The Curious History Of Ice Cream Just Might Make Your Brain Freeze

Ice cream is a sweet treat that’s enjoyed by both adults and children for dessert (or really any time of the day). The cool confection has been around so long that even your great grandma probably has fond memories of chasing after an ice cream cart during the dog days of summer.

From Emperor Nero’s flavored snow to Thomas Jefferson’s infamous recipe, people have been screaming for ice cream since forever but surprisingly, ice cream’s true origins remain unclear. Here’s the scoop on what we do know about the history of ice cream.

5th Century Persian Sherbet Is The Earliest Evidence

circa 1820: A man selling drinks of sherbet in the street.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The earliest iterations of ice cream date as far back as 400 B.C. Persian royals indulged in a cool concoction of pudding-like syrups that were blended with snow, rose water, and vermicelli. Flavors were mixed up by adding various fruits and spices.

Figures from B.C. times who were known to enjoy ice cream-like treats included King Solomon from the Bible and Alexander the Great. He was said to enjoy snow flavored with honey and nectar.

Emperor Nero Sent His Slaves To The Mountains For It

Nero at Baiae, c. 1900. Private Collection.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Emperor Nero was said to have screamed for ice cream back in his day. Nero reportedly ordered his slaves to travel to faraway mountaintops to harvest snow and ice on hot summer days. It was stored in deep pits covered with straw that were called "ice houses."

The ice was then mixed with fruits, juices, and honey for Emperor Nero’s enjoyment. But all the fruit ice in the world apparently wasn’t enough to prevent Nero from killing his mom.

While those in ancient Persia and Rome enjoyed treats similar to sherbet or snow cones, next you’ll see it was the ancient Chinese who made something more similar to the ice cream we know today.

Ancient China Put The “Cream” In Ice Cream

Detail of emperore with attendants from Portraits of Thirteen Emperors attributed to Yen Li-pen. | Detail of: 'Portraits of Thirteen Emperors' Attributed to Yen Li-pen.
Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Chinese emperors of the Tang Dynasty were known to enjoy a “frozen milk-like confection” made with cow, goat, or buffalo milk. After the milk was heated with flour, it was mixed with an aromatic substance from evergreen trees called Camphor.

The mixture was then placed in metal tubes and lowered into ice pools until it was frozen. Marco Polo is believed to have brought this ancient Chinese version of ice cream back with him to Italy.

Ice Cream Somehow Made Its Way To Europe

Portraits of Henry II (1519-1559) and Catherine de Medicis (Caterina de Medici) (1519-1589), King and Queen of France.
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

The ice cream recipe that Marco Polo brought with him to Italy is similar to what we know today as sherbet. Thousands of years later, Catherine de’ Medici is believed to have brought the frozen dessert with her to France when she married King Henry II in 1533.

However, these claims have never been proven. Marco Polo makes no mention of an iced dessert in his writings and Catherine married King Henry long before Italian cooks learned how to artificially freeze liquids.

Next, this early U.S. president spent big bucks on ice cream

George Washington Spent Big Bucks On Ice Cream

ashington and his family: George and Martha Washington seated at table, Nelly Custis and George Washington Custis standing, servant entering the room.
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

George Washington is said to have popularized ice cream in North America during the 1770s. Washington began serving ice cream at high society functions and reportedly spent $700 on ice cream in one summer.

Martha Washington acquired a “Cream Machine for Ice” in 1784, according to Mount Vernon Estate historians. Washington owned a 300-piece set made for making and serving ice cream and had to cut ice from a local river to make it.

Even though George Washington made ice cream famous in the U.S., someone else gets all the credit as you’ll see next.

Thomas Jefferson Brought The First Ice Cream Recipe To The States

Colorized engraved portrait of American President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826), early 1800s.
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson gets a little too much credit for ice cream’s takeover of American taste buds. Many people believe that he popularized the cool treat when in fact, he merely brought the first recipe for ice cream to the U.S. according to historians.

The recipe that Jefferson wrote down calls for six egg yolks, two bottles of “good cream,” one vanilla bean, and an entire half-pound of sugar. The mixture was to be hand-churned in ice and salt.

Coming up, this strange (and kind of gross) ingredient was used in the first-ever ice cream

The Hand-Cranked Ice Cream Freezer Changed Everything

Tufts Roots and Growth House program director professor Jesper Rosenmeier uses an old-fashioned hand crank freezer to make 'academic ice cream,' Medford, Massachusetts, 1973.
Spencer Grant/Getty Images

Until 1843, ice cream production was an extremely laborious process since it had to be stirred by hand. Thankfully that year, a genius woman by the name of Nancy M. Johnson developed the hand-cranked ice cream freezer.

Johnson’s ice cream freezer had a movable crank and a paddle that churned ice cream in as little as 45 minutes. This revolutionized the way ice cream was made. Machines sold quickly and ice cream became more widely available.

Sundaes Were Really Made For Sundays

circa 1955: A boy enjoys an ice cream sundae during a break from shopping.
Three Lions/Getty Images

Some might consider ice cream a sinful indulgence and in the 1800s this was taken literally thanks to Blue Laws. Some states prohibited activities that were considered sinful, including drinking soda. At the time, ice cream floats were all the rage but because soda was banned on Sundays, pharmacists had to find a new way to sell ice cream.

Soda was replaced with chocolate sauce, nuts, and a cherry and the name of the dish was changed to “sundae” to avoid association with the Sabbath.

We know what goes into the ice cream sundae, but next, see which strange ingredient was common in the earliest ice cream recipe

The Earliest Documented Ice Cream Recipe Had A Wild Ingredient

a bowl of real ambergris
Peter Kaminski/Flickr

The first known ice cream recipe was written in 1665 by an English woman named Lady Anne Fanshawe. Fanshawe was a memoirist and cookery author who wrote down a recipe for “icy cream.”

The recipe called for three pounds of the “best cream” to be boiled with mace and flavored with orange flower water and ambergris. Ambergris was a popular perfume among the elite that came from the waste of a sperm whale.

Next, this why people were terrified of going to ice cream parlors

The First Ice Cream Factory Brought Ice Cream To The Masses

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1900: Fussel-Young Ice Cream Co.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Ice cream wasn’t widely enjoyed by the masses until 1851 when the first ice cream factory was built. A dairyman named Jacob Fussell delivered fresh milk and cream in rural Pennsylvania. Dairy demand was unpredictable, so Fussell used his surplus to make ice cream.

Fussell’s ice cream proved to be quite profitable, so he built an ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. The product was packed in ice and shipped by rail.

Ice Cream Was Enjoyed At Your Own Risk

FRANCE - CIRCA 1920: Ice-cream in the bowl.
Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Before the advent of edible cones, ice cream was licked out of a small glass dish called a penny lick, penny cone, penny sucker, or licking glass. When they finished, the customer would return the dish to the vendor, who would then swish the dirty dish in a pail before refilling it for the next customer.

Obviously, this practice was entirely unsanitary. More hygienic methods, such as serving ice cream wrapped in paper, proved to be a messy affair.

Ice Cream Parlors Supposedly Hid A Lot Of Illicit Activities

Men, women, and children in ice cream parlor, soda fountain shots, Weber Showcase & Co, Southern California, 1931.
Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite ice cream’s burgeoning popularity in the early 20th century, ice cream parlors weren’t innocent establishments in the eyes of lawmakers. In fact, they were suspected houses for debauchery and prostitution among the most suspicious and uptight citizens.

A lot of this paranoia was fueled by fear of immigrants, as many ice cream parlors were foreign-owned, which led to its association with human trafficking in the 19th and 20th century. Of course, these outlandish claims did little to stifle the success of ice cream businesses.

The Prohibition had a huge effect on ice cream. Wait until you see how the U.S. Navy handled it!

Ice Cream Sandwiches Brought People Together

Young girl enjoys ice cream sandwich from Hortons ice cream cart.
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Ice cream sandwiches proved to be a truly egalitarian delight, when pushcart vendors started selling them during the summer. “[Wall Street] brokers themselves got to buying ice cream sandwiches and eating them in a democratic fashion side by side on the sidewalk with the messengers and the office boys,” wrote one columnist for The Sun in 1900.

The classic slice of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate wafers was allegedly invented and patented by a New York City pushcart peddler in 1899.

The Cone Revolutionized The Way We Eat Ice Cream

Madame Charalambos Simopoulos, wife the Minister of Greece to the United States, left, and Miss Suzette Dewey, daughter of the assistant secretary of the treasury, right, were caught in this informal pose while eating uce cream at the annual charity fete at the National Capital.
Bettmann/Getty Images

1904 was a huge year for ice cream because it’s when the waffle cone debuted in America at the St. Louis World’s Fair. A Syrian vendor named Ernest Hamwi was selling waffle-like pastries at his own cart next to an ice cream vendor. The ice cream vendor ran out of serving dishes quickly and Hamwi saw a solution.

He simply made one of his waffles in the shape of a cone to be filled with ice cream. While this is how ice cream cones became popular, there’s evidence that waffle cones have been invented in the 19th century.

Prohibition Made Ice Cream Even More Popular

ontestants dig into the big cases of ice cream behind the counter on Thursday night at Coast's.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Ice cream has the Prohibition to thank for its increasing popularity in early 20th century America. After the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920, ice cream consumption in the U.S. increased by 55 percent.

Men and women who used to frequent saloons started to take refuge at their local soda fountains and ice cream parlors, while brewers like Anheuser-Bush and Yuengling decided to make ice cream to keep their businesses afloat.

The Navy’s Floating Ice Cream Parlor

True To The Navy, lobbycard, right: Clara Bow on jumbo lobbycard, 1930.
LMPC via Getty Images

The ban on alcohol across the nation also applied to U.S. soldiers abroad. To offset the loss of libations at sea, the U.S. Navy decided to feed their sailors ice cream. In 1945, they rented a refrigerated concrete barge from the Army Transportation Corps for $1 million.

The barge sailed all around the world delivering ice cream to ships that lacked their own ice cream making facilities. The ice cream barge could store up to 2,000 gallons of ice cream.

Next, see how some of America’s most popular ice cream brands took over the country.

How The Good Humor Bar Came To Be

a photo of a good humor ice cream bar on the side of a truck.
Jack Snell/Flickr

Most Americans have fond memories of biting into the simple indulgence that is a Good Humor Bar. It was invented in 1920 by an Ohio candy maker named Harry Burt. Burt created a chocolate mixture to coat a block of vanilla ice cream but the treat was very messy as it melted.

Burt had plenty of sticks from his lollipop creations and it was his son who had the idea of sticking them on the ends of his ice cream bar.

The Good Humor Bar Sparked The Ice Cream Truck

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Harry Burt had to figure out a way to deliver his Good Humor Bar to the masses. At the time, the fast food and automobile industries were exploding, so Burt combined the two and came up with the ice cream truck. He invested in 12 refrigerator trucks and hired drivers who wore white uniforms to signify cleanliness and safety to parents.

The trucks followed specified routes and were outfitted with bells so families would know when they could walk outside their door and buy some ice cream.

Rocky Road’s Origins Are Up For Debate

Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream is seen on shelves at a Safeway store May 27, 2003 in Belmont, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While vanilla and chocolate stand to be the two most popular ice cream flavors ever, rocky road is another tried and true American flavor that people can’t get enough of. There are disputes over who exactly invented it. In 1929, William Dreyer and Joseph Edy decided to cut up marshmallows and mix it into chocolate ice cream along with almonds.

However, other sources claim that Dreyer and Edy stole the recipe from fellow candy maker George Farren, who blended a walnut marshmallow chocolate bar into some chocolate ice cream.

Maybe Dreyer Didn’t Know Breyer Existed

breyers ice cream origins-540448722
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

William A. Breyer began selling hand-cranked ice cream from his kitchen in 1866 and even purchased a horse and wagon to sell his product to more people. Breyer also forged a new American version of ice cream the forgoes egg yolks and calls for a short list of simple ingredients.

Breyers became huge on the east coast. Sixty-two years later, Dreyer’s became popular on the west coast. When they tried to expand east, Dreyers had to change their name to Edy’s to avoid confusion.