Franklin invented ice cream in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on many issues and session after session ended without resolution. The summer was grueling and hot that year and Franklin, eighty-one by that time, spent most of his idle time indoors. Tinkering about his workshop, Franklin hit upon the idea of a sweet treat that would cool tensions and put a smile on the faces of his fellow statesmen. Using the cream from a neighbor’s heifer and some ice from his storehouse, he called his treat “creme froid” or “cold cream.” After the next session of Congress, he invited delegates to his nearby home for a special treat that was universally popular and helped steer them toward the democracy we know today.*
The history of ice cream swirls with colorful myths, from Marco Polo eating it in China to at least five individuals claiming to have invented the ice cream cone. The stories were generally long and elaborate, often ending in a mouth-watering sales pitch. The truth, however, is that ices and other frozen desserts were recorded in the royal courts of Europe by the seventeenth century. The first reference to ice cream in the New World shows up in a 1744 journal recounting a strawberry ice cream served at a dinner hosted by Maryland royal governor Thomas Bladen. By the time of the Revolution, ice creams were being regularly advertised in the New York Gazette by a variety of merchants. It is thought that French emigres to America probably brought ice cream to our fair city about this time.
Founding Fathers Flavors in Philadelphia
George Washington is known to have purchased a “cream machine for ice” in Philadelphia in 1784 while attending a meeting of the Society of the Cinncinatti. Later household inventories show receipts for ice cream Washington purchased and ten ice cream pots. At the time, ice cream was an elite treat, reserved for the wealthy due to the expense of machines and scarcity of ice. In 1791, a frustrated Thomas Jefferson on duty as Secretary of State, ordered 50 vanilla pods from France as there were none to be found in Philadelphia. Jefferson brought back a recipe for a French style vanilla ice cream, made with egg yolks, and is often credited with popularizing the flavor in the United States. And we’ve all heard of Dolley Madison, doyenne of the American hostess and famous first lady who made a splash in the social scene by offering up ice cream at the White House. Before marrying James Madison, however, Dolley Payne Todd resided at 4th & Walnut in Philadelphia and is thought to have first served ice cream to guests here!
And let us not forget Franklin, who counted ice cream among his indulgences in Paris. In the 1770s he wrote home of the delectable dessert: “I am making an effort to acquire the formula so we may sample this lovely fare upon my return to Philadelphia.”
A Democratzing Dessert
Pleasure gardens were a European institution combining entertainment and fancy sweets, including ice cream. By the 1790s, the tradition was transplanted in New York and Philadelphia, with proprietors often of French descent offering fireworks, live music and ice cream. Peter Bossee established such a garden at No. 59 South Fifth Street in Philadelphia in 1794, cattycorner to Independence Hall. A few years later, he advertised “Bossee’s Ice Cream House” in Germantown “which shall be constantly supplied with all kinds of Refreshments, as Ice Cream, Syrups, French Cordials, Cakes, Claret of the best kinds, Gellies [sic], etc., etc.” A competitor named Joseph Corre advertised ice cream at “11 pence per glass” at 8th & Market Streets in 1795. The pleasure gardens offered a new type of social establishment where both men and women could intermingle in an innocent environment. In addition, the large size of these establishments and competition among them kept prices affordable, offering the working class a place to convene and eat ice cream.
By the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century, ice cream was to be had regularly in Philadelphia, although only if one had money. In the 1820s, an African American chef named Augustus Jackson moved to Philadelphia and set up catering and selling ice cream. Jackson had been previously employed as a cook at the White House. A hard worker and savvy businessman, Jackson devised recipes and innovated manufacturing techniques which led to a large clientele for his ice cream. In fact, many free blacks in Philadelphia made a decent trade in ice cream well into the nineteenth century when racial prejudice led to their decline.
In 1843, a Philadelphia woman named Nancy M. Johnson received Patent No. 3254 from the U.S. Patent Office for an “artificial freezer.” The contraption was simple: a wooden bucket with a smaller metal cylinder inside containing a dasher turned by a crank handle. The idea was that rock salt and ice would be combined in the bucket surrounding the mixture of cream, sugar, eggs and other ingredients inside the cylinder. When the handle was cranked, the mixture turned and slowly began to freeze from the ice and salt; in addition, the dashers scraped the ice cream from the sides of the can. Within minutes, fresh ice cream could be made! The advent of the bucket freezer accelerated the production time of ice cream and changed the industry forever.
Bassett’s and Bryer’s: A Philadelphia Style
A Northern victory during the Civil War led by industry in Philadelphia, New York and Boston brought technological advancement and a postwar boom. Timing was right for big business in ice cream. In 1861, a Quaker schoolteacher named Louis Dubois Bassett set out to make high-quality ice creams on his rural New Jersey farm. By 1885, he was selling it at 5th & Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia and in 1893, Bassett’s Ice Cream opened up shop in the new Reading Terminal Market where they have remained ever since. In 1866, William Breyer started hand-cranking ice cream in his Kensington kitchen and selling it to neighbors. Within months, he was delivering his ice cream to a growing number of customers in a horse-drawn wagon. By 1882, when Breyer died, he had opened six retail locations. Breyer’s continued producing all-natural ice cream in Philadelphia until 1995 and remains a household brand nationwide.
The accessibility of fresh milk and cream from farms in around Philadelphia led to a proliferation of nearly fifty ice cream manufacturers in the city at one time. Bassett’s, Breyer’s and other Philadelphia ice cream makers refrained from using egg yolks to stabilize their product, using only cream, sugar and sometimes milk. Those that used eggs (French style) were accused of using “additives” in their ice cream mixture. Philadelphia style ice cream, made without eggs, thus became a national phenomenon. A large Boston ice cream producer in the late 19th century was even named The Philadelphia Ice Cream Company!
Up until about 1900, the typical ice cream flavors in Philadelphia were vanilla and lemon. Because of a local penchant for an all-natural product, the seeds of vanilla pods were often mixed into vanilla ice cream. At first glance, some thought the bean specks were dirt, but Philadelphians recognized them as a mark of quality. Vanilla has always been an expensive commodity and the visibility of the seeds in the public’s mind differentiated the ice cream from those of other regions and inferior quality.
The early 1800s saw the birth of an American cultural institution: the soda fountain. In 1825, a French immigrant, Elie Magliore Durand, opened the first “modern” drugstore at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia. Aside from the typical pharmaceuticals, he was the first to combine cigars and soda water to his drugstore, touting soda for it’s healthful effects. Durand’s shop was outfitted with mirrors, marble counters and rich mahogany display cases inviting patrons to stay, socialize and sip sparkling waters. When Lafayette visited Philadelphia on his national tour of the States, he stopped to visit his old friend Elie Durand at his shop, making him nationally famous. A few years later in 1838-39, a French perfume dealer in Philadelphia, Eugene Roussel, first made the connection between flavored syrups and the plain soda water he sold at his shop. Syrups, made of pressed fruit, were mixed with a bit of seltzer or soda water and served to a thirsty public. The idea spread rapidly and Philadelphia, among other large cities, boasted fountain establishments at which the public could drink. Soon, architectural marble monuments were crafted in New York, Boston and Philadelphia to dispense both soda and syrups from back counters. By the nation’s Centennial in 1876, the soda water industry was booming. The great celebration fair in Philadelphia, proclaimed a dry event by the temperance societies, offered a unique opportunity for soda fountain manufacturers to exhibit their greatest works… and sell a few glasses of soda water. James Tufts of Boston created a gigantic soda fountain of variegated marble with silver ornamentation, three stories high and weighing over 30 tons. It was by far the largest in the world, supposedly cost upwards of $30,000 and became an iconic feature of the Centennial.
The Ice Cream Soda
In 1874, just two years prior to the Centennial, Philadelphia gave birth to another American “first.” The semi-centennial celebration of the Franklin Institute was held at City Hall square that year and one Robert M. Green exhibited with a modest soda fountain at the fair. Two versions of the story exist: the more sensational one relates that during the height of business, Green ran out of sweet cream which was often added to soda water and borrowed some ice cream from a nearby vendor to substitute. He dropped the ice cream into the soda and presto! The ice cream soda was born. Green’s own story, however, relates that he discovered the ice cream soda combination prior to the fair. Not to be outdone by his competitor who boasted a 25-foot tall fountain, Green had flyers printed announcing “SOMETHING NEW! GREEN’S ICE CREAM SODA” which he distributed at the fair. Word quickly spread and Green ended up doing a brisk business; little did he realize that the destiny of soda and ice cream would be inextricably tied forever.
As the soda fountain evolved, ice cream emerged as the premier product. Operators started placing less emphasis on the decoration of the fountain, as the luncheonette emerged, serving ice cream, light lunch and soda water. A good example of this was Abe Levis, who emigrated from Lithuania to America at age fourteen, landing in Philadelphia. By 1895 he had purchased a second-hand marble soda fountain and was peddling soda water, ice cream, fishcakes and hot dogs from his storefront on south Sixth St. That same fountain dispensed Champ Cherry soda until 1993 when Levis’ closed its doors. The Broad Street Pharmacy was the first fountain to install a counter-top “draft tower” which featured spigots for soda water and a lamp shade above. The Franklin Fountain has an original draft lamp of this style, made about 1905, with Mexican onyx, bronze and a slag glass lampshade highlighting silver-plated brass draft nozzles. It has been restored to working condition and, to our knowledge, is the oldest one in the country dispensing soda water.
Into the Modern Age
Bean pods and age-old companies weren’t the only reason for Philadelphia’s success in the ice cream industry. Pennsylvania remained the largest ice cream producing state in the nation for most of the 20th century, and is now second only to California. Agricultural is the largest industry in our state, with dairy accounting for the largest segment. …TO BE CONTINUED
*Recent scholarship has shown no plausible evidence to support this assertion which represents a vain attempt at myth-making Dr. Franklin into a sweet-eating, womanizing creature indulging at every gluttonous delight.