial America included the various native berries, maple, molasses, vanilla beans (which were very expensive), chocolate, pumpkins and melons, nuts, and nectars. Ice cream flavored with peppers and other spices were also well known. Unless one possessed the means of making it, it needed to be ordered in advance.

It was ordered from small business confectioners, who were given the recipes in many cases. While serving as Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson provided his ice cream supplier with an 18 step recipe for vanilla ice cream, which was written in his own hand and is preserved in the Library of Congress. Jefferson preferred his ice cream served atop wafers known as Savoy cookies, for which he thoughtfully provided the recipe on the back of the ice cream recipe.

Not until the mid-nineteenth century did mass production of ice cream begin in America, when a Maryland dairyman built a factory to produce ice cream from his surplus cream which would otherwise have gone to waste. In 1851, he built a Pennsylvania ice cream manufacturing plant, soon relocating to Baltimore, and expanding into several cities before the Civil War.

With the onset of mass production and commercial ice houses, ice cream became a popular food available to all, whereas earlier it was considered a treat enjoyed only by the elite. Following the Civil War it became wildly popular, as Americans new ways to flavor and consume it, other than from a dish with a spoon.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
A soda jerk offers his product. Library of Congress

The ice cream soda

During the 1874 Franklin Institute semi-centennial celebration in Philadelphia, a soda vendor named Robert McCay Green invented the ice cream soda. The legend emerged that he ran out of ice chips for cooling his soda concoctions, and with none available at the site he substituted vanilla ice cream he obtained from a nearby ice cream vendor, and the result was wildly successful. But the story is incorrect.

In fact, Mr. Green wrote in 1910 that he invented the ice cream soda in order to attract attention to his stand, which was small in comparison to other vendors at the celebration. He experimented before the event with ice cream, soda water, and several flavoring syrups and came to the celebration fully prepared to market his new use of ice cream. Nor is Mr. Green the only person to claim credit for the soda.

Nonetheless he directed that the phrase, “Originator of the Ice Cream Soda” be included on his gravestone in his will. One of Green’s employees claimed that he had invented the soda accidentally, and Green had stolen the idea and taken the credit which was rightfully his. Regardless, the beverage became instantly popular, especially among teens, and soda fountains emerged all over the country.

In small town America ice cream was often purchased at the local drug store, where soda fountains became popular. A new profession emerged in the United States; that of the soda jerk, so named because of the jerking motion necessary to operate the soda tap. Soda jerks were found in drug stores, ice cream shops, and confectioners until the 1960s, when the profession gradually faded from the scene.

In the early 1900s, drinks such as Coca-Cola and root beer were often purchased as syrup mixed with soda by the soda jerk. The addition of ice cream created the ice cream soda, also known as the root beer float, coke float, Black Cow, Pink Cow (with crème soda) and a wide variety of other names. Today the ice cream soda is a popular means of consuming ice cream around the world, with countless variations of flavors of both soda and ice cream.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
A sign for the Yum Yum Malt Shop in Bossier City, Louisiana. Library of Congress

The ice cream sundae

As noted above, George Washington enjoyed ice creams covered by flavored whipped cream, a variation of the ice cream sundae. Ice creams covered with a sauce of numerous varieties, including chocolate, were popular in the eighteenth century, though they were not referred to as sundaes in the cookbooks and recipes of the period. No single person has been credited with the invention of the sundae, though several towns have claimed it as their own.

Buffalo and Ithaca in New York claim to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. So does Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Evanston, Illinois. The argument is as pointless as it is persistent. There are multiple claimants of the distinction of having created the first sundae as well, though dates are inconsistent, evidence is slim, and no claim has more validity than another. The sundae simply emerged, and some say it emerged from the popularity of the ice cream soda.

One reason that the carbonated beverages called sodas were sold in drugstores is that they were marketed as having healthful benefits. All of the early soda brands which gained regional or national fame; Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, et al, were marketed and sold as having properties which served as tonics for various ailments such as fatigue, “vapors”, digestive issues, headaches, and other issues plaguing potential customers.

Because of these properties, in many communities it was believed that excessive consumption of tonics was a moral failing, and that like alcohol and other items their sale should not be allowed on Sunday. Druggists and other vendors had no problem with halting the sale of soda on the Lord’s Day, but they didn’t want to lose the sales of ice cream at the same time, so the ingredients of a soda, ice cream, syrup, whipped cream etc., were served in a dish without the soda.

In these communities, so the story goes, the dish was called ice cream Sunday, and over time the spelling changed to sundae, to remove association with the blue laws which had given it birth. Sundaes under that name emerged during the 1890s and have as many variations of flavor combinations as there are flavors of ice cream and syrup, as well as toppings which began with chopped nuts, and became seemingly infinite over time.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
Convalescent wounded receiving sundaes and banana splits in February 1945. National Archives

The Banana Split

Unlike its cousin the ice cream sundae, the progenitor of the banana split is verified and in fact celebrated annually. Tessel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania had a soda fountain, and a soda jerk who enjoyed experimenting with different combinations in sundaes. His name was David Strickler, and besides working at the soda fountain he was a pharmacist’s apprentice. He first split the banana in 1904, selling the new sundae for a dime.

Strickler later bought the pharmacy, renaming it Strickler’s Pharmacy. In 2004 the city of Latrobe celebrated the centennial of the banana split and lobbied the National Ice Cream Retailers Association to certify the city of Latrobe as the birthplace of the banana split, which NICRA did. Latrobe claims to have the original soda fountain where the historic event occurred.

So with certification by a national authority, an annual celebration held in late summer known as the Great American Banana Split Celebration, and the certainty of local lore, there can be no question that the sundae known as the banana split was born in the city of Latrobe, from which its fame grew to the point that the dish is now known worldwide. Except…

In 1907 a restaurant owner in Wilmington, Ohio, by the name of Ernest Hazard, found business too slow for his liking during the winter. Wilmington was and is a small college town, the home of Wilmington College. Hazard felt that he would improve his business if he could attract students to his establishment. He challenged his staff to create a dish which would cause the students to beat a path to his door, so to speak.

His staff didn’t come up with anything impressive enough, so Hazard did it himself, splitting the banana and adding it to the sundae, filling it with three scoops of ice cream, and claiming credit for the creation of the new dish. Wilmington supports his claim by celebrating the event annually in early summer. However their claim seems dubious, since it lacks the certification of a major authority on ice cream.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
JFK enjoys an ice cream cone aboard the yacht Honey Fitz, August 1963. JFK Library

The ice cream cone

Legend has it that the ice cream cone was invented as an expedient during the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, but that is incorrect. Recipes for edible conveyances of ice cream to the mouth appeared in French cookbooks as early as 1825. In a later recipe the cones, which were called cornets, were made with almonds, and are part of the recipe for a dish called cornets and cream, in which they were filled with ice cream.

At least two patents were filed for ice cream cone machines prior to the celebrated St. Louis World’s Fair, one in Manchester, England by an ice cream vendor in 1902, and another by an ice cream salesman in New York, who called the product of his device edible containers. Still, there can be no doubt that the ice cream cone achieved its fame at the St. Louis World’s Fair, when it received wide exposure, and international acclaim.

At the fair an ice cream vendor named Arnold Fornachou was selling his product briskly, as could be expected on a typical St. Louis summer day, when he ran out of the paper containers in which he was scooping his product. Fornachou bought waffles rolled into cones from a nearby vendor to alleviate his shortage of cups, and the ice cream in the cone became instantly popular with his customers, drawing more and more to his booth.

At the same time another entrepreneur at the same exposition sold ice cream in cones of his own invention. Abe Doumar designed his own cone rolling machine and sold his cones at the St. Louis World’s Fair, as well as in 1907 at the Jamestown Exposition, and eventually developed a machine which produced twenty cones per minute. Whether Doumar or Fornachou was first is immaterial, the ice cream cone became the official dessert of the State of Missouri.

By 1928 the inventor J.T. Parker of Texas had created an ice cream cone which was prefilled with ice cream, drizzled with chocolate, sprinkled with nuts, wrapped in paper, and could be stored in the grocer’s freezer until purchased for consumption. In 1931 he started a company to market the product, which he named The Drumstick Company. Sixty years later his company became part of Nestle.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
The Autocar Company uses Breyer’s Ice Cream to advertise. Wikimedia

Soft serve ice cream

As with other ice cream products and modes of consumption, the development of soft serve ice cream has more than one individual claiming credit. Soft serve ice cream wasn’t developed until the 1930s, in the United States, and it contains lesser amounts of milk fats, with an injection of air, which when introduced in the proper amounts accounts for the smooth, creamier texture of the product. The more air, the whiter the appearance of the product (before flavorings).

According to one invention story, soft serve came about as the result of a misfortune. Tom Carvel suffered a flat tire on his ice cream truck while in Hartsdale, New York. Carvel parked the truck for the weekend (it was Memorial Day weekend, according to the story) in a nearby parking lot and managed to sell his entire stock of ice cream off the truck over the course of the weekend. This suggested that a permanent location and soft ice cream was a good business model.

Although there was no Memorial Day weekend in 1934, when the event occurred (Memorial Day was a Wednesday that year) the idea nonetheless led Carvel to open a store on the spot where he had parked his truck in 1937, selling a soft serve ice cream created with a secret formula. Thus Carvel claimed the invention of both the soft serve product and the means of selling it from a fixed location.

The claim, as is seemingly all things involved with ice cream, is disputed. J.F. McCullough and his son Alex claimed to have developed the soft serve ice cream formula. They took their product to a friend in Kankakee, Illinois who owned an ice cream store, Sherb Noble. Noble agreed to allow them to experiment with sales and after selling more than 1,600 servings in a few hours they knew they had a hit product.

They opened a store dedicated to selling soft serve ice cream products in Joliet, Illinois, naming their new business Dairy Queen when it opened in 1940. Since then many other companies dedicated to the sale of soft serve ice cream have opened in the United States and other countries. Throughout the United States, many small soft serve locations are open only in the summer, and in small towns their opening is a hallmark of the arrival of the season.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
Two workers enjoy their milk shakes in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Library of Congress

Milk shakes and malts

The first milk shakes made in America featured whiskey, mixed with milk and egg yolk, considered a healthful drink. Later the mixture of milk and egg was adjusted with flavored syrups in the same manner as carbonated water, and was a featured item at the soda fountains of drug stores. The Chicago based Walgreen’s added malted milk powder, invented by a Walgreen’s chemist as a readily digestible source of protein for children and invalids.

Exactly when ice cream entered the mix is uncertain, but prior to the invention of the electric blender ice cream was being added to the drink, presenting a beverage in which the ice cream floated, similar to the ice cream soda. Once the blender was introduced in the early twentieth century the aerated milk shake and malted milk shake grew in popularity, spurred by Walgreen’s soda fountains marketing them as healthful drinks.

The stemmed electric milk shake blending machine was introduced in 1922, and malts and shakes of all flavors and varieties became popular. In the parlance of the day a milk shake was a beverage sans ice cream, and a frosted milk shake was a beverage in which one or two scoops of ice cream had been added. Soda fountains became equipped with machines which could blend several beverages at a time in the 1930s. The term malt shop entered the American lexicon during that decade.

Soda fountains, drugstores, dime stores, and ice cream parlors displayed their milk shake blending machines prominently. The blenders were usually made of shimmering chrome or stainless steel, and the duties of the soda jerks of the day included keeping the blenders spotless. Shakes were served to the customer with the blending vessel alongside, containing a bit extra which the glass holding the shake was too small to accommodate.

In the 1960s the fast food industry introduced powdered shake mixes which were prepared inside a mixing machine and delivered to a paper cup through a spigot in a manner similar to soft serve ice cream. By that time ice cream milk shakes and malts – a distinctly American invention – had become popular all over the world. By the end of the twentieth century the ice cream milk shake had returned to the bar, with high end drinks containing brandy, whiskey, and even vodka, becoming fashionable.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
Advertising of the 1920s for Bassett’s stand in Reading Terminal, Philadelphia. Wikimedia

Low fat ice cream

In order to accommodate the calorie conscious who nonetheless couldn’t give up their ice cream, the commercial ice cream industry introduced low fat ice creams in the late twentieth century. In reality, these weren’t a new invention of the industry, they were merely a relabeling of products which had been available for many years, known as ice milk. The term ice milk was applied to products which weren’t qualified to be labelled ice cream.

Under federal standards, a product called ice cream must contain a minimum of 10% milkfat. Some premium brands contain higher percentages of milkfats, up to 16% in some cases. Those products which contained less than ten percent were labeled ice milk. Ice milk usually contained the same amount of sweeteners and flavoring as ice cream, but the lower content of milkfats allowed it to be produced and sold more cheaply than its richer cousin.

In the 1990s, in step with America’s steadily growing healthy eating movement, the dairy and ice cream industries successfully lobbied the government to allow them to change the designation ice milk to the more health conscious low fat ice cream. Where ice milk had usually been less expensive to the consumer buying it prepackaged, low fat ice cream usually carried the same price as regular ice cream from the same producer.

Frozen desserts which carry less milkfat than the low fat ice cream were usually sold as sherbets, and those with no milkfat at all were sorbets, in the United States. Some products which resembled ice cream but weren’t were simply labeled frozen dairy or non-dairy desserts. Typically ice creams and other frozen desserts are more than 50% water, often up to as much as 60%, most of which comes from the milk used to produce the ice cream.

Ice cream in the United States was often labelled as being Philadelphia style. That is a reference to its ingredients; true Philadelphia style meant that it was made from cream, flavoring (such as fruit) and sugar, and nothing else. Ice creams labeled French style, such as French Vanilla, are made from custards made from egg yolks which are then frozen, and are usually higher in calorie content as a result.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
A 1973 Carvel advertisement offers nineteenth century prices, for a day. Wikimedia


The most popular flavors of ice cream in the United States have long been routinely listed as vanilla and chocolate. Vanilla no doubt was boosted by its versatility, since it is used in sundaes, sodas, shakes, on top of pies, in baked Alaska, Bananas Foster and other prepared desserts, perched on a slice of cake, in root beer floats, and in many other uses. But there has been no end to the development of new flavors, which have increased in number since ice cream was first made.

There are regional favorites in areas of the country which are unheard of elsewhere. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and much of New England there are fans of Brown Bread ice cream, which was created in Nova Scotia by blending Grape Nuts cereal into vanilla ice cream in 1919. Since then many variations of the ice cream, which also goes by other names, have evolved, including the blending of cereal into other flavors.

Garlic ice cream is a mixture of garlic and vanilla ice cream, featured at many garlic festivals. Oyster ice cream is nearly as old as ice cream itself in North America, was a favorite of Dolley Madison, and tastes sort of like a cold oyster stew. In Pennsylvania a flavor known as Teaberry ice cream, with a minty taste, became popular. The teaberry was also used as the flavoring agent for Clark’s Teaberry Chewing Gum. Tiger tail ice cream, flavored with orange and licorice, grew popular in Canada and along the border.

Since the 1970s an ice cream flavored with green tea has seen growing popularity in the United States. In the American south, where pralines are looked upon favorably as a go to cookie, the ice cream flavor pralines and cream is found with regularity. On both US coasts, charcoal flavored ice cream became touted for its unproven benefits when detoxing, though it has the unhappy side effect of blackening the lips, gums and teeth of the consumer.

American chains such as Howard Johnson’s (28) and Baskin-Robbins (31) touted the various choices of flavors available to draw customers, as many regional chains still do, changing the options seasonally or monthly. Ice cream has been flavored with pepper and pumpkins, raspberries and roses, grapes and garlic and just about any other flavor which can be imagined. There will no doubt be many more, as ice cream continues to evolve.

Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America
The bright orange roof and the sign announcing 28 flavors made Howard Johnson’s a welcome sight. Wikimedia

Ice cream in America

Per capita, Americans lead the world in the consumption of ice cream, averaging in the first decade of the 21st century just over 23 pounds of the stuff per every man, woman, and child. Since many Americans feed it to their pets they should be included too. In response to demand, the United States produced, in 2015 alone, nearly 1 billion gallons of ice cream, which does not count the ice cream made at home and in restaurant kitchens.

America’s Joy Cone Company, which was formed in 1918 by an immigrant from Lebanon, has grown to produce more than two billion ice cream cones per year, making it the world’s largest maker of cake, waffle, and sugar cones. Even with that number of ice cream cones available on the market, some ice cream manufacturers prefer to make their own, such as Vermont based Ben & Jerry’s. And not all ice cream is eaten from cones.

Books and magazine articles, as well as online sites, list the best vacations for ice cream lovers, the best cities for them to live in, based on the quality and variety of the ice cream available in their environs, and the best universities and colleges to attend based on the local ice cream. Nearly all of America’s ice cream manufacturers offer tours of their facilities and samples of their products, which make them popular places to visit.

From being a luxury food item for the elite, enjoyed only by those who could afford it, ice cream grew to being an industry which contributed almost $40 billion to the nation’s economy by the early twenty first century. It has also created whole industries based around what Americans want to put under, on top, or alongside their ice cream when they consume it, a list of toppings, syrups, sauces, and other confections which adds to the joy of eating.

In 2015, 40% of American ice cream retailers and manufacturers reported an increase in demand for premium brands of ice cream, an indication that America is nowhere near having its fill. Though ice cream consumption fluctuates through the year – June and July are the peak consumption months – it remains popular throughout the seasons in the United States and around the world.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Explore The Delicious History of Ice Cream”, by Tori Avey, PBS online, July 10, 2012

“The Soda Fountain”, by Joseph L. Morrison, American Heritage Magazine, August 1962

“Ice Cream History and Folklore”, by Douglas H. Goff, Dairy Science and Technology, online

“Latrobe’s banana split a sweet ‘Taste of America'”, by Rachel Smith, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 22, 2006

“The Great American Ice Cream Book”, by Paul Dickson, 1972

“Carvel History”, by Carvel, online

“Ice Cream Ingredients”, by Douglas H. Goff, Dairy Science and Technology, online

“Andrew Zimmern’s Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, and Wonderful Foods”, by Andrew Zimmern, 2012

“Ice Cream Sales & Trends”, by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), online