How Ice Cream Made America

Over the centuries, the beloved treat has become an integral part of our national identity.


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The earliest recipe book devoted entirely to making ice cream was L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office by a mysterious M. Emy, published in 1768. The illustration on the frontispiece depicts roughly how ice cream was made at the time: By industrious flocks of chubby, naked cherubs with tiny wings, while God and Jesus, reposing in the clouds with a startled dove, look down from the heavens.

All right, ice cream may not have really been made by angels, but in 1768, it might as well have been — so exciting and novel was the experience of eating it and so mysterious the process of making it.

“If you knew how to make ices, you had a meal ticket for life, and you would lock the door of your confectionery so nobody knew how you did it,” explains Robin Weir, co-author of Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide.

Emy’s book underscored just how rare the dessert was at that time: It required specialist knowledge and equipment, ice, and sugar; unsurprisingly, a scoop of ice cream in the 1760s cost as much as the average laborer made in a week, if not more.

But in the centuries since cherubs made ice cream, this astonishing gastronomic marvel, democratized by technology and mass marketing, spread from being a display of European wealth to an integral part of American identity. Ice cream was what people ate on Independence Day almost since the first one; it forms the sweet, sticky bedrock of our childhood nostalgia; it’s every holiday in the sun, every summer day in each cold bite. No wonder at any given moment, 87 percent of Americans have a tub of ice cream in their freezers, pushing the value of the U.S. ice cream market alone to more than $19 billion in 2024.

Humans have been using naturally occurring ice and snow to chill food and drink for millennia — harvested during the winter, then packed in insulating materials and kept underground as long as it would last. In China, ice houses appeared around 1100 B.C.; in 4th-century Japan, ice was stored in 10-foot deep holes and covered with thatch. Most ice-storing cultures also enjoyed chilled and often sweetened beverages — in medieval Persia and Turkey, sharabt was sweetened syrup mixed with ice shavings or snow, the true ancestor of the slushy.

But this wasn’t quite ice cream — what ice cream needed was the discovery of the endothermic properties of adding salt to ice. Though the concept had been around for centuries, the first mention of it in a scientific text came in 1530; salt dramatically lowers the melting point of ice, which is why adding salt to the ice in the cooler keeps beers colder. And, as intrepid gastronomes soon discovered, salted ice packed around a tub of flavored liquid quickly freezes the liquid; scraping down the sides of the tub as it froze yielded an interesting, snow-like texture.

By the mid-1600s, wealthy Italians were using the method to make sorbetti, water-based flavored ices; before the end of the century, contemporary reports saw “ice creams” popping up on royal banqueting tables as far north as Stockholm. In 1700, the first ice cream in America was served at the table of the governor of Maryland; later, American presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all delighted their guests with it.

Cold comfort: The invention of the ice cream maker, like this one from 1873, allowed anyone to make their own frozen treats at home. (Shutterstock)

Ice cream was a status dish, but it wouldn’t be for long. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, ice-cream-making techniques improved and spread; meanwhile, the cost of sugar plummeted with the expansion of the slave trade, making ice cream’s most important ingredient less expensive. The next biggest blow to the exclusivity of ice cream was in the growth of the international ice trade, pioneered in part by Massachusetts “Ice King” Frederic Tudor (the subject of the Backstory in our July/August 2023 issue).

Tudor spent years convincing people they needed cold beverages in the summer, teaching restaurants to make ice cream, and underwriting the cost of iced drinks in bars. His persistence paid off, and by the 1820s, he was shipping Wenham Lake ice around the country. The ice trade gave America’s already budding love affair with ice cream wings, and after the Civil War, American ice-cream-making innovation — including Nancy Johnson’s 1843 hand-cranked churn and freezing bucket, and soon after, machines powered by steam and electricity — paved the way for mass production of ice cream on an unprecedented scale.

But there was a dark side to the demand, too. The food industry was unregulated, rife with unhygienic conditions, dairy in particular. In an 1858 exposé of “swill milk,” The New York Times reported that milk from diseased cows fed on fermented swill from distilleries and adulterated with plaster of Paris and chalk was being sold to the public via the growing “ice cream saloon” industry. Nor did the humans involved in the process have it much better. Ice cream street vendors — called “hokey pokey men” — tended to be immigrants who barely made a living wage and were abused on the streets.

Still, by the 20th century, ice cream in America had taken on dimensions of dogmatic patriotism. Anthropologist of the everyday Margaret Visser, writing in her 1986 book Much Depends on Dinner, noted that ice cream was “a symbol almost of national identity.” She could have dropped the almost: Since before the turn of the century, ice cream had been served to immigrants waiting in the purgatory of Ellis Island. The Soda Fountain, a monthly trade magazine to the soda industry, lauded the practice, calling ice cream an “Americanization aid” in a 1921 article and noting that it inculcated American values: “Who could imagine a man who is genuinely fond of ice cream becoming a Bolshevik?”

But what really pushed ice cream to the top of the American dessert list wasn’t patriotism: “The greatest thing that ever happened to the ice cream industry in America is Prohibition,” Weir says. From 1920, ice cream parlors filled some of the void left by closed bars, and a number of brewers, including Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch, reopened their operations as ice cream factories. The Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers could not have been happier — members reportedly sang a chorus at their conventions that went, “[Father] brings a brick of ice cream home instead of beer!” By the end of the 1920s, according to The Atlantic, Americans were consuming more than a million gallons of ice cream a day, astonishing given that home refrigeration was expensive. Those numbers continued to grow even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Crack open a cold one: During Prohibition, some breweries, like Anheuser-Busch, stayed in business by switching from beer to ice cream. (Classicstock/Alamy Stock Photo)

During World War II, though civilian ice cream was curtailed by sugar shortages, the armed forces nevertheless recognized that ice cream was worth fighting for: The Army allocated enough machinery and ingredients to make 80 million gallons of ice cream for the troops each year. Air Force bomber crews on B-52s reportedly mixed up batches of ice cream in large cans stowed in the rear gunner’s compartment; the combination of the plane’s vibrations and the cold air temperature produced a passable ice cream. The Navy, meanwhile, built a floating ice cream parlor at a cost of $1 million after one assistant told the Under Secretary of the Navy that ice cream was “the most neglected of all the important morale factors.” Even Winston Churchill clocked the American obsession with ice cream: “They are great addicts of ice cream, which is said to rival alcoholic drinks,” he wrote in 1942.

After the war, ice cream was again ascendant in American life — according to Visser, more than five gallons of ice cream were eaten by every man, woman, and child in America in 1946. Better refrigeration and booming disposable income meant that people could now buy tubs of ice cream and bring it home. By the 1970s, the United States was far and away the world’s leading consumer of ice cream, whether they were eating it at a Baskin-Robbins chain, a mom-and-pop shop, or straight from the carton at home. In 1986, the average American ate 18 pounds of the cold creamy stuff each year.

We are now eating less ice cream each year: In 2021, our per capita consumption of regular ice cream was down to just 12 pounds. Americans have many more sweet choices in the freezer aisle — not to mention the rest of the grocery store — than they did in the 1980s, and concerns over ice cream’s high sugar and fat content are driving people to make different decisions.

But ice cream isn’t canceled — for one thing, it really does make people happy, and that’s a scientific fact (probably). In 2005, a team of London neuroscientists, in a study funded by Unilever, used functional MRI to scan the brains of people eating ice cream (specifically Wall’s Carte d’Or vanilla, a Unilever brand). Subjects showed marked activation in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward; there’s a reason ice cream is what you’re supposed to eat after a breakup.

Ice cream isn’t likely to go anywhere soon; the 47.6 million — and counting — #icecream posts on Instagram amply demonstrate that it just makes us happy. Or, as Manish Vora, co-founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, put it, “Ice cream is just fun.”


Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s work has appeared in The Guardian, The Boston Globe, and others. She is the author of Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings. For more, visit

This article is featured in the July/August 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


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  1. If adding salt to ice makes Ice Cream freeze, why does spraying salt to ice on the roads in winter make it melt?

  2. I never knew ANY of this about the soothing, sweet tooth treat until your article, Linda. The healthier yet tasty versions available now should continue keeping it popular for years to come.


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