Who doesn’t love ice cream? Less clear-cut is who invented it. We don’t know for sure how ice cream came to be but here’s what we do know about its history.
Europeans first encountered something resembling ice cream around the 1300s. After famed explorer Marco Polo returned to Italy from China he came back with wild stories of adventure and exotic places. But he also bore the recipe for a dessert we’d now call sherbet or sorbet.
The modern ice cream we all know and love today likely evolved from this recipe starting in the 16h century. But ice cream arrived at its final form during the 20th century thanks to electrical refrigeration.
Ice cream wasn’t invented by a single person but is rather the result of a series of contributors across different cultures and centuries.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — let’s not start eating this treat from the cone up, as it were. The story of ice cream (what we know of it, at least) starts, surprisingly enough, in Antiquity.
Table of contents
- 1 The origin of ice cream: a snowy treat
- 2 Who invented modern ice cream? From gelato to ice cream sandwiches
- 3 Innovations and expansion
- 4 The Ice Cream Cone: A Delicious Revolution
- 5 How war gave ice cream a huge boost
- 6 Ice Cream in the modern age: a global phenomenon
The origin of ice cream: a snowy treat
To the best of our knowledge, ice cream first reared its refreshing head in the Persian empire of yore. We don’t know, for sure, who first came up with the idea or when.
The Persians mixed ice with grape juice, fruit juice, and other sweet flavors to make an ice-cream-like treat called bastani, around 500 B.C.
This ancient delicacy was very challenging and expensive to produce, making it a noble or royal dish. This ancient ice cream more resembled what we’d call sorbet today in texture and taste. Still, it was highly regarded due to its scarcity and was probably greatly enjoyed in the Persian heat by those who could afford it.
From Persia to Ancient Greece and Rome
Ultimately, the Persian Empire met its maker in the form of Alexander the Great, who waged war on them for ten years. Warmaking is hot, tiring stuff, and accounts from Alexander’s campaigns say he took a particular liking to the local “fruit ices”. Accounts describe the dessert as a honey-sweetened dish chilled using snow.
The Persian fruit ice morphed into the Iranian traditional chilled dessert called faloodeh. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD, the Arab world also adopted this dish.
Likely through Alexander’s phalangites returning home from their campaigns, ice cream was gradually introduced to early Western societies, eventually finding its way to the Emperor’s court in Rome.
Icecreamhistory cites “tales from this period” telling of “armies of runners, who carried ice from mountains to big Roman cities during summers”, showcasing how appreciated the dish became among Roman nobles and Emperors. Emperor Nero is recorded as being a big fan of the dessert.
Did China invent ice cream?
But China also had its own icy dessert. Around 200 BCE, people in China savored a simple concoction of milk and rice, packed in snow to preserve and chill. It was a luxury limited to the royal court and upper class, as was the case with similar desserts during ancient times.
Fast forward to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), where a more refined version of this snowy treat started to take shape. King Tang of Shang supposedly employed 94 “ice men” to create a dish of buffalo milk, flour, and camphor. While this might sound less than appetizing to our modern taste buds, it was a definite precursor to what we know today as ice cream.
The Silk Road: spreading ice cream to the world
Ice cream R&D was going strong in China and Arab countries during the 9th to 11th centuries. Around this time, confectioners started experimenting with milk-based ice creams, more akin to the ones we enjoy today. Their ideas slowly made their way to Europe on the backs of traders and wanderers such as the Italian Marco Polo.
During his many travels down the Silk Road, Marco Polo discovered many customs, cultures, and cuisines. Among these treasures was a recipe for a creamy, milk-based dessert. When Polo returned to Italy in 1295, he brought this recipe back with him.
In Italy, the recipe was changed many times, transforming into something closer to the frozen dessert we know and love.
The strong economies of Italian city-states at the time, and especially their trade with Muslim countries, put them in a unique position to draw on these ideas. This explains why Italy has such a strong tradition of ice cream-making to this day.
But with a hefty price tag, and with no effective means of storing ice or snow, it remained a very exclusive dish up until the 17th or 18th century in Europe.
Who invented modern ice cream? From gelato to ice cream sandwiches
“Cream Ice” as it was known in Florentine Italy at the time, made its way to England sometime in the 16th century. It was a regular fixture at the table of Charles I, during the 17th century. France got its first taste of the dessert in 1553 after Catherine de Medici (Italian) wed Henry II of France.
However, everybody seems to agree that ice cream was first made available to the general public in 1660. A Sicilian man named Procopio Cutò introduced a recipe of frozen milk, cream, butter, and eggs (gelato) at Café Procope (the oldest café in Paris), which he owned.
Cosimo Ruggeri from Florence is credited with inventing the first gelato at the court of Catherine de Medici in the early 1530s. However, Procopio took this concept and introduced it to the wider public.
Better ice storing techniques allowed ice cream to be produced in greater quantities and cheaper than ever before. The dessert made its way to America on the backs of these technologies in the mid-18th century.
There are records from 1744 that mention Maryland Governor Thomas Bladen serving ice cream to his guests. From there, the love for ice cream spread like wildfire across the budding nation.
During the American Revolution, George Washington himself was known to have a penchant for this frozen delight. He even had ice cream-making equipment at his home in Mount Vernon.
In 1790, the first ice cream parlor opened in New York City, and from there, the journey of this delicious dessert has been one of constant evolution and innovation.
Around 1850, large commercial entities started dabbling in the production and sale of ice cream, which further brought costs down and allowed more people than ever to enjoy the frozen treat.
But ice cream was still rare.
Innovations and expansion
In 1843, Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked ice cream churn, a revolution in ice cream making. This invention reduced the time it took to make ice cream and made it much easier to produce.
Yet, the biggest single boon for ice cream was the advent of commercially available, continuous electrical refrigeration after World War I.
The ability to store ice cream for long periods of time without damaging it gave the industry wings. Production during this time rose a hundredfold, especially in the United States which escaped the war unravaged.
The once-exclusive dessert was becoming increasingly accessible to the masses.
The Ice Cream Cone: A Delicious Revolution
One of the most influential innovations in the history of ice cream is the humble ice cream cone. Imagine trying to enjoy your scoop on the go without this clever invention!
The popular story behind the ice cream cone’s creation takes us back to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. An ice cream vendor reportedly ran out of dishes and teamed up with a nearby waffle stall owner, Ernest A. Hamwi, to roll the waffles into cones to hold the ice cream. This provided a convenient and edible solution to the dish shortage and created an instant sensation.
While there are conflicting claims about who actually invented the ice cream cone, its impact on the industry is undisputed. The cone turned ice cream into a truly portable pleasure and an iconic symbol of summertime fun.
As the 20th century progressed, the ice cream industry continued to innovate. The first ice cream bar, the “I-Scream-Bar,” was patented in the US by Christian Kent Nelson in 1922. This delightful combination of vanilla ice cream coated in a layer of chocolate was later renamed the Eskimo Pie.
Around the same time, the ice cream sandwich made its appearance, taking the concept of the ice cream cone a step further. Who could resist the allure of a layer of ice cream sandwiched between two cookies or wafers?
How war gave ice cream a huge boost
Ice cream also gained an unexpected boost on global markets during World War II, when both flash-frozen and dried ice creams became part of the official US Army combat rations. These were distributed to US soldiers in all theaters of operations: Europe, North Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific fronts.
In fact, ice cream played a central role in boosting US soldiers’ calorie intake, as well as their morale and fighting spirit. An article in The Atlantic looked at the role of ice cream in the American war effort during World War II. It cites an editorial from the May 1918 issue of The Ice Cream Review, a monthly trade magazine, that shows where this treat fit into military life during the first world war.
“In this country every medical hospital uses ice cream as a food and doctors would not know how to do without it. But what of our wounded and sick boys in France? Are they to lie in bed wishing for a dish of good old American ice cream? They are up to the present, for ice cream and ices are taboo in France,” The Ice Cream Review wrote. “It clearly is the duty of the Surgeon General or some other officer to demand that a supply be forthcoming.”
You could chalk those lines up to industry lobbying — and it’s probably exactly what that was. But by 1942, the situation had changed dramatically. Whether as a result of lobbying, grassroots support from GIs, or simply out of a desire to give those on the front the best comforts one could really provide them with, ice cream was often seen on American lines.
When the U.S.S. Lexington, the second-largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy at the time, had to be scuttled to avoid capture by Japanese forces, “the crew abandoned ship — but not before breaking into the freezer and eating all the ice cream. Survivors describe scooping ice cream into their helmets and licking them clean before lowering themselves into the Pacific,” the article explains.
“The U.S. Navy spent $1 million in 1945 converting a concrete barge into a floating ice-cream factory to be towed around the Pacific, distributing ice cream to ships incapable of making their own,” Matt Siegel wrote for The Atlantic. “It held more than 2,000 gallons of ice cream and churned out 10 gallons every seven minutes.”
“Not to be outdone, the U.S. Army constructed miniature ice-cream factories on the front lines and began delivering individual cartons to foxholes. This was in addition to the hundreds of millions of gallons of ice-cream mix they manufactured annually, shipping more than 135 million pounds of dehydrated ice cream in a single year.”
Ice Cream in the modern age: a global phenomenon
Immediately after the war, ice cream was perceived as an American invention. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of the industrialized world had been bombed halfway back to the stone age in not one but two massive conflicts. Frozen dessert wasn’t high on anybody else’s to-do list.
Hollywood also helped promote ice cream, which was regularly included in movies and its overarching culture. The icy appeal of ice cream proved irresistible, and as the world dragged itself out of the rubble and horror of war, other countries started churning out their own.
This period also saw a great deal of experimentation with and development of new types of ice cream, most notably the soft ice cream and sundae varieties that are highly appreciated to this day.
From a simple mix of snow and milk enjoyed by a handful of Chinese aristocrats, ice cream has become a beloved treat enjoyed by billions around the globe. As you savor your next scoop, remember the long and fascinating journey that brought this dessert to your bowl or cone. The invention of ice cream truly is a testament to human ingenuity and our shared love for a sweet, cool treat.