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Why We Scream: A Conversation with Laura B. Weiss

Josh Greenman

July 03, 2023

How ice cream became a city — and a New York City — thing

How ice cream became a city — and a New York City — thing

A city summer without ice cream is a far less pleasant season. Science may tell us that ice cream doesn’t have the cooling effect on the human body that people think it does, but we know what we know: We need it, if not its Italian ice and frozen yogurt cousins, to get through July and August. So we thought we’d get a little insight on how frozen desserts — from Mr. Softee to Häagen-Dazs to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory — became so central to surviving the sweltering summers here. Laura B. Weiss filled us in. She’s the author of “Ice Cream: A Global History,” a book printed on pages that are bound to stick together.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Credit: Arthur Mount. Portrait of Laura B. Weiss.

Josh Greenman: Ice cream, people assume, starts where cows live, which is not in cities. How and when does it go from being a thing we’d associate with cows to a thing that's enjoyed in cities?

Laura B. Weiss: Well, it didn’t start out as dairy. It started out as what we know as a sort of sorbet. The Romans would take wine and mix it up with crushed ice and make these wine slushies. And not surprisingly, the Italians continued the tradition, until the late 17th century, when some guy named Antonio Latini put milk in this frozen slush. Then he added exotic flavors like chocolate, which was very expensive — it was just beginning to be imported from South America. And vanilla, also very expensive, and things like pine nuts. And at that point, ice cream was purely a dessert of the rich because the ingredients were incredibly expensive, and it took forever to make. 

JG: So ice cream was a thing for the rich in Europe. What carried over to the United States and in what form?

LW: What carried over was the food; what also carried over was the expense. Sugar was enormously expensive. People would lock it up in little safes. Dairy products, depending on where you lived, could be expensive. 

JG: What’s the first known appearance in New York City?

LW: People who ran sweet shops, which would include candy and some baked goods, also offered ice cream. These tended to cluster around Wall Street because in the early years, that’s where New York was. So they sold ice cream along with bonbons and there were these pleasure gardens in the 18th century where, on a nice, warm night, you would go with your friends, with your girlfriend, and you’d eat and you’d drink and you’d enjoy ice cream. 

George Washington was a huge fan. In 1784 he bought a “Cream Machine for Ice.” He spent $200 on ice cream in New York in one summer here, when New York was the nation’s capital. $200 in those days! Think of it!

There was a big change right before and after the Civil War with industrialization — and in that sense, ice cream is no different than steel or cotton mills or anything else.

JG: When and how was it democratized?

LW: In 1843 in Philadelphia, Nancy Johnson invented the ice cream maker. Before that, you had to literally stand there or sit there and shake two bowls, one with ice and one with the ingredients for hours to get the ice cream to harden and turn into something that wasn’t ice cream soup. So it was very labor intensive. You had to have servants. 

After Johnson, that started to change. Then there was a big change right before and after the Civil War with industrialization — and in that sense, ice cream is no different than steel or cotton mills or anything else. 

JG: Who mass-produced it first?

LW: In 1851, this Baltimore milk dealer named Jacob Fussell started a factory. And then more factories opened, including in New York. 

Throughout the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the other very significant development in New York ice cream history and also in other big cities was the hokey-pokey person. Most of them were men, but there were also women, and they had these carts they would load up with this basically this ice milk, and they would go up and down the streets like in the Lower East Side and, you know, sing the song about the hokey pokey, which was some sort of bastardization of an Italian saying. A lot of these vendors were Italian immigrants. And you would go up to one of them if you were a kid, and you’d say I want some and they’d give this crude, homemade stuff to you in a glass, and you’d lick it and you’d hand it back to the vendor, and then the vendor would fill it with ice cream for the next person. This was not especially sanitary.

But the stuff was cheap, so anybody could buy it. And that’s partly why ice cream spread and became popular in New York and other cities.

JG: How did they make it and keep it cold long enough to serve it?

LW: Until late in the 19th century, they used natural ice. There were these Ice Kings that had made fabulous fortunes from cutting blocks of ice from, for example, the Hudson River. And they would ship this ice to the city, where it would be stored in ice houses. And people often had ice houses on their property. 

Then refrigeration was invented, and it just changed everything. I mean, then ice cream could be produced inexpensively in large volumes and transported in refrigerated railroad cars and then trucks. That just opened the whole thing up.

JG: Put New York’s role in context once industrialization takes hold. 

LW: Many of the biggest players are in the Midwest, but not all. 

Carvel starts in Westchester in the 1930s. The Kohr Brothers made their first frozen custard in Coney Island in 1919. Their ice cream was melting too fast, so they added eggs to help stiffen it.

Häagen-Dazs was born in the Bronx in 1960, founded by a Jewish immigrant from Poland who as a child had helped sell ice cream bars and sandwiches from a horse-drawn wagon. It was a completely fabricated name made to sound sophisticated so that people would serve it at their dinner parties, which is what happened in the 1970s. 

But honestly, New Yorkers are not the biggest producers. This is not where the popsicle started. It’s not where the Good Humor bar started. It’s not where the ice cream cone started. That’s all in the Midwest. 

We’re great consumers of ice cream.

JG: If you ask New Yorkers about ice cream trucks, they’ll probably say the only real one is Mr. Softee. But where did the ice cream truck start?

That jingle ... just means summer; it means New York.

LW: The Good Humor bar was invented around 1920 in Youngstown, Ohio, by a candy maker called Harry Burt. Soon he started selling it from refrigerated trucks. Good Humor was huge. I mean, I grew up on Long Island. And that was my summer ice cream truck. Except of course, I was lactose-intolerant. So I would run after the ice cream truck and then sort of come to this dead stop because I would realize I wasn’t allowed to eat it. My grandmother would run out of the house with cookies for me.

Mr. Softee started in the 1950s. That jingle, written by Les Waas — it annoys me, but some people love it — just means summer; it means New York. It means your kids and running to the truck to get some treats. 

JG: Do you remember in the 2000s, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg wanted to silence the Mr. Softee jingle? He thought that it made it impossible for kids to say no and basically led to bad health habits.

LW: Yeah, well, he was probably right. But you know, my daughter, like many other parents, won’t let her kids have it. She says, “No way.” Probably people should decide for themselves.

JG: What do you think when you survey the ice cream landscape here today? Does it all feel familiar or different?

LW: Now, first of all, for lactose intolerant people like me and others, thank goodness, there are a lot of vegan brands now. So I don’t feel quite as denied as I used to. I think one of the things that has changed for the worse is it’s become this luxury product again. 

I mean, I went to — I won’t name the shop — and it cost me almost $7. So it’s almost unaffordable. And I know ingredients are really expensive, but you know, it’s come a long way from the hokey pokey days where it was a penny or a nickel or whatever it was and everybody could afford it.

JG: Are there any flavors that stand out to you as either terrible or terrific, or just odd?

LW: Well, you know, I’m a purist. I just like chocolate or maybe rum raisin, which is a very old-timey flavor, but one I really like. 

You know, a very popular ice cream combination for many years was vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, Neapolitan. That was considered a wide range of flavors. And then in the 1950s and 60s, Howard Johnson came along with his 28 flavors and then you know, Häagen-Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s and all that; they expanded the palate hugely, hugely. And now, anything goes: You put anything in, and people seem to love it.

Credit: Ralph Morse / Life Picture Collection