It was always ice cream’s destiny to end up universally beloved, but ever wondered where ice cream came from—who invented it, and how it used to be served and sold? And what about Popsicles? Here’s a brief history of ice cream and other frozen desserts in America.
Ice cream is never boring, even when we’re scooping vanilla—the world’s most popular flavor by a landslide. But we’ve swirled wayyy past vanilla with our crazy concoctions of America’s favorite frozen dessert. From the jet-black activated charcoal ice cream at Prohibition Creamery in Austin, Texas, to the cornbread and beer ice creams of OddFellows in NYC, we like it weird. We see these Instagram sensations like Black Tap‘s over-the-top milkshakes that have cakes, cookies, and candies towering on top of the glass and then all those health-oriented “nice” creams substituting cream and sugar for bananas, coconut cream, almond milk, and anything other than dairy. We love to lap up every cool treat trend along the way.
When was ice cream invented (as we know it)?
The earliest ice cream we have on record hails from the 4th Century B.C., according to ThoughtCo.—and The Old Farmer’s Almanac (among other sources) places the likely origins of ice cream in ancient China.
But it was White House chef Augustus Jackson who popularized the creamy, cold, sweet stuff in the United States in 1832. Jackson figured out how to package ice cream in tin cans to distribute to African-American-owned ice cream parlors. He was dubbed the Father of Ice Cream, even though he didn’t invent it or patent his process or flavors.
What about other frozen desserts?
Besides ice cream, there are so many other kinds of frozen treats: Frozen custard, sherbet, sorbet, gelato, frozen yogurt, nice cream, shaved ice, Popsicles, snow cones, Italian ice, push-pops, Thai rolled ice cream, and mochi ice cream balls for instance.
Take snow cones: In 1919, Samuel “King Sammie” Bert of East Dallas began selling the icy treats at the State Fair of Texas, according to the History Channel. The next year, he patented his ice crusher machine, and by the early 1950s, he was selling an estimated 1 million snow cones a year at his stand.
A slight variation to the snow cone, shaved ice thrives especially in Hawaii, and former Pres. Barack Obama loves it (drop the “d” in Hawaii, though; call it shave ice). Unlike the crushed ice of snow cones, shaved ice is fluffier and holds more syrup. That started during the Industrial Revolution about 1845, when wagons carried ice from New York to the South, distributing ice shavings to kids in Baltimore, Maryland, where they added syrup. In New Orleans, Louisiana, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz was the first to operate an electric ice-shaving machine when it opened in 1939, selling the treats for 2 cents each. Two cents: Can you imagine?!
Popsicles came about in the early 1900s (in 1925 according to the Great American Ice Cream Book and 1905 according to Encyclopedia of Food and Drink) when Frank Epperson left a glass of lemonade with a spoon or stick in it on a windowsill on a cold New Jersey day.
Read More: 7 Ice Pop Recipes That Break the Mold
More variations in ice cream came in 1907, when a student created the banana split at a Pennsylvania soda shop; in 1925, when Howard Johnson’s introduced more butterfat into ice cream plus 28 flavors, according to The Lowell Sun; in 1940, when Dairy Queen dished out 1,600 servings of new soft-serve ice cream in two hours; and in 1945, when Baskin-Robbins opened to offer 31 flavors and become the world’s largest chain of ice cream specialty stores today.
Read More: The History of the Ice Cream Truck
In the 1960s, NASA invented freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, which deserves a mention if only for the thrill it continues to provide to kids on field trips to science museums.
Then fro-yo happened. We can thank (or blame?) TCBY for starting the frozen yogurt craze in 1981. An acronym for The Country’s Best Yogurt, the chain began in Arkansas, capitalizing on the emerging health craze with its low-fat frozen dessert alternative to ice cream. Of course, we know today that it has a lot of sugar, which is the enemy of modern health watchers. But self-service frozen yogurt shops are still everywhere and popular.
The evolution of modern ice cream in America
In the 1990s, we started borrowing from other cultures for our next frozen dessert fix, specifically Asian cultures. Traditional Japanese mochi cakes morphed into mochi ice cream after much experimentation by a couple in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, California, forming their Mikawaya mochi ice cream company in the U.S. in 1993. Mango, green tea, and cookies-n-cream flavors of ice cream are wrapped in balls of fluffy, chewy, sweet rice dough. Other brands include My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream and Mochidoki. Trader Joe’s carries their own flavors, and many Whole Foods (among other stores) have dedicated mochi freezers. It’s a thing.
Another favorite for Instagram videos and photos: Thai rolled ice cream, those quarter-sized rolls of ice cream squeezed into a cup vertically with all sorts of toppings. Watching it being made is half the fun. The ice cream made fresh to order. After you make your choice (like wild berry lavender or virgin mojito at Blossom in Brooklyn, New York), employees pour flavored milk liquid onto a round metal plate that’s kept so cold it’s sometimes below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. They spread the liquid around the pizza-shaped platter and cut it into strips as it freezes and hardens, rolling it with the spatula. It’s super fun to watch.
What about ice cream in the rest of the world?
It takes many delicious forms and was once only for the wealthy; here’s a quick overview of icy treats elsewhere:
Ice Cream Recipes
We’re keeping our eyes open for the next trend in frozen desserts (ube ice cream will undoubtedly be overshadowed by something else in time). In the meanwhile, try a few of our favorite ice cream recipes at home.
These Filipino ice pops have a lot going on, but we pared it down and made it flexible for you. You do want uber, or purple yams, as well as sugar, coconut milk, cream, and whole milk. Then the rest is up to you, from mango to whole boiled corn. Yep, corn. Get our Halo-Halo Ice Pop recipe.
Take some of your favorite components of the cake, and pour it into a glass and slurp it. Doll with the red hair that smells like strawberry candy not required. (What, you weren’t a little girl in the ’80s?) Get our Strawberry Shortcake Milkshake recipe.
This is a mouthful to say, as well as a mouthful to eat. But what a way to stuff your gullet. It’s like one rich chocolatey decadence idea piled upon another. Get our Chocolate Coffee Almond Crunch Ice Cream Cake recipe.
This is like raspberry sorbet with a kick. Lambic is a Belgium wheat beer infused with either berries or cherries. Think of it as an adult dessert. Get our Frozen Lambic Ice recipe.
This version requires buying two items from an Asian grocery store: mochi and red bean ice cream. Then you stuff the latter into the former. But you can make your own ice cream, if you use our Red Bean Ice Cream recipe before you go for our Mochi Ice Cream recipe.
Want more ideas? Check out our Fruity Frozen Treats for Hot Summer Days gallery.