Frozen Delights: the Story of Ice Cream

After a long hot period of summer, I thought it might be interesting to look at the history of ice cream....
My first experience of home-made ice cream was during the Second World War, when I was evacuated to Yorkshire and lived for a while with a family who had a green bath, an electric waffle-maker, and an ice-cream maker; I thought they must be very, very rich!
Actually, the chocolate ice-cream they kindly gave me had crunchy bits of ice in it, but what a luxury!

But let us start at the beginning. Long, long before refrigeration there were ice-houses and iced confections.
In fact, iced treats go back thousands of years....

At first there were ICE HOUSES.

In 2000 BC ice storage cellars were built at Ur, on the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia.
An inscription from 1700 BC in northwest Iran records the construction of an icehouse, "which never before had any King built."
In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the seventh century BC, and there are references to ice stores before 1100 BC.

Alexander the Great stored snow, in pits dug for that purpose, around 300 BC.
In Rome in the third century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops.
The ice formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top.
The first English ice-house I saw was at Kew, many years ago.
The brickwork was precise and the interior smelt of damp mould. Creepy but interesting!

Ice houses were buildings used to store ice throughout the year, and were commonly used in aristocratic circles prior to the invention of the refrigerator.
Some were underground chambers, usually man-made, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes, but many were buildings with various types of insulation.
During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, often straw or sawdust.
It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months.

The main application of the ice was the storage of perishable foods, but it could also be used simply to cool drinks, or allow ice-cream and sorbet desserts to be prepared.
The first ice house was introduced to Britain around 1660.
The first record is of an ice house built in Greenwich Park for James I.

British ice houses were commonly brick lined, domed structures, with most of their volume underground.
Ice houses varied in design depending on the date and builder, but were mainly conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice.
They usually had a drain to take away any water.
It is recorded that the idea for ice houses was brought to Britain by travellers who had seen similar arrangements in Italy, where peasants collected ice from the mountains and used it to keep food fresh inside caves.

Ice Houses may be known as Ice Houses, Ice Wells, Ice Pits and Ice Mounds.


Ancient civilizations have served iced foods for thousands of years.
A frozen mixture of milk and rice was used in China around 200 BC.
In the Persian Empire, people would pour concentrared grape-juice over snow, in a bowl, and eat it as a treat, especially in hot weather.
Snow was saved in cool underground chambers known as "yakhchai."

In 400 BC, they invented a special chilled food, made of rose-water and vermicelli, which was served to royalty in the summer.
They mixed the ice with saffron and fruit.
The Roman Emperor Nero (37-68AD) had ice brought from the mountains and combined it with fruit toppings.

Arabs were possibly the first to use milk as a major ingredient in the production of ice cream.
They used sugar rather than fruit juice, and produced ice cream commercially.Already,in the 10th century, ice cream was sold in quantity in major arab cities, including Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.
It often contained yoghurt, dried fruits and nuts.

M.Toussaint-Samat asserts, in her History of Food, that "the Chinese may be credited with inventing a device to make sorbets and ice cream. They poured a mixture of snow and saltpetre over the exteriors of containers filled with syrup, for, in the same way as salt raises the boiling-point of water, it lowers the freezing-point to below zero."

It has also been claimed that, in the Yuan Dynasty, Kubla Khan enjoyed ice cream and kept it a royal secret until Marco Polo visited China and took the technique of making ice cream to Italy.

In the sixteenth century, the Mughal emperors used relays of horsemen to bring ice from the Hindu Kush to Delhi, where it was used in fruit sorbets.

When Italian duchess Catherine de' Medici married the Duke of Orléans (Henry II of France) in 1533, she is said to have brought with her to France some Italian chefs who had recipes for flavoured ices or sorbets.

One hundred years later, Charles I of England was, it was reported, so impressed by the "frozen snow" that he offered his own ice cream maker a lifetime pension in return for keeping the formula secret, so that ice cream could be a royal prerogative.

In 1671 ice cream was served to Charles II at a feast in Windsor Castle.


This is the earliest known ice cream recipe, written in Lady Anne Fanshawe's personal recipe book between 1651 and 1678.

Published ice cream recipes first appeared in 18th-century England and America.

This recipe for ice cream was published in Mrs. Mary Eales's Receipts in London in 1718.

Take Tin Ice-Pots, fill them with any Sort of Cream you like, either plain or sweeten’d, or Fruit in it;
shut your Pots very close;
to six Pots you must allow eighteen or twenty Pound of Ice, breaking the Ice very small;
there will be some great Pieces, which lay at the Bottom and Top:
You must have a Pail, and lay some Straw at the Bottom;
then lay in your Ice, and put in amongst it a Pound of Bay-Salt;
set in your Pots of Cream, and lay Ice and Salt between every Pot, that they may not touch;
but the Ice must lie round them on every Side;
lay a good deal of Ice on the Top, cover the Pail with Straw, set it in a Cellar where no Sun or Light comes, it will be froze in four Hours, but it may stand longer;
then take it out just as you use it;
hold it in your Hand and it will slip out.

So-called 'Ice Caves' were early types of freezer, first described in 1733.
They were part filled with salt and ice, which surrounded the ice cream containers and kept the puddings solid for hours.

Ice cream was introduced to the United States by Quaker colonists who brought their ice cream recipes with them.
Confectioners sold ice cream at their shops in New York and other cities during the colonial era.
Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were known to have regularly eaten and served ice cream.

In 1843, Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia was issued the first U.S. patent for a small-scale handcranked ice cream freezer.
The invention of the ice cream soda gave Americans a new treat, adding to ice cream's popularity.

In 1851, a Swiss-Italian businessman, Carlo Gatti, opened the first ice-cream stall Outside Charing-cross Station, selling scoops of ice-cream for one penny.

During the second half of the 19th century, all kinds of iced sweets were served to the aristocracy.
There were reproductions in coloured ice of fruits, flowers,even birds and vegetables.


In the kitchens of many mansions and stately homes, there are wonderful collections of ice-cream moulds and utensils.
This is at Petworth House in Sussex.

A number of different patent freezers appeared in the 1880s. This is by Agnes Marshall: its inventor claimed it could freeze a pint of ice cream in three minutes.


It was the Italian immigrants, settling in London, who first made a living from the sale of ices to the ordinary public.

They lived in cheap, overcrowded lodging-houses in Saffron Hill and Eyre Street Hill, Holborn.
They made the ices in the cellars.
'Hokey-Pokey' was the name given to a cheap, multi-coloured ice sweet sold by the Italians.
There is no definite agreement about the derivation.

My father-in-law said they used to call out,"Hokey-Pokey, penny a lump!" and the Italian street cry was "O' che poco!"('Oh, how little,' meaning how cheap it was), but this is only speculation.

The Italians would sell from a cart packed with ice, and the water-ice mixture, sweetened and coloured, was served from metal containers.  I am lucky enough to have been given one.
It is made of grey metal; I suspect, from its weight, that it has a high lead content.
The ice was scooped into a heavy glass called a 'Penny Lick'.
I have one of those, too!

Each customer would lick their ice and hand the empty glass back to the seller.

It would be rinsed lightly in water, wiped with a grimy cloth and used again.
Needless to say, there were health problems.
There were outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery connected to the ice-cream trade.
In 1901, a report was published describing the condition of the washing-water.
It was said to be 'an evil-smelling, slimy liquid, full of bacteria, saliva and sediments.'
Ice-cream samples were analysed and found to contain foreign bodies such as human hair, coal dust, bed straw, fleas and other bugs.

The LCC immediately took action, and ice cream production from living-rooms or near a drain or lavatory was forbidden.
The glasses were replaced in the early 1900s by wafer cups and cones.


When I was a little girl, in the 1930s, one of the highlights of the week would be the sight of the "Wallsy man," the travelling ice-cream seller in his peaked hat and uniform, pedalling his tricycle- driven blue and white cart.

His tricycle was labelled 'STOP ME AND BUY ONE.'
He sold a variety of ices, among them delicious "Snofrutes," prism-shaped fruit water-ices in cardboard wrappers, for a penny each.

I seldom owned a penny for a  whole Snofrute, but if I had a halfpenny he would lift the lid of his cart, take out a sharp knife and cut one in two.
The Wallsy man was very popular!

Sadly, I was not able to enjoy ice cream for long.
By 1939 we were at war, and luxuries like Snofrutes vanished, as did the Wallsy men on their trikes.
However, the tricycles were used to help the war effort. For example:

In 1940, staff and pupils of Lancing College,near Brighton, were evacuated to Shropshire.
The War Office then requisitioned the school buildings and HMS King Alfred, the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve, moved in.
They were trained in the classrooms.

The Admiralty had purchased about 18 Walls Ice Cream “stop me and buy one” pre-war tricycles which were converted into little ships (with the addition of a chart table and compass above the former ice-cream cool box).
Pedalling around a mini English Channel laid out with buoys on the cricket field at Lancing College, the naval ratings learned the art of navigation and within a few weeks were at sea.

An imaginative idea!


One important development in the 20th century was the introduction of soft ice cream.
A chemical research team in Britain (of which a young Margaret Thatcher was a member) discovered a method of doubling the amount of air in ice cream, which allowed manufacturers to use less ingredients, thereby reducing costs.
It made possible the soft ice cream machine in which a cone is filled beneath a spigot on order.

I have to confess that I do not like soft ice cream!

After the war all kinds of ice creams were developed, and Walls's varieties were still a favourite among the teenagers.

To end on a really sweet note:


Finally, something I was told by a friend.
She was in Canada, and she said the snow was thick, pure and white.

She was with friends in the evening, and the moon was shining.
They took her out with them, carrying a jug of warm maple syrup.
They each had a wooden stick, the size of a knitting-needle.
The syrup was poured in a straight line along the snow.
The stick was used to roll up the now freezing syrup, and behold! A sweet maple syrup lollipop!

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