A Brief History of the Ice Cream Truck

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How a musical truck hijacked an elite dessert and delivered it to the people.

It’s the sound of summer: a string of jangly notes cutting through the sticky-hot air. The response is Pavlovian. Mouths water. Parents reach for their wallets. Kids lace up their shoes and hit the pavement. For Ben Van Leeuwen, it was no different. Growing up in suburban Riverside, Conn., he’d race toward the siren song. The ice cream truck was coming.

In the sea of sweaty half-pints elbowing to place orders, Van Leeuwen always took his time. He’d inspect the full menu, pondering each offering, from cartoon-colored Popsicles to animal-shaped treats with gum balls for eyes. He’d imagine the flavors—Strawberry Shortcake, Choco Taco, King Cone. Then he’d pick what he always picked: a Reckless Rainbow Pop Up. “We were poor,” he laughs. The push pop was cheap.

Today, Van Leeuwen is an ice cream magnate. With six trucks and three storefronts in New York City, the company he runs with his brother, Pete, and business partner, Laura O’Neill, prides itself on its quality. Handcrafted recipes combine sustainably sourced ingredients from far-flung places: Michel Cluizel chocolate from France, pistachios from Sicily, Tahitian vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea. The flavors have put Van Leeuwen on the vanguard of an ice cream truck resurgence. In a single generation, the ice cream truck has moved upmarket.

The history of frozen street treats begins long before Van Leeuwen encountered his first push pop—it begins before even mechanical refrigeration. The very nature of the industry—taking something frozen and hawking it on sultry sidewalks—has always forced ice cream peddlers to innovate. That the cold treat had to come to America before it could move off kings’ tables and into the hands of common folk makes the story that much sweeter.

We All Scream for Ice Cream

It’s hard to imagine now, but for much of human history, Slurpees and Klondike bars and even the humble Reckless Rainbow would have been considered status symbols. Difficult to obtain and harder to store, ice itself was once a luxury. When the Roman Emperor Nero wanted Italian ice, he ordered it the old-fashioned way—dispatching his servants to fetch snow from mountain tops, wrap it in straw, and bring it back to mix with fruits and honey—a practice still popular with elites in Spain and Italy 1,500 years later. In the fourth century, the Japanese emperor Nintoku was so enamored with the frozen curiosity that he created an annual Day of Ice, during which he presented ice chips to palace guests in an elaborate ceremony. Around the world, monarchs in Turkey, India, and Arabia used flavored ices to punch up the extravagance at banquets, serving frosty bouquets flavored with fruit pulp, syrup, and flowers—often the grand finale at feasts intended to impress. But it wasn’t until the mid-16th century, when scientists in Italy discovered a process for on-demand freezing—placing a container of water in a bucket of snow mixed with saltpeter—that the ice cream renaissance truly began.

The innovation spread through European courts, and before long, royal chefs were whipping up red wine slushes, icy custards, and cold almond creams. Italian and French monarchs developed a taste for sorbets. And cooks experimented with every exotic ingredient in their arsenal: violets, saffron, rose petals. But while the excitement for ice cream grew, the treats were clearly reserved for the elite. The dessert needed a trip across the pond and a few more centuries of innovation before it could trickle down to the masses.

Ice cream came to America with the first colonists. British settlers brought recipes with them, and the treat found space at the Founding Fathers’ tables. George Washington loved it. Thomas Jefferson was such a fan that he studied the art of ice cream making in France and returned with a machine so he could churn his own flavors at Monticello. But even in this monarch-free land, the frosty desserts were an extravagance. Vanilla and sugar were expensive, and access to ice was limited. To serve the dessert year-round, Jefferson built himself an icehouse, refrigerated with wagonloads of ice harvested from the nearby Rivanna River. Still, even with all the means and materials, the road to producing ice cream was rocky.

As food historian Mark McWilliams explains in The Story Behind the Dish, making a scoop was laborious. Cooks had to extract the iced mixture from a frozen pewter bucket, churn and blend it with cream by hand, and place the concoction back into the bucket for additional freezing. To get the desired silky texture, this churning had to be repeated multiple times over days. McWilliams writes, “the process was long and taxing, and thus generally managed by servants or slaves.” Still, there was a market for the product. According to McWilliams, “The labor-intensive process may have restricted ice cream to the wealthy, but it also measured how strongly ice cream was desired.” Everyone wanted a taste. And now, as a new wave of immigrants began looking for something novel to peddle on city streets, working-class people were about to take their licks.

The Ice Age

In the 1800s, the ice delivery industry exploded. Companies began harvesting frozen rivers and transporting ice to homes at affordable prices. Meanwhile, the technology for hand-crank ice cream makers advanced, making it far easier to scoop sundaes at home. Before long, ice cream was regularly served in parlors and tea gardens across the country. By the 1830s, ice cream’s role as an Independence Day treat was well established. But for the poor urban populations who couldn’t afford July 4th ices or the fresh ingredients to make ice cream at home, immigrant street vendors came to the rescue. Fresh off the boat and with limited job prospects, these innovators used their culinary talents to grasp at the American dream, selling frozen treats from carts chilled with ice.

“Italy and France was where ice cream was first truly developed; they made it delicious,” says food writer Laura B. Weiss, author of Ice Cream: A Global History. “In the U.S., they developed the business.” The cheap wooden wagons let proprietors avoid rent and taxes that came with setting up a store. And demand for their wares was always high.

One popular treat, called hokey-pokey, was a Neapolitan-striped confection. Made with condensed milk, sugar, vanilla extract, cornstarch, and gelatin, all cut into two-inch squares and wrapped in paper, the bite-sized dessert was the perfect street food. According to Anne Cooper Funderburg’s Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream, young children of all ethnicities—Jewish, Irish, Italian—would gather on the cobbled streets of Park Row and the Bowery, heeding the vendors’ melodic call: “Hokey-pokey, sweet and cold; for a penny, new or old.” (“Hokey-pokey” is a mangling of the Italian phrase O che poco, or “Oh, how little.”)

Penny licks were also popular among New York’s children and the working class. Before the invention of the ice cream cone, vendors scooped ice cream into a regular glass, which a customer would lick clean. Then they returned the glass to the peddler, who would swish it in a pail before refilling it for the next customer. It was an entirely unsanitary practice. “The mix-ins were bacteria, not chocolate chips,” says Weiss.

Alamy

But it was the ice cream sandwich that truly melted the social boundaries, as blue and white collars alike huddled around pushcarts on hot summer days. According to an article in the August 19, 1900 edition of The Sun, “[Wall Street] brokers themselves got to buying ice cream sandwiches and eating them in a democratic fashion side by side on the sidewalk with the messengers and the office boys.” In fact, by the mid-1800s, ice cream had become such a common indulgence that Ralph Waldo Emerson warned about America’s bent toward materialism and gluttony, hailing ice cream as a chief example. And he was right: In the 1860s, thousands of New York City peddlers were selling penny licks and ice cream sandwiches to ravenous crowds. “They were really the first ice cream trucks,” says Weiss. “They started ice cream as a street food. It was a walk-around food—you’d stand up and eat it.” Ice cream had become a staple of the American diet—not just for the rich and powerful, but for everybody—and it was about to get even more mobile.

On a winter evening in 1920, candy maker Harry Burt was puttering around his ice cream shop in Youngstown, Ohio. Burt had made a name for himself by sticking a wooden handle on a ball of candy to create the Jolly Boy Sucker—a newfangled lollipop. Ready for a bigger challenge, he set out to create an ice cream novelty. He started by mixing coconut oil and cocoa butter to seal a smooth block of vanilla ice cream in the silky chocolate coating. The treat looked good, but it was messy. When his daughter Ruth grabbed for the bar, more of the chocolate coating ended up on her hands than her mouth. So Harry Jr., Burt’s 21-year-old son, came up with a better idea: Why not use the sticks from the lollipops as handles? And with that, the Good Humor bar was born. But Burt wasn’t done innovating yet.

A visionary, Burt was intrigued by the era’s technological advances. Prohibition had helped soda fountains and ice cream shops proliferate in place of bars. Fast food like burgers and hot dogs had infiltrated the menus in America’s swelling suburbs. Meanwhile, the Henry Ford–led automobile industry was exploding. To Burt, combining these national trends—fast food and cars—was a no-brainer. He just needed to figure out how to get his portable treat into the hands of hungry kids. In 1920, Burt invested in 12 refrigerator trucks for distribution around the city. He made sure they were pristine white and put professional-looking drivers in signature white uniforms to signify cleanliness and safety to parents. Then he crafted a scheme for luring the kids. “He promised to follow a specified route so families would know when to expect the truck to come by,” says Nick Soukas, director of ice cream for Unilever, which now owns the Good Humor brand. “A bell, which came from Harry Jr.’s bobsled, chimed so everyone would know they could come out and purchase Good Humor bars.” At first, all that ringing drew curious children into the streets to see what the fuss was about, but before long, the sound was synonymous with the ice cream man.

Corbis

From the 1920s to the ’60s, thousands of Good Humor men patrolled the nation’s neighborhoods, becoming part of the communities they served. Good Humor men inspired a children’s Little Golden Book. In 1965, Time reported, “To the young, he has become better known than the fire chief, more welcome than the mailman, more respected than the corner cop.” When a Westchester County, N.Y., Good Humor man switched routes, 500 neighborhood children signed a petition for his return.

But Burt’s truck wasn’t the only game in town. In the 1950s, two brothers from Philadelphia, William and James Conway, were busy dreaming up their own version of a mobile ice cream unit. At the time, soft-serve machines had become popular in soda shops, and the Conways saw no reason they couldn’t go mobile. So they bolted a soft-serve machine to the floor of a truck. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1956, the brothers took their Mister Softee truck on its maiden voyage, handing out green ice cream to excited kids on West Philadelphia streets. “That didn’t really work too well,” says Jim Conway, son of James and current president of Mister Softee.

The heat and power of the condensers, generator, and gas engines overwhelmed the early trucks, and the electricity often puttered out. “You’d be in the middle of making someone’s cone, and everything would shut down,” Conway says. “You’d have to open the back doors and wait for the thing to cool.”

Perfecting the vehicle proved to be a challenge. The Conways had to experiment with airflow and mitigating heat, using fans and different generators. (Decades later, the company would customize its trucks with innovative rust-free aluminum, General Motors Vortec engines, and high-efficiency Electro Freeze soft-serve machines.) By 1958, the company had become so successful that the brothers began to franchise. Before long, the trademark sailboat-blue and white ice cream trucks were being sold to vendors all over the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. The Conways even one-upped the Good Humor bell, hiring Grey Advertising to pen a jingle for the company. By 1960, the “Mister Softee (Jingle and Chimes)” was playing from trucks on a drum-and-spindle contraption, like a roaming music box. A modern day “Hokey Pokey,” Mister Softee’s never-ending ditty became the siren call to a new generation.

Getty Images

Chasing down the ice cream man on hot summer days wasn’t Ben Van Leeuwen’s only formative experience with ice cream trucks. In 2005, while Van Leeuwen was attending Skidmore College, he rented a retired Good Humor truck and sold the treats with his brother to wealthy Connecticut residents. But Van Leeuwen found that the allure of the treats had faded. “I hated the way they tasted,” he says. The brothers did, however, appreciate the independence of the job. And with organic farmer’s markets blooming all over New York City and the food truck itself enjoying a gourmet reinvention, the brothers saw a modern ice cream market developing. People were increasingly interested in their food’s origins just as they were clamoring for exotic epicurean adventures. In 2008, the brothers rolled out their first truck, painted a vintage faded yellow, after spending a few months developing their first batch of flavors. They were initially too rushed to outfit their truck with speakers. When they realized the silence helped them stand out from Mister Softee’s insistent jingle, they decided to remain music-free.

Today, there’s no shortage of entrepreneurs in the ice cream truck market. In San Jose, Calif., Ryan and Christine Sebastian created Treatbot, “a karaoke ice cream truck from the future” that allows customers to eat scoops of Eastside Horchata ice cream while singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” In Tacoma, Cool Cycles Ice Cream Company sells motorcycles with a sidecar freezer that holds 600 ice cream bars. And in New York City, Doug Quint, a classically trained bassoonist, turned a retired Mister Softee truck into the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, which spun off into a storefront that pairs classic soft serve with toppings like sriracha hot sauce and pumpkin butter.

But classicists need not fear. The traditional soft serve truck is in no danger. Although Good Humor phased out its trucks in the late ’70s, today there are more than 400 Mister Softee franchises employing more than 700 trucks across 15 states. Except for the trucks’ tune technology—the jingle is now blasted loud and clear through electronic circuits—they’re unchanged, right down to the classic soft serve menu on the side. “For close to 50 years, that menu board has changed only four times,” Conway says. Keeping tradition close is a big part of the Mister Softee ideal.

Whether they’re vintage or modern, classic or creative, ice cream trucks have a seductive allure that’s about more than just ice cream. They summon a particular kind of nostalgia—the sense of freedom and possibility that comes from long, carefree summer days and the particular thrill of having a dollar in your pocket and a long list of treats from which to choose. The ice cream man has basically been doing the same thing for hundreds of years now—exciting crowds by delivering something utterly familiar wrapped in different packages. But there’s comfort in that. Van Leeuwen’s quick to point out that the fan favorite among his elaborately refined offerings isn’t its sweet sticky black rice flavor or its luscious strawberry-beet creation, but vanilla, plain and simple. And as the upper-class crowd packs into the Van Leeuwen shop to sample the gourmet scoops, just one neighborhood over it’s evident how little ice cream has changed. Standing by the Red Hook ball fields, you’ll find immigrants rolling tiny pushcarts filled with flavored ices, chasing their dreams the way so many new Americans have, hawking a dessert of kings at nickel-and-dime prices.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a risk-free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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June 27, 2014 - 9:52am
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