Cool Off and Take A Step Back in Time With 10 Facts About the History of Ice Cream in America

By Larry Holzwarth

In the markets of ancient Athens, snow mixed with fruit and honey was eaten with the encouragement of the students of Hippocrates. Ancient Chinese people froze a mixture of milk and rice pudding by submerging it in salt laced snow. The Roman emperors brought ice to Rome from the mountains, used for the creation of frozen fruit dishes. By the Middle Ages ice cream was known in Europe, and one hundred years before the American Revolution recipes for its production appeared in writing in France. They soon were found in English cookbooks.

It is a myth that Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to America from France, as recipes appeared in Pennsylvania magazines before he was born. But he was a fan, as was George Washington. The records of a New York shopkeeper show that Washington spent $200 on ice cream in 1790 alone. It was the Quakers who brought ice cream to America and Philadelphia became famous for the quality of the confection there. As America grew, different ways of consuming ice cream developed; the cone, the ice cream soda, the sundae, the banana split, and in bars and sandwiches.

The combination of ice cream and baseball is irresistible to some Americans. Library of Congress

Here are a few of the steps in the evolution of ice cream in America.

Jefferson penned an eighteen step recipe for vanilla ice cream. Wikimedia

Ice Cream as a luxury food

In the days before refrigeration, ice cream was a treat for the wealthy, as it was expensive to produce, and to store. It was made by submerging the mixture of cream, sugar, and flavoring, in ice water mixed with salt, which lowered the freezing point of the water, and absorbed the heat of the cream mixture. The method was known as the French Pot method. In France a device known as a “sorbetiere” was equipped with a lid and a handle connected to a paddle for stirring the mixture as it froze.

George Washington – who had ice houses at Mount Vernon – was fond of peach ice cream, served with a maple syrup flavored whipped cream. Flavorings for ice cream in colonial America included the various native berries, maple, molasses, vanilla beans (which were very expensive), chocolate, pumpkins and melons, nuts, and nectars. Ice cream flavored with peppers and other spices were also well known. Unless one possessed the means of making it, it needed to be ordered in advance.

It was ordered from small business confectioners, who were given the recipes in many cases. While serving as Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson provided his ice cream supplier with an 18 step recipe for vanilla ice cream, which was written in his own hand and is preserved in the Library of Congress. Jefferson preferred his ice cream served atop wafers known as Savoy cookies, for which he thoughtfully provided the recipe on the back of the ice cream recipe.

Not until the mid-nineteenth century did mass production of ice cream begin in America, when a Maryland dairyman built a factory to produce ice cream from his surplus cream which would otherwise have gone to waste. In 1851, he built a Pennsylvania ice cream manufacturing plant, soon relocating to Baltimore, and expanding into several cities before the Civil War.

With the onset of mass production and commercial ice houses, ice cream became a popular food available to all, whereas earlier it was considered a treat enjoyed only by the elite. Following the Civil War it became wildly popular, as Americans new ways to flavor and consume it, other than from a dish with a spoon.