The history of ice cream
Cool down with the fascinating history of Britain's favourite frozen treat
Miss Evelyn Steel was summoned to court in July 1924 for causing an obstruction by leaving her motor car unattended in the High Street, Bideford, Devon. Rather than face the music in person, reported the Exmouth and Plymouth Gazette, Miss Steel sent a letter providing an excuse, which was read out by the exasperated chairman: “The lady writes that she was busy eating ice creams at a café. I daresay they were extra cold and took a long time.” He fined her 10s, and she was free to eat ice creams another day.
Ice cream has become synonymous with summer in the UK; many of us relish tucking into an iconic 99 and eating it before it melts, or the cone goes soggy. In fact, ice cream has become an important part of British culture and has a surprisingly long history in the UK.
Various chilled treats were made by the ancient Chinese, Romans and Persians using snow and ice, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that the process of using salt and ice to freeze food was used in Europe. From the streets of Naples, where the first recorded ices made with sweetened milk were served in 1664, the idea eventually landed on the banqueting table of Charles II in 1671, who according to antiquary and politician Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) enjoyed “one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream”, as part of the St George’s Day feast at Windsor Castle.
The king’s guests could only look on in amazement as he consumed the new delicacy – it was for the royal stomach only – but it did lead to an exciting innovation as icehouses were built on the country estates of the wealthy to accommodate the latest food fashion. The ice was ‘harvested’ in winter from local lakes, ponds and rivers, and stored under straw and bark. But it was often poor quality so would be used to chill food and drinks, rather than added directly to food.
During the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th century ice cream was only enjoyed by the upper classes. It wasn’t until Mrs Mary Eales’s Receipts (recipes) was published in 1718 that making ice cream reached a wider audience. Mrs Eales recommended using tin ice pots filled with “any sort of cream you like, either plain or sweetn’d, or fruit in it”. The pots were then placed in a pail between layers of straw, ice and salt for four hours.
However, the flavours that were on offer weren’t particularly appetising. In 1768 French confectioner Monsieur Emy published a compilation of ice-cream recipes, including delights such as artichoke, avocado, anise, violet, asparagus, grated cheese and even whale vomit…
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During the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of ice cream soared. Italian confectioners, such as Domenico Negri, who founded a business in Berkeley Square in the West End of London in 1759, became renowned for their ice creams. His trade card offered, “All Sorts of English, French and Italian wet and dry’d Sweet Meats… All sorts of Biskets & Cakes, fine and Common Sugar plums... [and] all Sorts of Ice, Fruits and creams in the best Italian manner”. Some three decades later an advertisement that appeared in the Manchester Mercury in 1786 offered “ICE CREAM, made from Strawberries and other new Fruits… sold in Glasses at 6d each, and Moulds from 2s 6d 5s”.
The rapid advances in mechanisation during the 19th century heralded some important changes to ice-cream production. In 1843 US housewife Nancy Johnson patented an ‘ice cream machine’: a wooden bucket, filled with ice and salt with a rotating handle. A metal container in the centre containing the ice cream was surrounded by the salt and ice mixture. The churning action produced by the handle made ice cream that had a smooth texture. Prior to this, ice cream was made in a pewter pot and kept in a bucket of ice and salt. The ice cream had to be regularly hand-stirred and scraped from the side of the pewter pots with a ‘spaddle’, a miniature spade with a long paddle-like handle.
The new efficiency of the process prompted sellers to lower their costs, and ice cream could be enjoyed by everyone. Vendors began to sell cheap ices on the streets, especially in cities such as London and Manchester. Carlo Gatti was one of the first, claiming in 1858 that he was selling 10,000 ices a day at 1d each.
But towards the end of the 19th century, a darker side to the trade was emerging. In the days before regulation and food-hygiene standards, anyone could set themselves up as a ‘food seller’ irrespective of how their goods were produced. A rise in street vendors led to an upsurge in cases of ‘ice cream poisoning’, which in many cases proved to be fatal.
“Another case is reported (says the Lancet) of a death presumably due to the eating of ice creams,” announced the Nuneaton Observer in July 1898. “The victim was a child aged three years… Surely the authorities should do something in the matter.” There was certainly indisputable proof – the Westminster Gazette reported in 1896 that an analysis of three samples of water used to wash ice-cream glasses found that they contained “4,200,000, 2,150,000, and 5,540,000 putrefactive bacteria per cubic centimetre, as against rarely more than 100 bacteria in a cubic centimetre of good drinking water”.
Cases and complaints against sellers rumbled on into the early 20th century, and the boards of many local governments introduced legislation giving themselves the power to license and regulate the production of ice cream. But the major turning point came with the advent of safe and continuous mechanical refrigeration in the 1920s, which made it possible to mass-produce, store and transport ice cream across the country hygienically.
In the same decade, Thomas Walls launched an ice-cream delivery service in London with a fleet of 10 tricycles. It proved enormously popular, and by 1939 Wall’s had 8,500 delivery tricycles and 160 depots across Britain. However, the trade was severely affected by rationing in the Second World War, with substitute ingredients often being used, until the Ministry of Food banned ice-cream manufacture altogether between September 1942 and December 1944.
From the middle of the 20th century, freezers began to appear in homes, which meant that we could buy and store our own ice cream. Seventy years later domestic ice-cream makers have made it even easier for us to produce any flavour we like with a few simple ingredients and the touch of a button.