The history of ice cream is ingrained in the city of Philadelphia. The sweet treat served as a vehicle for women-owned enterprises, Black innovation, and food safety. At one point, Philadelphia served as the pinnacle of the American ice cream industry. Follow along throughout the month of July — National Ice Cream Month — to learn about the riveting history of ice cream, as told through the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
We’re kicking off the Ice Cream American Dream with the woman who pioneered Philadelphia-style ice cream: Eleanor Parkinson.
In 1818, Eleanor Parkinson and her husband George opened stores next door to each other on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The tavern, Pennsylvania Arms — of which HSP has the liquor license — was run by George, but it was the confectionery that Eleanor opened which made the pair known. Eleanor’s confectionery, Parkinson’s Ice Cream Saloon, quickly became famous, and soon after, George left the tavern to join his wife in their rapidly growing ice cream business. The reason for their success? Eleanor’s ice cream was widely regarded as the best and highest quality around, all due to her methodology, which would later become known as “the Philadelphia method.”
What was she doing differently? Well, for starters, Eleanor’s ice cream only included three ingredients, which soon became the identifier of Philadelphia ice cream: cream, sugar, and whatever flavoring agent was going to give the ice cream its taste. Eleanor insisted that these were the only necessary ingredients to produce a good batch of the chilled dessert. According to Eleanor, when making ice cream, one should “use cream entirely, and on no account mingle the slightest quantity of milk, which detracts materially from the richness and smoothness of the ices.”
With her continued success, Eleanor published a book in 1844 titled “The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker,” which included over 30 recipes for ice cream, all following the then well-recognized Philadelphia method that used cream exclusively. The Philadelphia method was cited as a valuable approach to making ice cream in many places during the time period, including “The Boston Cookbook” by renowned culinary instructor Mary J. Lincoln. According to Lincoln, Philadelphia ice cream is “the simplest, and to many the most delicious, form of ice cream.” The Philadelphia method is also frequently referenced in the works of food writer Sarah Tyson Rorer.