The History of Ice Cream in Philadelphia A Short History of Philadelphia Ice cream and Human Rights The French Connection Pleasure Gardens Ice The African American Role Technological Advances Hokey Pokey and Philadelphia Style Ice Cream Bassetts Breyers Parkinsons and Isaac Newtons Jack & Jill Epilogue Bibliography

History of Ice Cream in Philadelphia


Contrary to popular belief, neither Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, nor any other person "invented" ice cream. Rather ice cream evolved over thousands of years. Iced beverages were known during Solomon's tenure as sovereign over Judea. The earliest accounts of an iced dairy product comes from the period of China's King Tang of Shang (618-97). The recipe included buffalo milk, flour and camphor. Although it is questionable as to whether Marco Polo introduced this food to Europe, there is no doubt that exploration and trade were responsible for the migration of the early form of this dessert to the West. These recipes appeared to have evolved into ice cream in 16th century Italy. Ice cream production matured in the 17th century with the use of salt and ice to cool the temperature of ice cream making machines, thereby creating a superior product on demand.


Until the end of the 18th century, ice cream was generally an aristocratic dessert, reserved only for those individuals wealthy enough to either purchase the product or the equipment and materials to produce it.

This disparity between classes was destined to disappear after ice cream was introduced to America, but not until it was enjoyed exclusively by this country's rich and famous. Among such devotees were Philadelphia's elite, which included Abigail Adams, the famous physician Dr. Caspar Wistar, and President George and Martha Washington. George Washington actually bought an ice cream machine in Philadelphia in 1784.

Thomas Jefferson was also a lover of ice cream and he has been credited with popularizing vanilla as an ice cream flavor. His love of the flavor was so intense that, in 1791, while residing in Philadelphia as the Secretary of State, he wrote to an American envoy in Paris complaining of the lack of vanilla in Philadelphia, and requesting that 50 vanilla pods be sent to him - a rather odd request when one considers that it was made in the midst of the French Revolution.


The early history of ice cream in Philadelphia owes much to the contribution of the French. The French involvement starts with one Emanuel Segur, believed to be the person who taught Philadelphians how to make ice cream after the Revolutionary War. Confectioners, often of French pedigree, were responsible for popularizing ice cream among the elite.


As pervasive as ice cream was among Philadelphia's wealthiest residents, it was still generally unavailable to Philadelphia's ordinary citizens. The advent of pleasure gardens, however, changed life in Philadelphia as well as other cities. Pleasure gardens were areas that catered to the fancies of large segments of the society. They proved to be a democratising influence on Philadelphia's populace. They were places where women could socialize outside of the home and where the wealthy would rub shoulders with the working classes. Cheap entertainment made these enterprises affordable to common Philadelphians. Also, the size of some of these businesses must have helped to keep prices down. Pleasure gardens were therefore the places where Philadelphia's working class would likely have been introduced to the dessert denied them by the smaller, more exclusive confectionaries.

Vanilla and lemon ice creams were generally the favorites at the pleasure gardens during their years of popularity.


One of the earliest problems for the manufacture of ice cream during the summer months was the scarcity of ice. Originally, ice would be harvested during the winter, and would be kept in caves, or pits, or undergound cellers insulated with straw. Finally, icehouses, with insulated floors and ceilings, and stone floors with proper drainage, came into being. Hospitals also required ice in order to keep feverish patients cool and comfortable. Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, in order to meet its demand, gathered ice from the Schuylkill River, and sold the excess to the public as early as 1804. Another public institution, The Philadelphia House of Correction, also sold excess ice. Public institutions in this era were therefore essential to the survival of private enterprises such as confectionaries and pleasure gardens.


In 1795, a successful slave rebellion on San Domingo (now Haiti) had deprived many French inhabitants on this island of their wealth. Philadelphia had become a haven for many of these newly indigent French, who had subsequently taken jobs or opened small shops in the city. A Monsieur Collot, was probably one of these newly arrived emigres. Collot advertised in Philadelphia newspapers in 1795, announcing that he had moved his business into large quarters near the German Catholic Church and would continue to make ice cream "in all the perfection of the true Italian mode." He was able to avail himself of a fresh supply of cream daily, and at least one of his fellow Frenchmen compares Collot's ice cream with that of the Palais Royal in Paris.

If it is true that Collot was a creole and the son of the former president of the High Council of Cap Francois (Cap Hailien, Haiti), then he may have also been the first of a successful line of ice cream makers of African descent in the city.

There is good reason to believe that African Americans played the dominant role in Philadelphia's ice cream business throughout the middle of the 19th century. Possibly the most influential of these tradesmen was Augustus Jackson, an African American, who worked as a cook in the White House. Legend has it that he may have been the head chef at the White House. Legend also has it that he is the inventor of ice cream, an absurdity that ultimately belittles his real accomplishments.

Jackson moved to Philadelphia in the late 1820s and started his own catering business. He made ice cream for his own customers as well as two other African American owned ice cream parlors on South Street. He ran a successful business for at least the next 30 years and became one of Philadelphia's wealthiest African American citizens.

One source claims that African Americans had a monopoly on the ice cream trade in the mid nineteenth century. The following quote may help to explain their success.

"The countryman...sells an excellent article. It is really country ice cream, fresh from the farm, and although cried and sold in the streets, the market, and the public squares, it will please the most fastidious palate. The loudest criers...are the coloured gentlemen, who carry tin cans containing it, about the streets on their shoulders. They sing a most laughable, but scarcely intelligible song in praise of their lemon ice cream and their vanilla too...It is by no means unpalatable; and considering the half price at which the coloured merchants accommodate their juvenile customers, it is a pretty good fip's worth."

The same forces that ended the African American involvement in many other trades in the city also were responsible for their pulling out of ice cream manufacture. An 1838 proto-sociological study listed 5 confectioners in the city and surrounding districts. Augustus Jackson was listed among them. In a follow-up study conducted in 1849, this number had increased to 46 (a number that included cake sellers). By 1857, a third study listed 7 confectioners (along with pastry cooks). The afterward to the third study explains: "Less than two-thirds of those who have trades follow them. A few of the remainder pursue avocations from choice, but the greater number are compelled to abandon their trades on account of the unending prejudice against their color."


The science needed to produce ice cream has remained relatively unchanged during the past 3 centuries. Essentially, part of a liquid mixture is frozen, and then scraped back into the liquid until a soft solid product is formed. The technology, however, to produce a high quality ice cream was at one time rather primitive, making ice cream manufacture a labor intensive industry, with oftentimes dubious results. From George Washington's day until the mid 19th century, pot freezers, or sorbettieres, dominated the manufacture of ice cream. The machinery required a person to rotate a handle of a receptacle containing the ice cream mixture within a bath that housed a freezing agent. The mixture would freeze on the walls of the container, and would then need to be scraped and mixed back into the dairy solution.

The revolution in ice cream production occurred on September 9, 1843, when a Philadelphia woman: Nancy Johnson, received a patent for an "artificial freezer". This new invention had only three main parts: a tall tub, a slender cylinder with a close fitting lid, and a dasher with a removable crank. By placing the dasher in the cylinder, and by attaching the dasher to the crank through a hole in the cylinder lid, a person could turn the crank with less work than rotating the lid of a pot freezer.

With a pot freezer, a person would need to stop turning the freezer occasionally to scrape the frozen mixture from the side of the inner receptacle, whereas with Johnson's freezer, the crank turned the dasher, which constantly scaped and mixed the frozen mixture toward the center of the liquid mixture as the mixture was being stirred. This simultaneous freezing, scraping, and stirring, allowed for a smoother, fluffier texture than was possible with a pot freezer. Turning the crank of Johnson's invention was also less exhausting than rotating the pot freezer.

The advent of electricity and the efficiency of Nancy Johnson's design led to the eventual large scale manufacturing of ice cream and the subsequent universal affordability of the dessert.


The ice cream sold on Philadelphia's streets was generally superior to the substandard "hokey-pokey" hawked in other cities, where peddlers routinely sold an inferior product under rather unsanitary conditions.

Much of the credit for the superiority of Philadelphia's ice cream should go to Mary Engle Pennington, who, though originally denied her chemistry baccalaureate from the University of Pennsylvania because of gender, subsequently completed her doctorate and became head of Philadelphia's municipal bacterial lab. She first built a reputation for creating a system to inspect cattle and dairies in the city (remember that much of Philadelphia was still rural in the late 1800s) thereby ensuring that the city's milk supply was safe. She subsequently targeted the city's ice cream peddlers, and persuaded them to employ sanitary methods such as cleaning their utensils in boiling water.

Philadelphia ice cream has always connoted an ice cream made with pure, natural ingredients. By strict definition, however, Philadelphia ice cream is simply ice cream made without eggs. Philadelphia ice creams have other connotations as well: they are They are cooked before freezing, and there are vanilla bean specks in the vanilla ice cream. Chilly Philly is made with all of the above characteristics.


The year was 1861. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president and the nation was beginning a long arduous war against itself. It was during this period that a Quaker farmer and schoolteacher from Salem, New Jersey - Louis Dubois Bassett had a better idea: to develop one of the world's truly great ice creams - Bassetts, of Philadelphia. Eventually, he moved into the city and set up shop in the Reading Terminal Market in 1893. The original store continues to be operational. The founder's grandson, Louis Lafayette, LL, inherited the business, and experimented with flavors such as kiwi, papaya, and yellow tomato. Louis Lafayette's genious was responsible for many of the flavors that are available today. However, if it were not for the business acumen of LL's daughter, Ann, the business might have floundered. She restored order to the business and successfully expanded it beyond the Philadelphia region. Bassetts has enjoyed such a high reputation among ice cream connoisseurs that Nikita Krushchev on a visit to the U.S. in 1961, requested a borsht sherbet from the company. He received a 40-quart tub of the flavor.


Perhaps nobody epitomized the superiority of street sold ice cream in Philadelphia more than William Breyer. In 1854, all of Philadelphia county became incorporated into Philadelphia city, including the Frankford and Kensington neighborhoods where, a dozen years later, Breyer would run his business. He hand-cranked his ice cream in his kitchen and travelled through Frankford and Kensington in a horse drawn wagon. Before his death in 1882, he had opened six retail stores. His sons Henry and Fred incorporated the business, expanded it into Philadelphia's suburbs and beyond and developed the corporate logo, the sweetbriar leaf (that's right, its not a mint leaf). Both William and Henry Breyers insisted on using pure, natural ingrediants, limiting themselves to milk, cream, sugar, and flavorings. Such ice cream is known today as Philadelphia ice cream. Thomas Jefferson's personal recipe for vanilla ice cream called for eggs yolks as an ingredient. Ice creams that use eggs are called either French-style ice creams or custards. By the end of the 19th century, American ice cream manufacturers who used egg yolks in their mixture were accused of using additives. Philadelphia ice cream therefore became the epitomy of what American ice cream should be.


The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 offered Philadelphians a chance to see the latest European innovations with regard to ice cream production. The most interesting innovations were molds, which not only varied in shape but in add-ins as well. In order to learn the secrets of molds, a well known ice cream manufacturer, John Miller worked at The Vienna Bakery concession at the Exhibition without pay. According to his recollections, the confectioners combined candy with ice cream to create goblets, cups, saucers, and bowls that resembled Bohemian glass, ice cream ships on spun-sugar waves, ice cream chicks inside spun-sugar nests filled with ice cream eggs, log cabins constructed of ice cream and ladyfingers, and an ice cream Mount Vesuvius, that was actually set ablaze before it was served.


The two ice cream parlors that were considered Philadelphia's best were Parkinson's and Isaac Newton's. At Parkinson's, ice cream was served in champaign glasses, and lemon and vanilla were the most popular flavors. One patron wrote, "In the summer season, immense quantities of the finest ice cream are sold in Philadelphia. Indeed, the city vaunts itself on producing the best ice cream in the world; and strangers generally give preference to that which is sold at such establishment as Parkinson's and Isaac Newton's over any which is to be found in our other great cities."


Over the years, many fine Philadelphia ice cream companies have come and gone out of existence. The most successful Philadelphia ice cream company of modern times is Jack & Jill, founded by Max Schwartz in the early part of this century, who peddled his ice cream in a box that he carried on his shoulder as he walked through the streets of Philadelphia. Over the years, the business has expanded into vending distributing, and the manufacturing of premium ice cream and novelties.

The business continues to be family run, with Max's son, Jay, at the helm.


Ice cream was created as a special treat for the aristocracy of Asia and later Europe. The irony is, that as ice cream continued on its westward maturation, it eventually became a symbol of democracy in twentieth century America. The clearest example of ice cream's symbolic role took place during the Second World War, where Fascist countries attempted to curtail America's influence abroad. The emperor of Japan created conditions that made ice cream retail unprofitable, and in Italy, an important country in the development of ice cream, Mussolini banned the sale of ice cream altogether.

It is also not surprising that Philadelphia, the city that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, should play such an important role in democratizing the use of ice cream. It took the work of many Philadelphians from varied backgrounds that has made Philadelphia style ice cream what it is today - a heritage which Chilly Philly will proudly continue.


Damerow, Gail, Ice Cream, The Whole ScoopLakewood CO: Glenbridge Publishing, Ltd, 1995.

Lane, Roger, William Dorsey's Philadelphia & Ours - On the Past and Future of the Black City in American New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

BREYERS CALLING. A century of fine ice cream. Presented by the Sealtest Foods - Breyer Division of National Dairy Products Corporation. No date. No paging.

The Present State & Condition of the Free People of Color of the City of Philadelphia and Adjoining Districts as Exhibited by the Report of a Committee of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, &c. Read First month (Jan) 5th 1838. Philadelphia.

>Ice Cream, The Whole Scoop Lakewood, CO: Glenbridge Publishing Company, 1995.

Funderburg, Anne Cooper, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Press, 1995.

Trades of the Colored People in the City of Philadelphia and Districts. Philadelphia: Matthew & Gunn Printers, No. 7, Curtis Alley, 1838.

A Traditional Inquiry Into the Condition of the People of Colour, of the City and Districts of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Printed by Kite & Walton No 50 North Fourth Street. 1849. Alley, 1838.

Statistics of the Colored People of Philadelphia Taken by Benjamin C. Bacon and Published by Order of the Board of Education of "The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery" etc. Philadelphia. T Ellwood Chapman. No. 1 South Fifth Street. 1856. Alley, 1838.

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