Forget about the song of the summer, whatever it may be this year. There’s one sound that’s been ringing in the warm weather for nearly a century. Nothing quite signifies the end of the school year like the ubiquitous jingle-jangle of the ice cream truck. Once you hear those dulcet chimes you’re instantly transported. It’s not so much a truck as it is a symbol of childhood nostalgia that rolls down the street.
There’s something almost magical about a vehicle dedicated solely to frozen dessert. The instant delivery of ice cream to your doorstep makes these trucks a neighborhood institution. But how did they get their start and why do they persist to this day?
It turns out we have Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio to thank for this glorious innovation. As a candy maker in the 1920s, Burt was looking to expand his business. During the time period, sweet shops and soda fountains were enjoying a boom. Since Prohibition outlawed alcohol, more folks found themselves frequenting these spaces, given the lack of bars.
Burt sought to take advantage of the greater cultural demand for desserts by inventing novelty products. He started experimenting by covering blocks of vanilla ice cream with cocoa butter and coconut oil, so they got a silky chocolate coating. His son suggested he use the leftover lollipop sticks as handles, so they weren’t as messy to eat. And voila, the Good Humor ice cream bar was born!
But where does the truck part come in? During this time period, the car business was also rapidly expanding–this was the era of Henry Ford after all. Burt sought to combine the demand for ice cream with new automotive technology. He invested in 12 refrigerator trucks and hired professional drivers in pristine white uniforms (to denote cleanliness and safety) to distribute his new confections across the city. Burt also borrowed bells from his son’s bobsled to stir up excitement among neighborhood children, and the same routes were followed daily to instill familiarity among residents.
As we all know by now, this scheme turned out to be wildly successful. Nickel-cheap prices even kept the company afloat throughout the Great Depression. While the company eventually sold its fleet of trucks in 1976 to focus on selling its products in grocery stores, some of those trucks are still independently operated by other ice cream distributors to this day.
While Good Humor had a stronghold on the ice cream truck business for many decades, they weren’t the only beloved brand on wheels. By the 1950s, soft serve ice cream machines had become mainstays at local diners and soda fountains. Brothers William and James Conway of Philadelphia decided to mobilize this new technology by inserting those machines in delivery vehicles. And with that, Mister Softee, another summer mainstay, was born, although his first voyage was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1956.
While Good Humor and Mister Softee have been the two largest purveyors of ice cream on wheels, many smaller companies cater to their local communities as well. New York City alone is home to a bevy of gourmet flavors courtesy of Van Leeuwen’s, Big Gay Ice Cream, Wafels & Dinges, and many more artisanal brands. But sometimes all you want is a vanilla-chocolate swirly cone or a strawberry shortcake bar. There is an elegance and deliciousness to the food’s simplicity–one deeply rooted in nostalgia.
Beyond the silly mascots (like the eponymous, cone-headed Mister Softee) and the novelty pop culture themed-treats (we’re looking at you, Spongebob Popsicles!), children of all generations will always run out the door or jump out of the pool when an ice cream truck rolls by. The instinct is practically coded in our DNA at this point. The jangly siren of cheap, cold ice cream brought to your backyard will always make us scream with joy.
Header image courtesy of Mister Softee.