The History of Ice Cream Trucks

On a hot summer day across the United States, ice cream is the sweet treat of choice for adults and children alike. Smooth, sweet, cold, and with plenty of flavor options, it has a history worth knowing. 

Since its early rudimentary invention in China around 200 BC, the cold treat has made leaps and bounds in texture, type, and flavor. Europe’s wealthy fought to have its secrets and would often pay their chefs to keep the secrets from leaking into the general population. Every area cultivated their own spin on the basic recipe, each of which can still be seen today. 

And the delivery system of ice cream evolved from personal chefs in royal European households having the recipe to being able to walk into any grocery store and find a plethora of flavors.

Yet, every summer, there is one kind of delivery system that is recognized by children and adults, with a simple song heralding its oncoming arrival. The ice cream truck is a summer staple that all children recognize, but it has an interesting history many people don’t know.

Before the Ice Cream Truck

Before anyone had the idea to deliver ice cream via truck, there were people delivering ice via truck. These workers, known as icemen, sold ice out of a wagon, cart, or truck. Normal people would buy this ice to put in their iceboxes to keep their food cold because it would still be a few decades before the modern refrigerator became accessible. While not as exciting or glamorous as delivering ice cream, icemen had an important part to play.

Also before the ice cream truck, people were selling frozen treats out of carts in New York City. These vendors were known for selling ice cream sandwiches, which were easy to hold and eat while walking through the streets of the city. This popularized ice cream as a street food. 

The First Ice Cream Truck

Old ice cream truck with ice cream cone It wasn’t until 1920 when Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio was struck with the idea to truly make ice cream mobile. He created the first ice cream truck as we know them today. With the boom of accessible automobiles thanks to the Henry Ford company and America’s love of ice cream, Burt decided to combine the two. Thus, the ice cream truck was born. 

Burt purchased 12 refrigerator trucks and staffed them with ice cream men in pristine white uniforms. The uniforms were specifically to show parents his product was safe, unlike the disease-spreading penny licks that were popular in years past. The ice cream trucks specialized in Burt’s Good Humor bars, which were the first ever ice cream bars that featured a popsicle stick to hold while eating.

Everything from the way the ice cream men greeted their customers to the routes the drivers would take was calculated to impress as many people as possible and bring in a tidy profit, as well. 

When the Great Depression affected the United States, Burt introduced a new ice cream bar that costed just five cents—half of what a normal Good Humor bar costed. Even through the depression, Good Humor and its ice cream trucks remained relevant in the minds of Americans due to the low price and the joy it brought.

A Challenger Appears

Before World War II, many of the branded businesses like Good Humor had an old rival return – the street peddler and his pushcart. They brought the carts, cheap treats and with a few using unsanitary practices, causing some old diseases to make a comeback in overcrowded areas. But with World War II rationing, many of the small ice cream trucks, ice cream pushcart vendors, ice cream parlors, and associated businesses didn’t survive the sugar rationing. 

Since its conception in 1920, the Good Humor ice cream trucks were the only ice cream trucks around that held any weight. However, that changed in 1956 when a challenger appeared. 

While Good Humor specialized in ice cream bars and things of that nature, what it didn’t have was soft serve ice cream. Founded by William and James Conway, Mister Softee appeared on the scene with ice cream trucks that sold soft serve ice cream cones, sundaes, and shakes. Mister Softee also set itself apart from Good Humor by playing its own jingle over speakers to attract people to it. Before this, ice cream trucks just used bells and chimes to alert people.

Mister Softee had its issues. For the first two years of its life, the soft serve ice cream makers had a lot of issues and would break down—often in the middle of making someone’s ice cream cone. However, the Conways were able to work through the issues and perfect their ice cream trucks

The success of Mister Softee showed America that there was room for more ice cream trucks, and a boom began. Of course, both Good Humor and Mister Softee remained on top as fan favorites.

Good Humor’s Fate

In the battle between Good Humor and Mister Softee for America’s favorite ice cream truck, there would eventually be a victor. 

In 1976, all of Good Humor’s ice cream trucks were sold to ice cream distributors and private buyers for $1,000-3,000 each. However, this wasn’t the end for Good Humor. Instead of throwing in the towel and giving up, Good Humor instead treated this as just retiring from the mobile ice cream business. Instead, they decided to change their focus to distributing their frozen treats to grocery stores, where they could be purchased by anyone at any time. You can still buy Good Humor ice cream products in stores today.

Advances in Ice Cream Truck Technology

Ice cream in a freezer Ice cream trucks have changed a lot since their original conception. In 1920, the freezers used in the trucks weren’t even electric. They were filled with dry ice to cool the ice cream bars and ensure they didn’t melt before they could be sold. When the technology allowed it, electrical refrigerators could finally be installed in ice cream trucks. This is one of the most important upgrades because it meant sellers no longer had to race against melting ice to get their bars sold. 

Trucks also expanded the types of ice cream they supplied. Good Humor started off with pre-made ice cream bars that could easily be given to customers. While that was convenient, it limited the kind of ice cream customers could buy. Mister Softee improved this by including soft serve ice cream makers in their trucks so customers could eat ice cream in a cone made in a waffle cone maker. Some ice cream trucks even had hard ice cream for people who prefer hand-dipped ice cream scooped with an ice cream scoop, but every ice cream truck usually focuses on one type of ice cream to sell.

Trucks gradually improved the way they kept their ice cream cooled their product, expelled exhaust, and so on. Mister Softee in particular was open about how they used Vortec engines and Electro-Freeze soft serve machines in their trucks. As time went on, everything about ice cream trucks was changed and improved—including how they attracted their customers.

Ice Cream Tunes

Nowadays, when you think of ice cream trucks, you often think of the songs they play to alert people that an ice cream truck was eminent. However, in the early life of the ice cream truck, ice cream men used bells and chimes to do the job.

The first ice cream trucks to use a song to attract customers was the Mister Softee trucks. The Conways hired Grey Advertising to create their very own custom jingle to play in all of their ice cream trucks. By 1960, all Mister Softee trucks had been implemented with speakers to play “Jingle and Chimes,” their new theme song. 

Other ice cream trucks followed suit, installing speakers in their trucks and playing popular children’s songs to attract customers. Some of the favorite songs trucks used included “Turkey in the Straw”, “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”, “Pop! Goes the Weasel”, “The Entertainer”, and “Home on the Range”.  

Other countries also have their own favorite songs to use on ice cream trucks. For instance, “Greensleeves” is a favorite in Australia and New Zealand, while “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “You Are My Sunshine” are popular in the United Kingdom. 

Rise of the Modern Ice Cream Truck

Through the 70s and 80s, the ice cream truck turned into an iconic symbol of a lazy summer for kids of all ages. A variety of treats were available and an ice cream truck could be heard in even the smallest towns. 

Man service ice cream from a food truck Prices soared, even as the treat was made for pennies on the dollar. In the late 90s, ice cream trucks lost popularity due to the lowered quality, high prices, and continued loss of big-name brands in the ice cream truck business.

As the 21st century arrived, the ice cream truck was all but forgotten in many places. Specialty ice cream shops with the product made on-site in a variety of flavors rose in favor, especially in big cities.  

In 2007, at the very beginning of the oncoming recession, food trucks trickled into the consciousness of foodies. Able to take the food to the masses, many looked to the past and found old Good Humor trucks. After refurbishing, many new entrepreneurs took to the streets, reviving the mobile vendor of our favorite sweet treat. 

At the beginning of the resurgence of ice cream trucks, many sold the old stand-bys of ice cream treats. Others, however, found the old treats to not up to the quality they wanted. Instead, they made their own ice cream, created unique flavors, and sold them in the same way as a food truck.

Now, ice cream trucks can be found across the country carrying ice cream that people who saw the original trucks in the 20s wouldn’t be able to believe. Nowadays, you can find trucks that serve square ice cream, vegan ice cream, ice cream sandwiches made with homemade cookies, gourmet ice cream, and even ice cream flavored with Earl Grey tea or wasabi. You can even rent an ice cream truck for an event if you want to.

There are even smartphone apps creates specifically for ice cream truck aficionados to help them locate trucks. After a short fall from grace, the ice cream truck has now found its niche in the ever-growing foodie world. 

Our Favorite Trucks Aren’t Going Anywhere

Ice cream built a place in American society over a three hundred year timeframe. Brought to our shores as people migrated from around the world, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, with the pushcart vendors, that it went from the purview of the wealthy to readily available for everyone who could pay for a scoop. 

As time and technology progressed, the pushcart turned into the ice cream truck, and the ice cream truck evolved into what we know it as today. Though they lost popularity at the close of the 20th century, ice cream trucks have made a place in almost every person’s summer memories. 

The reinvention of the ice cream truck in the 21st century brought us a new indulgence of an old friend. Exciting new ideas, flavors, and recipes permeate the landscape, and adults have found their joy of childhood memories all over, as well as the formation of memories for their children.

The new evolution of the iconic ice cream truck has proven that these trucks aren’t going to disappear from our consciousness anytime soon.