Nothing beats a frozen treat on a hot, summer day. This may seem like a cliché, but in fact, it has been an important part of many cultures for thousands of years. Trying to track down the history of ice cream can often feel as slippery as an Eskimo Pie in the middle of July. Yet, people still try. There are things such as American, Persian, Mediterranean, Italian, and Chinese ice cream.
Many regions claim to have started the trend. Hundreds of people throughout history have had their names attached to the cold dessert, whether it is true or not. Up until the early modern period of the 16th century and later, it is nearly impossible to verify any claims. However, each civilization has its own background and development of ice cream into the delights that people can eat today. Telling that story remains important, even if it is not entirely based on fact.
Table of Contents
- When Was Ice Cream Discovered?
- What Was the First Flavor of Ice Cream?
- People Associated With the Origin of Ice Cream
- Expansion in Popularity
- The First Ice Cream Parlor
- Ice Cream Variations
- Other Historical Facts About Ice Cream
When Was Ice Cream Discovered?
Like any great invention, many civilizations claim a cultural history related to the origin of ice cream. People may not be surprised to learn that several regions with hot summers and access to at least a little snow or ice eventually created their own version of a frozen dessert. As with any food, people added to it as they learned new techniques. The spread of information led to the introduction and popularity of ice cream as a treat, particularly for the wealthy and powerful.
Evidence suggests that the earliest introduction may have begun as early as 4,000 years ago. Recipes from several ancient civilizations start around 2,000-2,500 years ago, indicating an increase in interest and accessibility. The growth of vast empires at this time provided both a spark and an easy way for people to try out different kinds of ice cream and adapt them to their own cultures.
Persia may or may not be the first to tackle the frozen treat, but it certainly has a varied history concerning the subject. At first, this region with hot, dry summers and mild winters made a frozen take on rice pudding mixed with rosewater. About 100 years later, the Persians started taking syrup made from fruit juice and honey and setting it in snow to freeze. They called it sharbat, and many historians consider it a predecessor to sherbet and sorbet.
With the limited amount of information available from this time period, it is somewhat difficult to know for sure where the Persians got the idea. Some experts believe that trade routes as part of the First Persian Empire made the difference. Groups in China may have been producing frozen treats for centuries by this point, and Persian influence certainly spread that far at the time.
Although most people might not associate ice cream with health, one of history’s most famous physicians did. Hippocrates, living in Kos around 400 BCE, believed that consuming ice was an important aspect of a person’s well-being. Many people enjoyed mixing fresh fruit, honey, and snow into a cool dessert that they could enjoy on a hot day.
Alexander the Great got more than just a significant portion of the Persian Empire when he started a series of military campaigns in 334 BCE. He also picked up a taste for sharbat, an approach to an old cultural favorite that he would bring to Greece. The notable difference shows that while the Ancient Greeks mixed their treat with snow, the Persians used snow to chill it. This became an important distinction in the centuries to come, when the earliest ice cream scientists began to understand the importance of the perfect amount of water content.
Although ways to verify this are few and far-between, a few experts believe that China probably takes the cake for the first development of ice cream. Some say that the earliest attempts in China arrived around 2,000 BCE, while others claim that China started making iced treats around 200 BCE. The uniqueness of recipes coming from this region is not just singular in date, however. Chinese ice cream makers also made innovations in content and technique. Where many cultures focused on frozen desserts made of fruit and some kind of sweetener like honey, China is known for the first milk-based ice cream around 600 CE.
China’s major contribution to the development of ice cream comes off salty, not sweet. Specifically, Chinese ice cream producers determined that the mixture of potassium nitrate and snow yielded a lower freezing point for water. The chemical, commonly known as saltpeter, is widely available.
This is an important innovation because the sugar and fat content of certain frozen treats changes how it freezes. Setting fruit juice in snow eventually turns it into a frozen block. Adding honey or nectar lowers the freezing point, creating more of a slush. Similarly, the higher fat percentage of milk-based ice cream requires a colder environment in order to freeze with an ideal texture. The addition of salt made it easier to freeze the ice cream and preserve it.
The Ancient Romans were famous collectors of other cultures, and ice cream has a role to play in this. They freely borrowed from belief systems, holidays, and recipes. It is perhaps unsurprising that the empire that took so freely from Greek mythology would also take on the Greeks’ favorite frozen treat. People often question whether or not the Roman Emperor Nero ever played his fiddle. His love of fruit ices sweetened with honey, on the other hand, is nearly as well-known. Legends say that he sent slaves into the mountains to gather snow so that he could have access to the dessert at anytime.
The Roman Empire’s contribution to ice cream comes primarily in the direction the recipe spread. While Greece and Persia moved primarily north and east, the Roman Empire connected many parts of Europe. This means that while the Romans are not known for their own ice cream innovations, they made it easier for Europeans in later civilizations to find these recipes.
Development of new recipes for ice cream continued throughout the centuries. By the 16th century CE, people living under the Mughal Empire in India had a fresh take to share. Kulfi, a version of ice cream that remains extremely popular in the region today, is a dairy-based dessert. It tends to be thicker and richer than other ice cream recipes, largely because it relies on evaporated milk.
Although Indians used fruit like mango to sweeten the dish, they also called on other ingredients for flavor. The earliest recipes for kulfi included local ingredients such as:
The recipe would include cooking the milk slowly to thicken it and caramelize the sugar. People would take the mixture, pour it into a mold, and submerge the mold into ice and salt. As a result, historians often consider this a fairly independent innovation, although it comes much later than other regions.
Like many things, the spread of ice cream treats in Europe started in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. It spread out from there, heading to France, England and Spain. Italians strongly preferred their gelato, but when it arrived in France sometime in the 16th century, the concept began to blossom. The French had developed several recipes over the years, including ways to make ice cream firmer and richer. One recipe called for 20 egg yolks to a pint of cream and frequent churning to create the ideal consistency.
Until industrialization, England was often the last to pick up continental developments and variations on the treat. This is partly why ice cream was a mainstream treat in the Mediterranean by the middle of the 18th Century, but much harder to find in England or the American colonies at the time. Experts relay this sense through a story of England’s King Charles I. According to legend, he was so secretive about his ice cream recipe that he put his chef to death for sharing it. Historians say that there is no evidence to establish the truth of this tale, but it does indicate a feeling of the dessert’s broad inaccessibility until the 18th century.
Indigenous people in North America also had recipes for frozen treats that date back thousands of years. For example, Native peoples in what would become Alaska made a nondairy ice cream called akutaq using:
- fat from reindeer or seals
- local berries
- fish, moose, or caribou
This ice cream is not necessarily designed to be sweet. Its frozen nature made it easy for people to transport in a cold climate.
Conventional ice cream recipes came to the early United States largely through British colonists. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are sometimes credited with inventing ice cream, although this has been widely debunked. Both hired chefs with special recipes for a custard-based ice cream. Historians credit both presidents with a firm love of ice cream. One of the earliest American ice cream recipes was written and possibly created by Jefferson.
What Was the First Flavor of Ice Cream?
Documenting a definitive history of ice cream is difficult, and nowhere more obvious than on the subject of flavor. Ice cream’s development over millennia means that treats people might have considered ice cream 2,000 years ago would look much more like a snow cone in the present. This is partially because of innovations in farming techniques over thousands of years, which make modern fruits, spices, and other ingredients only vaguely related to their ancestors.
As such, the first ice cream flavor depends on the culture and the period. Earliest recipes relied on fruits like pomegranates, grapes, or lemons. As the centuries passed, sweetening became an increasingly important element. Some experts claim that the first documented ice cream flavor was honey, a preferred treat for Alexander the Great. This means that fruit-flavored sherbet and sorbet is much closer to the frozen dessert’s origin. A person making ice cream in the 16th or 17th century would have been much more likely to flavor it with orange blossom or rosewater than vanilla or chocolate, which were relatively difficult to access at the time. Vanilla, the best-known ice cream flavor of the present day, did not become particularly popular until the 18th century.
People Associated With the Origin of Ice Cream
As with any tale that goes back thousands of years, there are many people who gained attribution for their contribution to ice cream. Some of these people simply had an experience somewhat larger than life, like Marco Polo or Catherine de Medici. Their historical importance makes it easy for people to attach claims to them that may or may not be accurate. Hundreds of years later, it is much more difficult for historians to determine what is true and what is merely a sweet story.
As for the 18th century, it became clearer who had played a role in the development, refinement, or accessibility of ice cream worldwide. People like Jacob Fussell and Hannah Glasse had published writings that modern historians can verify. Thus, while it is practically impossible to prove claims of who was the first to introduce or popularize ice cream in a particular area, a few people still have an important tale worth sharing.
Marco Polo’s travels took him far along the Silk Road in the late 13th century. There, he found an interesting development that he brought back to share with his native Venice that contributed to the invention of gelato. The Italian city-states had known about sharbat for centuries at this point. It was primarily a treat for the rich, and not particularly accessible to anyone else. Polo returned from his exploration with the Chinese concept of adding milk to the mixture before freezing, and using salt to decrease the freezing point.
Like modern gelato, this ice cream had very little air in it. Because of the lack of churning, the ice cream popular to the region remained solid, rich, and decadent. Its broad accessibility and popularity in the Italian city-states ensured that the technique would continue to pass westward, which it did over the next few-hundred years.
Catherine de Medici
Catherine de Medici was undoubtedly a very powerful figure in early modern French history, with many legends and dubious credits to her name. Her contribution to the western spread of ice cream is just one of them. As the story goes, Catherine brought many new culinary ideas from Florence to France when she married Henry II. These include such common Italian staples as pasta and parmesan cheese, but also sorbet.
At present, Catherine stands more as a shining example of modern marketing than an arbiter of progress. Historians discount her contribution as lacking evidence, generally saying that attaching ice cream to a famous monarch and politician lends credibility where there often is none. Some food experts suggest that many other well-known Italians could also have popularized the frozen dessert in France, like Leonardo da Vinci.
It is not entirely clear when ice cream made it to England, but Hannah Glasse may get the credit for the most popular documentation of it. In the 18th century, Glasse wrote down a series of recipes that she had found from other sources. She added a variety of her own concoctions and published them in 1747. This book became enormously successful. A later edition contained a recipe for a custard-based ice cream.
Glasse serves as an example of the importance of documentation. Recipes for ice cream from the American colonies date prior to her book, as early as 1744. However, the widespread use of Glasse’s book as a resource for the general population contributed to familiarity with the technique. Much of Glasse’s own history was lost until 20th-century historians started digging to find it, but copies of her most famous recipe book remain.
Augustus Jackson is widely credited as the father of ice cream. While the title is a bit misleading, his innovations to the frozen dessert still retain importance. A black man raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jackson served as a cook in the White House in the 1820s. He learned an ice cream recipe in his time there, and believed he could improve upon it when he left.
His approaches launched ice cream as a confection that would eventually become available for mass-market consumption. He is credited with developing many flavors that are popular today. Historians also note his innovations in packaging ice cream in such a way that it would not spoil as quickly. The tin cans he used allowed him to transport ice cream to local parlors and street vendors. This made it easier for him to produce larger quantities at the time and sell it through his catering business.
Industrialization in the 1800s prompted a number of potential improvements to the production and sale of ice cream, and Jacob Fussell took advantage of this opportunity. Fussell ran a business in Baltimore, Marylan, which packaged fresh dairy products from Pennsylvania farmers and sold them to consumers. The problem that he had was inconsistent sales. People bought milk on a regular basis, but the same could not be said for cream. On occasion, he would have far too much cream that would spoil before he could sell it.
His first step was logical, turning the cream into ice cream. At the time, most people who produced and sold ice cream were small-scale confectioners and caterers like Augustus Jackson. Developments in mechanization and refrigeration made it easier for Fussell to store ice cream and transport it. Since ice cream kept frozen will not go bad the same way as fresh milk or cream, Fussell realized he could take his ice cream production to a larger scale. Specifically, the Baltimore population of about 170,000 hungry people caught his eye.
In 1851, Fussell opened the first ice cream factory in Pennsylvania. This factory took advantage of machine technology to produce ice cream and transport it by train. In time, he opened many more factories. Producing ice cream for thousands of people at a time allowed him to cut costs, which made it more affordable. This increased ice cream’s popularity in the United States. Others would build on Fussell’s ideas, making the treat more accessible all over the country. In 1951, the city of Baltimore celebrated this accomplishment by designating June 15th as Ice Cream Day.
Expansion in Popularity
An increasingly connected world throughout early modern and modern history serves as the backdrop for ice cream’s expansion in popularity. Starting in the ancient world, frozen treats were a delightful-but-difficult dessert to make. People who lived in areas that did not have moderate winters or at least seasonal access to snow found it difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to ice cream.
This changed throughout the Age of Exploration, which connected populations thousands of miles apart. The spread of ideas meant that someone devising a recipe in south Asia in the 17th century might have sent it through European channels on to the Americas. These connections brought not only spices and recipes, but also information about technology and implements that made ice cream taste better or last longer.
By the 18th Century, interest in ice cream was continuing to grow. Chefs and ice cream makers started to compare recipes and refine their choices. This led to the development of many different styles of ice cream. For example, Italian gelato calls for eggs and cream but minimal churning, which creates a heavier texture. On the other hand, French and English recipes used a custard base. The egg acted as an emulsifier, which provided a smoother texture for the frozen result. American Philadelphia-style ice cream does not use eggs or custard, making it easier and faster to produce.
Ultimately, innovations by people like Jacob Fussell set up ice cream to be nearly as popular in the 1800s as it is today. Mass production and sales, along with long-distance transport, made it easy for someone producing ice cream in Pennsylvania to sell it all along the East Coast. These developments would continue well into the 20th and 21st centuries, ensuring that the treat would retain its cultural relevance.
The First Ice Cream Parlor
The rise of ice cream’s popularity in the mainstream led to the creation of the ice cream parlor late in the 17th century. Where aristocrats and other people in power had private chefs they could trust to make the treat, others needed someone with the means to freeze the concoctions. In 1686, a Sicilian ice cream maker opened Café Procope in Paris. The chef served gelato in small bowls to his elite customers. This parlor is still open to the public, although it had an extended closure late in the 19th century.
The introduction of the ice cream parlor in America had a decidedly less bourgeois feel. Like so many other parts of ice cream culture, it started in Philadelphia in about 1790. Italians claim the credit on this as well, with a shop of confections that featured ice cream at the top of the list of services. By the time Mark Twain was traveling the country in the 1850s, the ice cream saloon was a common feature in the east and west. The widespread accessibility of ice cream made possible by industrialization and innovation turned the ice cream parlor into a staple for almost any town or city.
Ice Cream Variations
In some parts of the world, ice cream today looks much like it did hundreds of years ago. In other places, progress is the order of the day. As soon as ice cream took hold of the population at-large in the 19th century, people began to experiment with it. Eager to offer customers something that no one else could, ideas erupted regularly from the 1870s to the 1950s and beyond.
Even in an age of patent applications and published documents, it can still be difficult to track down a definable invention date of items like the ice cream sundae or cone. There are many regions and people who claim that their ancestor was the first to try a unique approach like the banana split. These innovations continued into the 21st century, when people still look for the most creative way to share a frozen treat.
Ice Cream Sundae
Most people are familiar with an ice cream sundae and its unusual spelling. If the legends are true, it started as a way to avoid mixing two decadent desserts. The story relates to blue laws, a set of rules or regulations governing when people can engage in certain types of businesses. In the second half of the 19th century, the same time that ice cream was becoming a widespread favorite in the U.S., carbonated beverages were also taking the country by storm. A few enterprising figures had thought to mix the two together to create an ice cream soda.
As the story goes, some regions banned the combination of the two components. The soda jerks, wanting to keep the frozen delights coming, started to serve ice cream with sauces or other toppings. This practice became particularly important during Prohibition, when Americans could not find a hard drink legal anywhere or anytime. In time, people changed the name from an ice cream Sunday to a sundae, separating the dish from its religious origin.
Ice Cream Sandwich
Around the turn of the 20th century, people loved ice cream enough to try to figure out new ways to serve it. The ice cream cone is perhaps the best-known, but the ice cream sandwich, developed around the same time, also deserves a mention. Ice cream tends to be popular in warmer regions and at the hottest times of the year. However, ice cream also melts quickly and can be messy and complicated to serve, hence the development of the ice cream sandwich.
An ice cream sandwich has taken on many forms since its debut in 1899, but the common elements are pretty simple. At first, street vendors in New York City packaged the ice cream in paper, which could be thrown away instead of needing to be washed and reused. It was not until later that ice cream makers started pressing a layer of ice cream between two sweet wafers or biscuits. In the 1920s, vendors began to serve ice cream between two fresh-baked cookies. Once the dessert became popular, ice cream manufacturers developed means to make several sandwiches at once. This made the treat easier to buy off the street.
Introduction of the Ice Cream Cone
Although the ice cream cone seems almost as American as apple pie and it certainly became most popular in the U.S., its origins are a little murkier. Ice cream as a popular treat for rich and poor alike had taken hold in various parts of the world by the 18th century at the latest. Since it melts so quickly in heat and could not easily be held, many people tried to develop ways to eat it without needing additional implements. After all, ice cream was a food first adopted and spread by emperors and aristocrats, but it needed buy-in from the working classes to prove itself over time.
Experts believe that the first edible ice cream cones showed up in France as early as 1825. Thin, crispy pancakes cooked in an iron and rolled while still hot or baked in a mold provided an effective, tasty holder. The cone would stay firm long enough for someone to eat the ice cream and then consume the cone. A later recipe for a cornet called for almond flour pressed into shape and baked.
As it turns out, the concept of the waffle cone needed very little improvement. By the early 20th century, inventors were filing patents for machines that could produce the cones in larger quantities. The ice cream cone blew away expectations in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair. There, experts say that an ice cream vendor asked a waffle vendor in the next stall to produce cones to serve the ice cream. This event is dubbed by many as the moment that the cone reached the mainstream, although some historians doubt its accuracy. Many families have also come forward to share the stories of ice cream vendors at this time, claiming the credit for their own ancestors.
It appears that 1904 was a banner year for ice cream developments, introducing the banana split as well as popularizing the ice cream cone. The banana split began as the invention of a curious young pharmacist in Pennsylvania named David Strickler. He liked coming up with interesting takes on the ice cream sundae. His design to split a banana lengthwise and fill it with ice cream and toppings gained popularity quickly at the soda fountain inside the pharmacy where he worked.
Like the ice cream cone, the banana split has not changed much since its invention. Original recipes called for:
- a banana split lengthwise
- 2-4 scoops of ice cream in multiple flavors
- whipped cream
- chopped nuts or fruit
- a maraschino cherry
Although the National Ice Cream Retailers Association says that Stricker’s shop is the birthplace of the banana split, this origin is contested. The city of Wilmington, Ohio also claims that a restaurant owner came up with the idea in 1907. Chain drug stores like Walgreens made it popular by carrying the item on their soda shop menus. Both cities now hold yearly celebrations dedicated to the role they played in this fruity play on the ice cream sundae.
Ice Cream Trucks
The concept of ice cream on-the-go took decades to refine. At first, street vendors would load up a box on a cart with ice cream containers, ice, and salt to keep it cold. The broader accessibility of vehicles made the idea of ice cream trucks a possibility. In the 1920s, a man named Harry Burt heard about the technique of dipping ice cream in chocolate, but he thought it was too messy. He tried to make one with a stick to hold, and the ice cream bar was born.
Burt’s contribution and his company, Good Humor, made history as the first ice cream trucks. He outfitted several trucks with rudimentary freezers, relying primarily on dry ice to keep the bars cold. Good Humor trucks became a staple of American life in the 1950s, until competitor Mister Softee arrived on the scene. These trucks had ice cream machines built-in and served soft ice cream on cones. Mister Softee also featured a tune to alert people in the area that the ice cream truck was near. Although Good Humor sold its trucks in the 1970s, people can still buy the bars in stores. Mister Softee trucks continue to be a summer favorite in various parts of the country.
If ingredients and manufacture were the primary ice cream innovations of the 19th century, air was a major feature of the 20th century’s contribution to ice cream. Ice cream makers had learned that without churning in some capacity, ice cream would freeze very solid and hard. This made it easier to transport but more costly, as people tended to eat more of the expensive ingredients.
Adding a greater amount of air to the mixture in the 1930s yielded a soft ice cream that would hold up on a cone but take very little time to freeze and serve. This product used the same ingredients in similar quantities but churns longer. The result is lighter, softer, and cuts costs to produce and store. Many companies like Dairy Queen took the opportunity to serve ice cream from a faucet and made it an American staple.
Using liquid gases like nitrogen to freeze ice cream is not a particularly new concept, although it seems like one. Agnes Marshall, one of the first people to write down a recipe for an ice cream cone in 1888, also suggested that this process might freeze ice cream more quickly and effectively. About 100 years later in 1988, a company took advantage of this technology to make what they called Dippin’ Dots.
Dippin’ Dots ice cream relies on liquid nitrogen to freeze the ice cream mix. It freezes very quickly and creates a cloud of water vapor that must settle before the treat is safe to eat. People can still find the product in a handful of places across the country, but it is not always easy to locate. In order to stay frozen, Dippin’ Dots must be kept at -40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far too cold for most mainstream ice cream trucks and grocery store freezers.
Ice Cream Rolls
One of the latest trends in ice cream technology is the rolled ice cream treat. This dessert originated in Thailand around 2009. People who are familiar with the idea of a rolled crepe cooked to order may be able to understand the concept. The makers of rolled ice cream keep the liquid thin. Instead of churning it to infuse air, ice cream rolls look hard and flat and are made with ice cream roll makers.
The producer pours a thin layer of the liquid onto a pan that is cooled to -20 degrees Celsius, which allows it to freeze almost immediately. They use a scraper to curl the frozen sheet into a roll. One serving of an ice cream roll may feature several rolls with toppings. U.S. roll makers might use fruit, cream, and chocolate on top. In other parts of the world, people may add matcha or even corn flakes.
Other Historical Facts About Ice Cream
Although ice cream is enjoyed by everyone these days, for most of its history, it was a dessert only for the elite. The richness of cream and sugar may seem to be the culprit on this account. In fact, it was the limited, seasonal access to ice that made ice cream so much harder for the working classes to access until the 1800s. Until more modern approaches to refrigeration allowed people to produce and store ice cream, it was too difficult to obtain ice or snow from mountains and frozen lakes.
At present, the United States holds the crown for the most ice cream consumed per capita. This is not surprising, given how much early presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson loved to eat it on a regular basis. Specifically, the average American eats about 4 gallons of ice cream, ice cream bars, and other frozen novelties per year. Australia and New Zealand lag only a little behind this, however. People in these countries consume around 3-3.5 gallons per year.
Although the more recent developments in ice cream tend to focus on the Western world, many cultures have made ice cream a prominent feature of their local cuisine. Due largely to the spread of empires and influences, Spain and Argentina serve a version of gelato as well as Italy. Iranians like to eat faludeh, a pasta-based ice cream not unlike some of the region’s earliest attempts on the treat. Street vendors in the Philippines sell sorbetes, a cream-based dessert made from milk of water buffalo and thickened with tapioca starch. Indonesians like es puter, ice cream made from coconut milk and palm sugar, flavored with local produce.
Ice cream has dozens of different names. Hundreds of cultures have claimed it as their own over a period spanning several-thousand years. Few food items could retain their relevance in this way across thousands of miles and the rise and fall of whole civilizations. Clearly ice cream is one of them.
Frozen sorbets and sherbets were originally a treat that only the highest echelons of society could enjoy, but that changed over time. By the 18th and 19th centuries, people all over the world could enjoy ice cream without a lot of money or complicated effort to make it. A commitment to innovation by a few enterprising individuals, combined with access to new technologies, made ice cream one of the most variable and accessible treats in the modern world. Given its broad popularity and long history, ice cream is a cultural cuisine that will continue long into the future.
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