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The Extraordinary History of Ice Cream

The Extraordinary History of Ice Cream

Last Updated on April 23, 2024 3 Comments

There is something miraculous about ice cream. Since it melts at room temperature, its existence is fleeting once it’s out of the fridge; here is the transient beauty of life in a cone.

It combines dairy and sugar in a ratio as close to mother’s milk as any food; ice cream is buried deep in our unconscious.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that legend says ice cream was brought to Europe by Marco Polo, who had tasted it in the court of the Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan.

A magical food needs a mythical origin, after all!

But sadly, historians now think that there is little truth in the Marco Polo ice cream origin story. 

The good news is that the history of ice cream is still an incredible tale. But, before we start, we need to make a small detour into science, specifically, into refrigeration and cooling...

Refrigeration before Refrigerators!

How can ice cream have much of a history if the first electrical refrigerator for home use was only invented in 1913?

Well, prior to modern fridges, our ancestors used a couple of innovative methods to cool food...

1. Ice Harvesting

If you remember the ice harvest in Disney’s Frozen, well this actually happened! Ice would be collected in winter and stored in specially made ice houses.

It's thought that the first ice house was built in 1780 BC by King Zimri-Lim of Mari in what was then Mesopotamia (and is now Syria).

Ice Harvest on the Hudson River c. 1870

Ice Harvest on the Hudson River c. 1870

Ice cream lover Thomas Jefferson had an ice house built at both the White House and his mansion Monticello, which he filled with ice from the Rivanna River each winter.

And the Roman Emperor Nero is said to have enjoyed the world's first sorbet, made with ice brought down from the Apennine Mountains and flavored with honey and wine. 

But while harvesting ice worked well for cooling drinks or creating primitive sorbets, to be able to freeze something else (for example cream!), our ancestors would need to come up with something else...

2. The Endothermic Process

Put simply, the endothermic process is a type of chemical reaction that produces cooling. It may sound weird, but just adding salt to ice makes the ice colder! 

And this means that anything (for example, cream!) packed around a vessel of salty ice also gets colder. So cold that it will also freeze. 

The first mention of this is in the Indian collection of folk tales called the Panchatantra from the fourth-century, which tells us that “Water only becomes really cool when it contains salt”.

Ice and salt ice cream maker

Adding salt to ice makes it (and everything it touches) colder

And this is the process that would be used to make ice cream from its very beginnings right up until after the Second First War (when electric refrigeration started to spread).

Although in a domestic setting, some of us continue to use salt and ice machines even today!

From East to West: Ice Cream's Great Journey

So Marco Polo may not have brought ice cream to Europe from China (many historians think he may have never even visited China!).

But it does seem to have originated in the East, from where it spread westwards, probably brought back by (unknown) traders and travelers from the Middle East.

China: Horse Milk Ice Cream?

The first recorded example of an iced-milk dish is from the Chinese Tang dynasty that ruled between 618 and 907.

Shang, the seventh Tang emperor, ate a dish prepared from kumis, (a central Asian yogurt like drink made from fermented mare’s milk), which was thickened with flour and flavored with camphor before being refrigerated.

Emperor Shang

Emperor Shang (with cornetto)

The drink was poured into metal tubes which were then lowered into ice pools. This is the same way that Indian kulfi is made.

India's famous Kulfi Ice Cream

In 16th century India, one of the gems of world ice cream arrived. Kulfi is first mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari, the record of the life of the Moghul emperor Akbar the Great, who reigned from 1556 to 1605.

Antique Kulfi Molds

Antique Kulfi Molds

The book describes saltpeter being used with ice from the Himalayas: clear evidence of the endothermic process in use.

Unlike many other of these early ice creams, the processes and flavors used to make Kulfi in India remain much the same today as they did in the 16th century!

Italy: The Birthplace of Modern Ice Cream

Around a hundred years after the Indians developed Kulfi, the Italians began creating the first frozen ices, which they called sorbetto.

A Neapolitan sorbetto vendor

A Neapolitan sorbetto vendor

A type of water-ice had been served in Persia since the time of at least Alexander the Great, who apparently loved nothing more than a faloodeh (as they are known there), after a hard day’s campaigning.

And the Arabs had drunk a refreshing, chilled drink called sharab (sherbet) since medieval times.

Travelers to the East no doubt brought these treats back to Europe, where they became very popular with high society. 

Even then, the Italians were regarded as the masters of the culinary techniques involved. And they started to develop the iced drinks into something closer to the sorbets we know today.

Antonio Latini, a kitchen overseer for the Spanish Viceroy in Naples, published the first book of sorbetto recipes in 1694.

Antonio Latini's Recipe Book

Antonio Latini wrote the world's first book of sorbetto recipes in 1694

It included flavors like lemon, strawberry, chocolate (an exotic ingredient that had only just arrived in Europe) and even eggplant!

One of his recipes, a milk sorbet (that mixed candied citron or pumpkin with milk, water and sugar) is widely regarded as the first documented ice cream!

The arrival of eggs

Finally, in 1695 we see a recipe for ice cream with eggs (as opposed to simply frozen cream) published in a leaflet of 23 recipes for ices in Naples.

As only the ingredients are included, it is believed that the method of making ice cream was common knowledge at the time. 

Only a single copy of the anonymously written Brieve e Nuovo Modo da Farfi Ogni Forte di Sorbette con Facilta survives, and it's believed that it was designed to be given away with ice cream making equipment.

But it contains the first recipe for what can be genuinely described as "modern" ice cream.

France: Adding Finesse to Ice Cream

While Italy tends to get all the accolades, France has always made sensational ice cream too and was heavily involved in its evolution.

An 18th century French ice cream vendor

An 18th century French ice cream vendor

In fact, chemist, Nicholas Lemery wrote the first, individual sorbet recipe in 1674, beating Antonio Latini by 20 years!

And Nicolas Audiger a Frenchman (admittedly trained in Italy), improved on Latinis methods by insisting his cooks stirred their mixtures as they froze to give the final water ice a lighter, texture.

In 1742 the French master chef published a recipe for ice cream that involved both egg yolks and stirring, so the full details of something like our modern ice cream had arrived in print at last.

Presumably this method had been in used previously, and was widely known at least in Italy, but it had not been published until then. In France, the new dish was called ‘fromage glacés’, iced or candied cheese. 

The addition of egg yolk to ice cream is important. Not only would it have made ice cream thicker, smoother and richer. It also meant chefs could save money by using less relatively expensive cream.

England: Ice Cream for Royalty

Ice cream arrived in England from France. And as in mainland Europe, it was a treat that only the upper classes could afford.

English upper classes eating ice-cream

Ice cream was exclusively for the upper classes when it arrived in England

King Charles II, who reigned between 1660 and 1685, not only built an ice house in the center of London at the start of his reign, but is the first British monarch who is known to have eaten ice cream.

King Charles II

King Charles II (with cornetto)

At a banquet held on the feast of St George in May of 1671 at Windsor, the king was served with, “one plate of white strawberries and one plate of ice cream.”

This was the first mention of our favorite iced dessert in the English language – a dish fit for a king!

The first recipe for ice cream published in English came 23 years later, when in 1718 the former confectioner to Queen Anne published Mrs Mary Eales Reciepts.

Mrs Eales ices did not contain egg yolks and the cream was not churned, so it would have had large ice crystals.

Ice Cream vs Sorbet

In the eighteenth century, there was something of a divergence in ice cream culture. Water ices became preferred in France and Italy, while ice cream became favored in England and America.

America: Ice Cream for All! 

Ice cream was brought to America by European settlers. And while America arguably made few culinary improvements to the dish, it did more than any other country in the world to make it the ubiquitous treat it is today.

Ice cream is first mentioned in America in 1700 in a letter written by William Black, a visitor to the house of the Maryland Governor Thomas Bladen, who served “among the Rarities,... some fine Ice Cream...”.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (with cornetto)

The founding fathers of the United States also ate it. Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for vanilla ice cream, and Alexander (and Betsy) Hamilton served it to George Washington, who loved the stuff and had 10 ice cream pots in his kitchen at Mount Vernon.

But while in Europe the economics of production meant ice cream could only be enjoyed by the cream of society, the entrepreneurial Americans set out to make it a treat that everyone could afford.

And in democratizing ice cream, they turned it into a national dish! How did they manage this? They took full advantage of technological advances in production and distribution.

An ice cream making machine, ice cream factories, industrialized ice harvesting and new ways to consume ice cream all came together to make the treat desired by everyone, finally within reach of anyone.

New Ice Cream Making Machines

Up until the middle of the 19th century, making ice cream was arduous work. First, all the ingredients would be added to a container which was itself inside a bucket of salt and ice. 

Then the cook would shake the container up and down by hand, while also beating the cream and scraping the frozen mix from the sides. It took hours of this manual exertion to make ice cream!

However, the cook's life was about to improve considerably...

In 1843 the world’s first mechanized ice cream maker was developed, by two individuals on either side of the Atlantic.

In London, England, Thomas Masters created his Patent Ice Cream Apparatus. While Nancy M Johnson of Philadelphia, America created her Artificial Freezer.

Nancy M Johnson

Nancy M Johnson

Nancy M Johnsons Ice Cream Machine

Nancy M Johnson's ice cream machine

Masters was given his patent on July 6th and Johnson was given hers on September 9th, both 1843.

Both gadgets employed a hand crank to turn a paddle inside the container, which churned and scraped the mixture while it froze. Sure, it was more evolution rather than invention.

They still used ice and salt to do the freezing, harnessing the endothermic effect first used by the Moghuls to make kulfi 200 years previously.

But by making the whole process much more efficient, they enabled ice cream to be made in much larger quantities, much more quickly...

Ice Cream Factories

In 1851 the Pennsylvania Quaker, Jacob Fussell, branched out from delivering dairy goods in Baltimore to create the world’s first ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania.

Jacob Fussell

Jacob Fussell

As someone who already had access to vast amounts of milk, he was able to increase his production and undercut the prices of his rivals. This made ice cream much more widely available and affordable than it had ever been before.

Fussell was soon head of a formidable ice cream empire with factories across the eastern seaboard of the United States, and is recognized as ‘the father of the wholesale ice cream industry’.

Jacob Fussell's ice cream empire

Jacob Fussell's ice cream empire

In fact, it's been said that Jacob Fussell probably did more than anyone else to kick-start the American love affair with ice cream.

Industrial Ice Harvesting

Increasing demand for ice cream meant increasing demand for ice! And until the invention of electric refrigeration, that still meant ice harvesting.

However, the romantic images of Roman emperors sending servants to fetch ice from the nearest mountains had long gone by the 19th century.

Industrialized ice harvesting

Ice harvesting was global and industrialized by the 19th century

Ice harvesting was now industrial and worldwide. Millions of tons of ice were cut from the world's coldest regions and shipped around the globe. In 1866 over 25 million tons of ice was harvested in the US alone!

The pioneer in this new trade was Frederic “Ice King” Tudor who shipped ice from Maine to as far away as India. 

Soda Fountains

Where would America be without its soda fountains? A good question, but this leads us to ask what would soda fountains be without ice cream? Much diminished is probably the best answer!

But soda fountains began life without ice cream. The trend for drinking fizzy water was imported from Europe, where naturally carbonated water was lauded for its apparent health benefits.

Early soda fountain

The original soda fountains sold fizzy water for health benefits!

Scientists soon learned how to artificially carbonate water and, (still thought of as healthy), it began to be sold through drug stores in the US.

Increasingly ornate siphons and dedicated seating areas proved popular with the American public. And the drugstores were soon flavoring the soda water with all sorts of sugared syrups.

But who first added ice cream? And when? Like much in ice creams history, it's not entirely clear!

One suggestion is Robert Green, who, in 1874, ran out of the cream he usually used to flavor the sodas he was selling in Philadelphia. Or it could have been Fred Sanders in Detroit, after he discovered the cream he usually used had gone sour.

Either way, one (or more likely both) of them threw a couple of scoops of ice cream in the glass instead. And voila: the ice cream soda was born!

Ice cream soda jerk

America's favorite: the ice cream soda

It was a massive hit with the American public and helped to propel soda fountains and ice cream to the very heart of American culture.

Soda fountains became the one place everyone went to eat ice cream. And in 1916 it was estimated that the $500 million worth of soda treats were sold across America!

The Italian Jobs: Hokey Pokey & Penny Licks

But people have always liked to eat ice cream outside too. And political upheaval in Italy would ultimately result in ice cream that everyone could afford to buy on the streets of America and the UK! 

Hokey pokey ice cream vendor

A hokey pokey man selling penny licks!

It was in the late 19th century that poor Italians started migrating to the UK and USA, and bringing their ice cream traditions with them, as poverty drove many Italians to seek better lives in more industrial countries.

At the same time, railways allowed the working classes in these countries to take seaside holidays. The scene was set for Italian ice cream makers to take the English-speaking world by storm!

It is estimated that the ice cream trade tripled the numbers of Italian migrants to the UK between the 1880s and 1901.

Ice creams on both sides of the pond were sold in small glasses and known as a ‘penny lick’.

A penny lick ice cream glass

Old penny lick glass (with new ice cream)

The vendors who sold the ice cream were known as ‘hokey pokey’ men. It is thought that this was due to their vendor’s cry, which was either ‘oh che poco’ (oh how little) or ‘ecce un poco’ (here’s a little bit).

The penny lick glass was the descendant of the beautiful porcelain ice cream cups of the 18th Century...

The first of these was made for Madame de Pompadour (the chief mistress of King Louis the 15th of France), at the porcelain factories of Vincinnes in 1754. The following year, the king himself had ‘tasse a glace’ included in a dinner service.

Not only were the penny lick glasses very plain compared to the French porcelain cups that had been sent as far as Russia, but they had two other major flaws...

Firstly, the glasses were cut in a way that gave them a deceptively large appearance, which left customers disappointed when they discovered they had paid for the tiniest of servings!

But more importantly, penny lick glasses were a fantastic medium for transmitting disease. After a quick swish with water, the glasses looked clean enough, but were alive with bacteria and viruses.

Penny licks were full of germs

Penny licks and hokey pokey were notorious for spreading diseases

Indeed, they were held responsible for spreading tuberculosis and in 1899, penny licks were banned in London.

The Ice Cream Cones Cometh

Ice cream lovers needed something cleaner, less liable to fraud, and frankly something tastier to eat their favorite treat from. The time had come for the invention of the ice cream cone!

Now, unlike the creator of the first domestic ice cream maker, everyone knows that Ernest A Hamwi invented the ice cream cone. Or was it Mrs Agnes B Marshall, or Italo Marchiony who made the first one?

It turns out that there is just one man who is credited with patenting the first ice cream cone machine, and that is the Italian immigrant to New York, Italo Marchiony.

However, there are at least two forerunners to Mr Marchiony’s invention...

In Naples and Sicily ice cream had been sold in a brioche type bun for some time. Known as a ‘briosca con gelato’ or ‘pain gelato’, you can still buy this delicacy today. It's often eaten for what must be one of the most decadent breakfasts around.

Brioscia con gelato

Briosca con gelato: AKA "breakfast" in some parts of Italy

For sure: a brioche isn't a cone. But it was heading in the right direction. And the cookery writer Agnes B Marshall would take things one step further...

Agnes is largely forgotten now, but for more than 20 years she was one of the biggest food writers of the Victorian era. Ice cream and sorbets were her specialty. So much so, that she earned the nickname “Queen of Ices”.

Not only did Mrs. Marshall patent an ice cream maker, two of her four published books were ‘Ices Plain and Fancy: The Book of Ices of 1885 and ‘Fancy Ices’ of 1894.

Mrs Marshall's Book of Ices

In her Book of Ices she writes of ‘cornets’, which were made from flour, ground almond, egg, sugar, vanilla essence, and orange-flower water, and were molded using cornet cases.

But Mrs Marshall’s cornets were for the home cook or artisan. It took an American to make a mass-produced edible ice cream container, the cone.

Italo Marchiony sold ice creams from a cart on Wall Street, and was fed up with his hokey pokey glasses being stolen or broken. The answer was clearly an edible glass, so from 1896 he spent his evenings experimenting with twisting warm waffles into cup shapes.

Italo Marchiony: the ice cream cone inventor

Italo Marchiony: cone inventor

Finally, in 1902 he submitted a patent for an ice cream cone mold, which was approved the following year.

Italo Marchiony's ice cream cone mold patent

Marchiony's patent for a mold for 10 ice cream cones

The new cone, or ‘toots’ as they were known, might have remained restricted to Wall Street or New York had not good fortune, or good business sense, intervened.

Marchiony took his invention to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or St Louis World’s Fair) that was held over the summer of 1904.

There he sold ice creams to the crowds marveling at the latest inventions that included the x-ray, a wireless telephone, and 140 models of automobile. It's thought that more than 19 million people attended the fair, and took away so many great ideas with them.

Ice Cream in the Modern World

So, here we are at the beginning of the 20th Century, with all the ingredients for ice cream to take over the world...

The recipes are ready, there are factories that can churn out vast amounts of the stuff using newly efficient ice cream machines, ice is plentiful, there are new places to sit and eat it and cones that allow you to enjoy it on the move! 

As electrical refrigeration began to spread across the world, so ice cream began to be found in previously unimaginable places.

And while the years of prohibition from 1920 to 1933 were bad if you liked a cool beer on a hot summer’s day, they marked a heyday for ice cream...

A 1930s ice cream bar

Many saloons were converted to ice cream bar during prohibition 

Breweries had to make other products, and saloons that had previously sold liquor were now converted to sell soft drinks and ice cream.

The Great Depression reduced consumers’ purchasing power, but this just resulted in a rise in cheap, poor quality ice cream rather than less ice cream!

No, ice cream had finally arrived everywhere. And it would not be displaced as the peoples treat of choice. 

Ice Cream in World War II

Morale is key to warfare, so it should come as no surprise that the largest manufacturer of ice cream during World War II was the US Armed Forces.

However, this didn’t prevent the UK’s Minister of Food (and the man in charge of rationing) Lord Woolton, from banning the production of ice cream in the country.

Winston Churchill was so surprised by this that he wrote the minister a letter saying that the war cabinet should have been given “the opportunity to express an opinion” on this ban.

Winston’s letter also noted that American troops "are great addicts of ice cream, which is said to be a rival to alcoholic drinks".

US WW2 pilot eating ice cream

US aircrew made their own ice cream in WW2 

US service personnel didn't have to worry: they had the ice cream specifically made for them. But they also took things into their own hands to satisfy their addiction.

Aircrew put all the ingredients in metal drums, which were then turned into ice cream by the icy temperatures and vibrating aircraft!

Modern Innovations

Before the history of ice cream comes to an end, we should perhaps mention two new ice cream ideas from the 1970s.

In the 1970s, Massachusetts dairy company H.P. Hood created frozen yogurt they called frogurt as a healthy alternative to ice cream. This market grew with the introduction of frozen yogurt on a stick, and in 1981 the first TCBY frozen yogurt store opened. 

The dense, creamy taste of premium ice cream is achieved by using more fat and less air than ordinary ice cream.

In America, the pioneers in this field were undoubtedly Häagen-Dazs (founded in 1961 but opened its first shop in 1976), and Ben & Jerry’s, which started spreading peace, love, & ice cream through the power of quirky flavors two years later in 1978.

About the author 


Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'm always looking for the perfect ice cream. The "dream scoop". I document my findings, my successes and failures here...

  • Hi Carl!

    Never have I ever come across a blog that has such elaborate information on frozen desserts! I rarely (1 in 10000 times literally) write a comment but I couldn’t stop myself after reading your post on History of Ice Cream! Thank you so much – it was such a refreshing and informative read. I’ve read through most of your blog posts and your love for frozen treats along with attention to detail in your posts blows my mind every single time!

    Kudos to you and your effort and I wish you the best of success in all your endeavours 🙂

  • This was such an amazing read! I had never thought of ice cream like this in my life. It makes me want to love ice cream even more. Thank you for such a good read, I can tell this must’ve taken you a long time to gather all the information, but also make it as brief as you did, yet keeping it interesting.

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