Chocolate chip cookie dough is probably the only sin you connect with ice cream parlors—after all, they’re associated with squeaky-clean, rated-G good times in a fresh-faced, olden-timey environment. But ice cream didn’t always have such a deliciously benign rep. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, the ice cream parlor was regarded by many as a den of corruption, prostitution, and sin.
There was New York, where a man testified to a senate committee in 1895 that he knew of several ice cream parlors that were “really houses of prostitution or disorderly houses.” But Chicago was really the center of the immoral ice cream epidemic—the city had so many problems in ice cream parlors that it passed a curfew law and even forbade the institutions from erecting “curtains, screens, or partitions of any kind that will serve to divide such places into compartments.”
In 1911, the city’s vice committee published a report of its activities at ice cream parlors, which included nabbing gropers, flirts, and girls who told boys they “could be had.” But perhaps the most outrageous anti-ice cream parlor screed was published in a 481-page 1909 book called War on the White Slave Trade, in which the Illinois Vigilance Association tore the city’s taste for cool treats to shreds.
“One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city,” the association warned, “and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement.” They went on to describe how foreign-owned ice cream establishments were “recruiting stations” for prostitution, where “scores of girls have taken their first steps downward.”
Why ice cream parlors? Historian and folklorist Bill Ellis writes that ice cream wasn’t exactly seen as all-American in the early 1900s. Despite its adoption by Americans like Thomas Jefferson, the cold treat was associated with foreign tastes—tastes that were associated with the specter of “white slavery,” a dated term used to described sex trafficking, prostitution, and other kinds of sexual debauchery during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Fueled by fear of immigrants, changes in how men and women met and married, and consternation over the relative freedom of working women, the term became a major cause at the turn of the century, and a rallying cry for panicked parents and uptight reformers.
Ice cream parlors found themselves in the center of the controversy. Often foreign-owned, the establishments that tried to capitalize on growing leisure time and changing tastebuds found themselves in the crosshairs of moral panic.
So did the scoop scare cause ice cream business to dwindle? Not exactly. In a 1914 edition of The International Confectioner, an ice cream expert noted that the industry was already so big it could compete with butter production. “The man who kills the goose that lays the golden egg always has and ever will be called a fool,” he wrote. So much for empty ice cream freezers in those dens of sweet, sweet sin.