Material Culture Museum: Ice Cream!

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.

The origins of ice cream are mysterious. There’s documentation of people flavoring snow hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, but that’s really more of a primative snow cone than ice cream. Some might place its beginning during the reign of Nero (54-68 CE), because the famous Emperor enjoyed a frozen, sweetened combination of ice and fruit pulp, but of course that’s technically sherbet, not ice cream (Powell 12). Sherbet and other iced treats were around Europe for centuries until slowly emerged the addition of cream to the mixture. No one person is attributed to this discovery, but the first official recipe for ice cream was published by Nicholas Lemery in 1674 (Powell 26). By 1768, according to ice cream historian and expert, Marilyn Powell, the age of ice cream was under way (28).

But wait! Perhaps it’s not that simple and European! Myth has it that Marco Polo observed the Mongols making ice cream in China and then brought the recipe back with him to Italy. Though Marco Polo does not write explicitly of ice cream, he does, however, document drinking a fermented milk product called kumiss, which the T’ang rulers of China would enjoy mixed with rice and frozen. It seems as though the lines of this poem by Yang Wanli, c. 1200 BCE, describe ice cream:

It looks so greasy but still has crisp texture,

It appears congealed yet seems to float,

Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;

As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.

(Powell 32).

There is, however, no concrete evidence of ice cream in China, nor are Marco Polo’s writings of China held in high regard (there are questions as to if he ever actually made it there). Where ever and how ever it emerged, ice cream did not truly “hit the scene” until the 18th century, and not long after gaining popularity in Europe, ice cream made the trans-Atlantic jump to the United States.

The Founding Fathers loved ice cream. While he was the ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson grew a bit of an obsession with ice cream, going as far as employing a chef in Paris who would make vanilla ice cream for him. Jefferson even created his own recipe for making vanilla ice cream, which actually does not even list vanilla as an ingredient (Powell 158). George Washington  insisted on having ice cream on the White House menu, and years later Dolley Madison served it at the Inauguration dinner in 1813 (Powell 160). Don’t let these prominent white people fool you, the circulation and perpetuation of ice cream in American was solely because of African Americans. In fact, legend has it that Dolley Madison got her recipe for the Inauguration dinner from Aunt Sallie Shadd, a free black woman from Delaware who many believed to the “inventor” of ice cream. Augustus Jackson, a free black man, was a cook in the White House and after leaving his job there and moving to Philidelphia, began distributing his ice cream to street vendors, who were also mostly African American (Powell 161). These street vendors brought ice cream to the American public, often shouting slogans like, “I Scream Ice Cream” in 1828, which later morphed into, “I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for ICE CREAM” in 1927 (Powell 162). Needless to say, by the time the Civil War began in 1861, ice cream had already been a part of the American diet for over 80 years and established itself as slogan-worthy treat.

Though Whitman had access to treats like ice cream and citrus fruits, these things were not prevalent during the Civil War. In her article, “Hard as the Hubs of Hell: Crackers in War,” Joy Santlofer discusses the diet of the Civil War soldier. Hard bread, or hard tack, was the staple food item during the war. This bread was so hard that it had to be shattered by a riffle or a sharp rock and then soaked in a liquid before eating, and more often than not, it housed maggots. This is what the soldiers ate every day. To break up the monotony of their diet, soldiers would add the hard bread to their coffee or stew (Santlofer 5). The reasoning behind this unfortunate diet was, of course, the lack of food preservation methods. The newest food  technology was canning, sweetened condensed milk became a hot commodity amongst the soldiers (Santlofer 3). Canned food, dried and salted meats, and hard bread were primarily the only food items that could be kept and transported during the Civil War. So how was it possible for ice cream to exist in the summer heat of Virginia in the 1860s?

This question is not easily answered. Though there were forms of refrigeration by the 1860s, food preservation was still in its primitive stage. The ice box, literally an insulated box with a block of ice on the top shelf, were the most common in cold food storage. Though an ice box could store the cream and eggs used to make ice cream, it would have not been cold enough to store ice cream. A break through in food preservation was made in 1861 by Enoch Piper in Camden, Maine, when he patented a method of freezing a fish by coating it in ice and then moving it into an ice box with chilled brine of ice and salt (Rudi, “How We Got Frozen Food”). Of course we know that the addition of salt creates a lower temperature for various chemical reasons that no one cares to read about. Enoch Piper might have received the official patent for this discovery but this was already common knowledge to those making ice cream. Even in Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for ice cream, which I referenced earlier, instructs to layer salt with ice around the sabotiere. The ice cream was mixed in the sabotiere and left for a several hours in a combination of salt and ice to freeze before serving. Here’s an image that will help clarify– the sabotiere is the smaller container within the bucket, the empty space between the sabotiere and the bucket would have been filled with salt and ice.

It was common practice in the 19th century to place half-frozen ice cream, what we would call “soft serve” now, into a mold and then let the ice cream continue to freeze inside the mold (Powell 160).  It’s doubtful this would have been done for the soldiers, however, because this was usually done for fancy dinner parties and special occasions. It is also unlikely that these reasonably sized sabotieres were used to feed an entire army. Here enters Jacob Fussell to save the day. Jacob Fussell established the first commercial ice cream plant in Baltimore in 1851, and supplied the Union troops with ice cream throughout the war by using refrigerated rail cars (Powell 163). Other smaller scale modes of ice cream production, i.e. making the ice cream on sight, were also used to feed the soldiers, but Fussell’s factory sent out a majority of the ice cream consumed during the Civil War.

Fussell began the tradition of ice cream as an American military staple. During World War II, the U.S. Navy produced 10 gallons of ice cream per second for its sailors (Powell 163). Ice cream, though it does not originate from The United States, has become synonymous with the United States. During times of international war, other countries have watched Americans eat the stuff (literally) by the gallons. Even though ice cream exists in dozens of other nations, only in the United States has it become linked to patriotism through its historic military ties, perhaps explaining why America is currently the greatest producer and consumer of ice cream. So not only is ice cream tasty, but it’s downright American!

Powell, Marilyn. Ice Cream: The Delicious History. New York: The Overlook Press, 2005. Print.

Santlofer, Joy. “‘Hard as the Hubs of Hell’: Crackers in War.” Food, Culture & Society: Wilson Web 10 (2007): 191-209. 13 October 2009.

Volti, Rudi. “How We Got Frozen Food.” Invention and Technology Magazine. American Hertiage. Web. 18 October 2009.

  1. Avatar of tallersam

    #1 by tallersam on October 20, 2009 - 3:29 pm

    Man, I was completely unaware of the patriotic nature of ice cream. I mean, the only country ice cream really ever made me think of was France (“neopolitan” sounds vaguely like “Napoleon”). I guess this means that the southern states were woefully devoid of ice cream during this period? It would make sense, with the higher temperatures and lower level of industry, I guess.
    I’m a little curious now though: why was the “We all scream for ice cream” slogan developed? Was it a radio jingle or something?

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