From Penny Licks to Popsicle Sticks

In the third post in our series on food trucks, we explore how ice cream became one of the iconic street foods in the United States and how, despite America’s sweet tooth, things haven’t always been easy for the ice cream man.

It is national ice cream month, so it is only fitting to write a piece on America’s favorite frozen treat and its role in street food in the U.S. First, a little background on the national celebration of ice cream. On July 9, 1984, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation establishing July as National Ice Cream Month and July 15 as National Ice Cream Day (though we now celebrate National Ice Cream Day on the third Sunday of July). [1] According to President Reagan, Americans consumed over 887 million gallons of ice cream in 1983 alone. Today, the International Dairy Foods Association estimates that the average American eats more than 23 pounds of ice cream in a single year. [2] 

Some say ice cream dates back to the first century A.D., when Roman emperor Nero would have his servants fetch him snow from the mountains to be flavored with fruit and honey that he would enjoy as a sweet treat.Those who consider ice cream to be a combination of ice, cream, and sugar will not consider Nero’s treat to be legitimate ice cream, but we cannot ignore the novelty of Nero’s creation. Some credit the creation of ice cream by the Italians in the 15th or 16th century. [3] Regardless of its birthplace, ice cream was a well known frozen treat by the time the British were settling America. While ice cream was by no means an American invention, Americans refined the processes of making, freezing, and selling ice cream. In 1843, Philadelphia, PA native Nancy Johnson filed a patent for the first ice cream machine, which was a hand-cranked churning device made of wood. [4] Johnsons’ invention not only decreased the amount of time it took to make ice cream, but also produced better-quality (more evenly frozen) product. Ice cream soon thereafter took off across the states and became both an urban and suburban phenomenon. Street vendors sold hokey-pokeys (an American interpretation of the Italian phrase, ‘o che pocco,’ which translates into ‘oh so little’), which were small blocks of cheaply made ice cream. Sometimes, hokey pokey vendors would sell penny licks: customers bought a “lick” of ice cream for a penny, licked the ice cream from a glass dish, and then passed the dish back to the vendor to be wipe clean for the next customer. [5] We (fortunately) graduated from penny licks with the invention of the ice cream cone, created at the turn of the 20th century and popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO. [6] 

Ferrell, John.  Washington, D.C. Good Humor Ice Cream Truck . Washington, D.C., May 1942,

Ferrell, John. Washington, D.C. Good Humor Ice Cream Truck. Washington, D.C., May 1942,

Ice cream reached new heights in the 1900s with advances in technology as well as social changes across the U.S.. The rise of the automobile coincided with the invention of electronic coolers which, when combined, became the first iteration of the ice cream truck that Americans have come to know and love. When Prohibition passed in 1920, many Americans turned to the comfort of street food - including ice cream - to replace alcohol in their lifestyles. Instead of frequenting saloons and pubs, Americans were soon patronizing soda fountains and ice cream parlors to socialize. Prohibition had a profound impact on the ice cream industry: production of ice cream in the United States increased 55 percent between 1916 and 1925 alone. [7] As ice cream consumption soared, the first ice cream bars entered the market. In 1920, Christian Nelson created the “I-Scream Bars” (later renamed Eskimo pies), which were blocks of ice cream with a chocolate candy coating. [8] Around the same time, Harry Burt invented a similarly chocolate-covered ice cream bar that he named the Good Humor bar. While it’s arguable on whether the Good Humor bar was the first ice cream on a stick, Harry Burt’s innovation lay in equipping a fleet of trucks with freezers and bells to sell his Good Humor bars to the community. [9] The Good Humor ice cream man became an icon in neighborhoods across the country and popularized the ice cream truck.

Unlike ice cream parlors and soda fountains, ice cream bars and cones were able to persevere through the Great Depression due to their low price point and mobility. But during World War II, sugar rations hit the ice cream industry hard and sales stagnated following the end of the war. That is when a new player stepped in as the most popular frozen dessert: soft-serve. Between 1945 and 1956, soft-serve sales steadily increased each year, with Dairy Queens and soda fountains offering soft-serve to customers throughout the country. [10] Brothers James and William Conway seized an opportunity to take soft-serve mobile when they put a soft-serve machine on a truck and drove through Philadelphia on St. Patrick’s Day handing out free green ice cream. Although the green color of the frozen dessert wasn’t popular, the soft-serve business was a runaway success. The Conway brothers began selling franchises of the Mister Softee brand after just two years in business.

Yet, the Conway brothers struggled with the mechanics of the ice cream truck: the power and refrigeration soft-serve machines required power and refrigeration that the trucks weren’t equipped to provide. It was common for ice cream trucks to overheat and the only fix was to shut everything off to let the truck cool down before equipment could be turned back on and service continued. [11] There was clearly room for improvement in the design and equipment of ice cream trucks. That change came when Frederick McKinley Jones engineered the first reliable refrigerated truck that could transport food over long distances at consistent temperatures. [12] Jones’ innovation propelled food transportation - including ice cream trucks - in the United States (so much so that he was invited to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and posthumously received the National Medal of Technology, the first African American to receive either distinction).

In the next post, we’ll explore how local and state government tried to evolve regulations with the innovations in mobile food.


[1] Reagan, Ronald. "Proclamation 5219-National Ice Cream Month and National Ice Cream Day, 1984." Proclamation 5219-National Ice Cream Month and National Ice Cream Day, 1984 | The American Presidency Project. Accessed July 05, 2019.

[2] "Ice Cream Sales & Trends." International Dairy Foods Association. Accessed July 05, 2019.

[3] Paul Dickson, The Great American Ice Cream Book (New York: Atheneum, 1972): 14–17.

[4] Nancy M. Johnson, Artificial Freezer. US Patent 3,254, filed July 29, 1843, and issued September 9, 1843.

[5] Laura Weiss, Ice Cream: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2011): 42-44.

[6] Mark McWilliams, The Story Behind the Dish: Fifty Classic America Foods (City: Publisher, 2012): 146-7.

[7] Herman Feldman, Prohibition: Its Industrial and Economic Aspects (New York: Appleton and Company, 1927): 88-89.

[8] Baldock, Maurtia. "THE ESKIMO PIE CORPORATION RECORDS, 1921-1996 #553." Technology, Invention, and Innovation Collections. January 31, 2007. Accessed July 05, 2019.

[9] Good Humor History. Accessed July 05, 2019.

[10] McWilliams, 100.

[11] Reagan, Gillian. "A Brief History of the Ice Cream Truck." Mental Floss. August 01, 2016. Accessed July 05, 2019.

[12] Jones, Frederick McKinley. Air-Conditioner for Vehicles. US Patent 2,303,857, filed November 16, 1939, and issued December 1, 1942.


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