The History of Ice Cream

Ryan asks: Who invented ice cream?


No specific person has officially been credited with inventing ice cream. Its origins date back as far as 200 B.C., when people in China created a dish of rice mixed with milk that was then frozen by being packed in snow. The Chinese King Tang of Shang is thought to have had over ninety “ice men” who mixed flour, camphor, and buffalo milk with ice. The Chinese are also credited with inventing the first “ice cream machine.” They had pots they filled with a syrupy mixture, which they then packed into a mixture of snow and salt.

Other early ice cream-like confectionery indulgers include Alexander the Great, who enjoyed eating snow flavoured with honey. Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar of Rome was said to have sent people up to the mountains to collect snow and ice which would then be flavoured with juice and fruit—kind of like a first century snow cone. These early “ice creams” were obviously a luxury indulged in by the rich, as not everyone had the ability to send servants up the mountains to collect snow for them.

One of the earliest forerunners of modern ice cream was a recipe brought back to Italy from China by Marco Polo. The recipe was very like what we would call sherbet. From there, it is thought that Catherine de Medici brought the dessert to France when she married King Henry II in 1533. In the 1600s, King Charles I of England was said to have enjoyed “cream ice” so much that he paid his chef to keep the recipe a secret from the public, believing it to be solely a royal treat. However, these two stories appeared for the first time in the 19th century, many years after they were said to have taken place, so may or may not be true.

One of the first places to serve ice cream to the general public in Europe was Café Procope in France, which started serving it in the late 17th century. The ice cream was made from a combination of milk, cream, butter, and eggs. However, it was still primarily a treat for the elite and was not yet popular among every class.

The first mention of ice cream in America appeared in 1744, when a Scottish colonist visited the house of Maryland Governor Thomas Bladen wrote about the delicious strawberry ice cream he had while dining there. The first advertisement for ice cream in America appeared in 1777 in the New York Gazette, in which Philip Lenzi said ice cream was “available almost every day” at his shop.

Early American presidents loved ice cream, too. President George Washington purchased around $200 worth of ice cream (about $3,000 today) in the summer of 1790 and also owned two pewter ice cream pots. However, the “origin” story that his wife Martha once left sweet cream on the back porch one evening and returned in the morning to find ice cream is definitely not true. Thomas Jefferson created his own recipe for vanilla ice cream, and President Madison’s wife served strawberry ice cream at her husband’s second inaugural banquet.

Up until the 1800s, ice cream was mostly a treat reserved for special occasions as it couldn’t be stored for long due to the lack of insulated freezers. People would have ice cut from lakes in the winter and store it in the ground or brick ice houses, which were insulated with straw. Ice cream at this time was made using the “pot freezer” method, which involved placing a bowl of cream in a bucket of ice and salt (note: not mixing the ice and salt with the cream as many believe). In 1843, this method was replaced by the hand-cranked churn which was patented by Nancy Johnson. The churn created smoother ice cream faster than the pot freezer method.

Ice cream wasn’t big business until Jacob Fussell built an ice cream factory in Pennsylvania in 1851. Fussell was a milk dealer who bought dairy products from farmers in Pennsylvania and sold them in Baltimore. He found that an unstable demand often left him with a lot of extra milk and cream, which he then turned into ice cream. His business was so successful that he opened several other factories. Because mass production cut the cost of ice cream significantly, it became much more popular and a more viable treat for people of lower classes.

Ice cream received a further boost when, in the 1870s, Carl von Linde of Germany invented industrial refrigeration. This, along with other technological advances like steam power, motorized vehicles, and electric power, made ice cream that much easier to produce, transport, and store. Next time you grab an ice cream cone, you can thank the Industrial Revolution for your treat!

Due to its new, widespread availability in the late 1800s, additional ice cream recipes began to take form. Soda fountains emerged in 1874, and with them came the invention of the ice cream soda. Religious leaders condemned indulging in ice cream sodas on Sundays and set up “blue laws” banning their serving, which is thought by many to be how ice cream sundaes came about.  Evidence seems to indicate that shop owners got around the problem by serving the ice cream with syrup and none of the carbonation and called them “ice cream Sundays.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they later modified the name to “sundae” to avoid association with the Sabbath. However, several cities take credit for being the home of the ice cream sundae and it can’t be proved that getting around blue laws was truly how the first person came up with the idea of an ice cream sundae, though it does seem plausible enough. But whatever the case, this seems to have been at least partially how the sundae was popularized.

Contrary to popular belief, the ever-popular ice cream cone was not invented at the 1904 World’s Fair.  For instance, ice cream cones are mentioned in the 1888 Mrs. Marshall’s Cookbook and the idea of serving ice cream in cones is thought to have been in place long before that. However, the practice didn’t become popular until 1904. As to who specifically at the World’s Fair served the cones that popularized the treat, nobody knows exactly.  The story goes that an ice cream vendor at the St. Louis World Fair ran out of cardboard cups in which to serve his ice cream. The stall beside him had waffles on offer, but due to the heat he wasn’t selling very many. Thus, and offer was made to roll up his waffles to make cones, and the resulting product was a hit.  However, that may well just be a legend as there are no documented specifics, like the names of the vendors, to be able to verify the story and many ice cream vendors at that World’s Fair have claimed to be the ones to serve the cones there first.  Whatever the case, it was the World’s Fair that popularized the cones and certainly some ice cream vendor or vendors were behind it, whether by happy accident as the story goes or because they planned it that way has been lost to history.

Ice cream was first sold in grocery stores in the 1930s. World War II further popularized the dessert as the treat was great for troop morale and became somewhat of a symbol of America at the time (so much so that Italy’s Mussolini banned ice cream to avoid the association). This war time ice cream resulted in the biggest producer of ice cream in America in 1943 being the United States Armed Forces.

Today, it is estimated that over 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream and related frozen dairy products are produced annually in the United States alone. In addition, U.S. citizens eat a whopping four gallons of ice cream per person each year on average.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Café Procope, which served the first public ice cream in Europe, is still in operation today and is the oldest continuously run restaurant in Paris.
  • The most popular flavours of ice cream are chocolate and vanilla. However, in Merida, Venezuela there is an ice cream parlour that serves 860 different flavours, including mushrooms in wine, macaroni and cheese, and cream of crab. To each his own! As for myself, I keep dreaming of the Nutella gelato I had in Venice—yum!
  • The popular Dippin’ Dots ice cream is made by freezing cream with liquid nitrogen. The practice has been in place for many years but has only recently been commercialized.
  • Soft-serve ice cream has been around since the 1930s, and is made by adding air to the ice cream mixture during the freezing process. The result is a softer ice cream that lowered the cost of ice cream even more because it required less in the way of ingredients.
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  • This is incorrect. There are plenty of sites all over that agree the ‘conical’ shaped ice cream cone was likely invented at the 1904 worlds fair by Ernest Hamwi who owned the ice cream cart.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Miranda gunn: There are plenty of sites out there that say a lot of things that aren’t true. 🙂 There are primary documents that prove the ice cream cone was around before 1904, one of which is mentioned in this article.

      • You are correct, in a picture from France, many years before 1904 (I dont remember the year of that picture), showing 3 ladies eating something that must be a cone ice.

    • at least find the best recourse and use it dude

  • I am not sure if this is completley true.

  • I can find know evidence that Mussolini banned ice cream because it was “too American”. In fact, gelato was widely produced, advertised and sold in Italy under his regime.

  • Chinese drank milk huh? Really …that’s strange. I’m pretty sure their cultural history doesn’t include dairy. That’s why most East Asians are lactose intolerant. I think maybe the Chinese just made snow cones or slushies, and ate them in the mountains, because they didn’t have freezers.