Ice Cream History and Folklore

Most of the following material has been extracted from "The History of Ice Cream", written by the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers (IAICM), Washington DC, 1978, now IDFA. As you will note below, however, much of the early history of ice cream remains unproven folklore.

"Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, Charles I of England hosted a sumptuous state banquet for many of his friends and family. The meal, consisting of many delicacies of the day, had been simply superb but the "coup de grace" was yet to come. After much preparation, the King's french chef had concocted an apparently new dish. It was cold and resembled fresh- fallen snow but was much creamier and sweeter than any other after- dinner dessert. The guests were delighted, as was Charles, who summoned the cook and asked him not to divulge the recipe for his frozen cream. The King wanted the delicacy to be served only at the Royal table and offered the cook 500 pounds a year to keep it that way. Sometime later, however, poor Charles fell into disfavour with his people and was beheaded in 1649. But by that time, the secret of the frozen cream remained a secret no more. The cook, named DeMirco, had not kept his promise."

"This story is just one of many of the fascinating tales which surround the evolution of our country's most popular dessert, ice cream. It is likely that ice cream was not invented, but rather came to be over years of similar efforts. Indeed, the Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar is said to have sent slaves to the mountains to bring snow and ice to cool and freeze the fruit drinks he was so fond of. Centuries later, the Italian Marco Polo returned from his famous journey to the Far East with a recipe for making water ices resembling modern day sherbets."

A newly published book, by Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir, Ices: The Definitive Guide, publ. by Hodder and Stoughton, 1993, ISBN 0-340-58335-5, suggests that the historical basis of these tales is skeptical.

What follows is from the opening of the first chapter of their book:

Most books are full of myths about the history of ice cream. According to popular accounts, Marco Polo (1254-1324) saw ice creams being made during his trip to China, and on his return, introduced them to Italy. The myth continues with the Italian chefs of the you Catherine de'Medici taking this magical dish to France when she went there in 1533 to marry the Duc d'Orleans, with Charles I rewarding his own ice-cream maker with a lifetime pension on condition that he did not divulge his secret recipe to anyone, thereby keeping ice cream as a royal prerogative.

Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence to support any of these stories. They would appear to be purely the creation of imaginative nineteenth-century ice-cream makers and vendors. Indeed, we have found no mention of any of these stories before the nineteenth century.

They go on to refute the claims about Marco Polo, Catherine de'Medici, and Charles I (in particular, while the IAICM reference credits DeMirco as the Charles I chef, apparently while other various sources credit 10 different men, there are no records of such a pension being paid to any of Charles I's cooks).

They do go on in their book to discuss history for which there is a record, with (I think) the earliest written record being something made in China.

Chris Clarke, in his 2004 Royal Society of Chemistry monograph "The Science of Ice Cream", points out quite correctly that the history of ice cream is closely associated with the development of refrigeration techniques and can thus be traced in several stages:

  1. Cooling food and rink by mixing it with snow or ice;
  2. The discovery that dissolving salts in water produces cooling;
  3. The discovery (and spread of knowledge) that mixing salts and snow or ice cools even further - mid to late 17th century - the inclusion of cream in the water ices also evolved around this time;
  4. The invention of the ice cream maker in the mid 19th century;
  5. The development of mechanical refrigeration in the later 19th and early 20th centuries - which led to the development of the modern ice cream industry.

Back to the IAICM history....

"In 1774, a caterer named Phillip Lenzi announced in a New York newspaper that he had just arrived from London and would be offering for sale various confections, including ice cream.* Dolley Madison, wife of U.S. President James Madison, served ice cream at her husband's Inaugural Ball in 1813.**

"The first improvement in the manufacture of ice cream (from the handmade way in a large bowl) was given to us by a New Jersey woman, Nancy Johnson, who in 1846 invented the hand-cranked freezer. This device is still familiar to many. By turning the freezer handle, they agitated a container of ice cream mix in a bed of salt and ice until the mix was frozen. Because Nancy Johnson lacked the foresight to have her invention patented, her name does not appear on the patent records.* A similar type of freezer was, however, patented on May 30, 1848, by a Mr. Young who at least had the courtesy to call it the "Johnson Patent Ice Cream Freezer".

*This, however, is not true. On Sep 9, 1843, the US Patent Office issued patent No. 3254 to Mrs. Johnson. The freezer consisted of a tub, a cylinder with close-fitting lid, and a removable dasher. William Young received the 2nd patent and claimed his was an improvement over Johnson's, as both the cylinder and dasher revolved, agitating the ice cream more completely.

"Commercial production was begun in North America in Baltimore, Maryland, 1851, by Mr. Jacob Fussell, now known as the father of the American ice cream industry."

*Readex has published the digital Early American Newspapers, which shows that this advertisement appeared in November 1773:
Paper: Rivington's New-York Gazetteer; Date: 1773-11-25; Iss: 32; Page: [4];

**For a biography of Dolley Madison at the Montpelier, VA site, see Montpelier's Dolley Madison's Bio. An unsubstantiated (by me) story passed on to me regarding Dolley's discovery of ice cream goes like this: "Betty Jackson, a black woman from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, established a tea room on French Street in Wilmington, Delaware, where she sold cakes, fruit, and desserts to wealthy people for their parties. Her son, Jeremiah Shadd, was a butcher, well-known for his ability to cure meat. His wife, known as Aunt Sallie Shadd, achieved legendary status among Wilmington's free black population as the inventor of ice cream. The story was that the butcher Jeremiah purchased Sallie's freedom. Like other members of her family, she went into the catering business and created a new dessert sensation made from frozen cream, sugar, and fruit. Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison, heard about the new dessert, came to Wilmington to try it, and afterward made ice cream a feature of dinners at the White House."

"About 1926 the first commercially-successful continuous process freezer was perfected. The continuous freezer, developed by Clarence Vogt, and later ones produced by other manufacturers, has allowed the ice cream industry to become a mass producer of its product."

The first Canadian to start selling ice cream was Thomas Webb of Toronto, a confectioner, around 1850. William Neilson produced his first commercial batch of ice cream on Gladstone Ave. in Toronto in 1893, and his company produced ice cream at that location for close to 100 years.

After writing this page, I received the following email message:

Date: Thu, 06 Jun 1996
From: Anne Funderburg 

For a documented history of ice cream in the United States, read the just published "Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream" by Anne Funderburg. This book sheds new light on errors created by previous historians. For example, Nancy Johnson lived in Philadelphia and she did have a patent! To order, call Bowling Green State University Popular Press at (419) 372-7865 or fax (419) 372-8095.
The Funderburg book is solely concerned with ice cream history in the United States, and does not discuss any of these earlier myths, although it does give an excellent history of ice cream development in the United States.

Another excellent source of reading on the history and folklore of ice cream is by Paul Dickson, The Great American Ice Cream Book.

Here are links to web pages devoted to the history of the ice cream cone:

Ice Cream Cone

ThoughtCo. - History of Ice Cream

Further on the ice cream cone:

Date: August 30, 2004 

Dear Professor Goff,

At the Ice Screamers convention (Note: as association that celebrates ice cream parlour and soda fountain memorabilia, the leading organization of ice cream collectibles - DG) in July I gave a paper on the ice cream cone and the fact that it was in use in Paris in 1807. Yes 1807. We are planning the celebration of the bicentenary of the cone in 2007. I am happy to send you all details, prints of engravings and references if you would like.

Kindest regards
Robin Weir.

Subject: Award from "Surfing the Net with Kids" 
From: Barbara J. Feldman, 

Congratulations! Your site (Ice Cream History and Folklore) has been rated "Great!" and awarded 3 stars in my syndicated newspaper column "Surfing the Net with Kids". My column appears in many papers nationally including San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Indianapolis Star News, Contra Costa Times and Winston Salem Journal. 

Barbara J. Feldman
"Surfing the Net with Kids"