Today, we democratize ice cream. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Visiting my great-aunt at
her old farmhouse was a childhood delight --
drinking in 19th-century smells and textures. Best
of all was the taste of her homemade ice cream,
rich with eggs and cream. Back in the city, at the
corner grocery, I could buy three large scoops of
the factory-made stuff for a nickel. It wasn't Aunt
Mary's artery-clogging ambrosia, but it was still
wonderful. Ice cream was among my primary pleasures
in the 1930s.
The odd thing about ice cream is that it was around
long before commercial refrigeration systems became
commonplace in the 1870s. Ice cream didn't have to
wait for that. Wealthy Romans packed snow in straw
and brought it down from the mountains. They
flavored it with fruit and served it at banquets.
But it had the texture of ice crystals and it
lacked the body of a dairy product. Roman ices were
a far cry from ice cream.
Marco Polo found a recipe for a milk-based ice in
13th-century China. From then through the 18th
century, closely-guarded ice cream recipes traveled
the royal houses of Europe. King Charles I of
England mandated that they not be served at
anyone's table but his. This was no food for
Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all served ice
creams at affairs of state. Like government itself,
ice cream was about to be democratized, but it was
still a terribly labor-intensive product. You have
to hold a gluey mixture at sub-freezing
temperatures while you steadily stir it to keep ice
crystals from forming. Good ice cream is a texture
as much as it is a taste. Making it is a process --
not just a recipe.
Nevertheless, ice cream became an expensive public
delicacy in our new country. During the early 19th
century you could buy it in New Orleans shops --
even in Kentucky. Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia
made the big breakthrough in 1843. She patented the
home ice cream freezer. Then she sold the patent
for $200. By 1873 some seventy copycat patents had
After that, ice cream became an American staple.
Jacob Fussell, an abolitionist Lincoln supporter,
set up the first ice cream factory in 1856. The ice
cream soda and the ice cream sundae followed. The
ice cream cone was patented in 1903. It took off in
America after it proved to be the most popular
treat at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
What I saw at my great aunt's house was the passing
on of the old nectar of Caesars and kings. What I
enjoyed at the corner store was ice cream finally
gone fully public. America had, at last, given all
of us a joy once allowed only to royalty and their
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Funderburg, A., The Inside Scoop. American
Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 11,
No. 3, Winter 1996, pp. 44-49.
Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., Hall, A.R., and
Williams, T.I., A History of
Technology, Vol. 5. New York: Oxford
University Press,1958. See entries indexed under
Photo by Judy Myers, with
A Thomas Mills and Brothers Ice-Cream Maker, 1870,
at the Smithsonian Institution
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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