And we’re back with another #IceCreamAmericanDream post about Philadelphia ice cream history! While Philadelphia ice cream was gaining notoriety, it wasn’t without challenges. Historically, ice cream was a delicacy reserved for the upper classes that could afford to find ways to keep it frozen. It was a lot less likely that the general public indulged in eating ice cream. While this was certainly an issue everywhere concerning the sweet dessert, it was a well-known fact that Philadelphia ice cream was more expensive than most. The three-ingredient method made Philadelphia ice cream popular, but it also made it costly. The emphasis on using pure cream with no additional milk made ice cream inaccessible — something that was pointed out by home economics expert Sarah Tyson Rorer in her culinary writing.
Many years later, Rorer also mentioned the necessity of using a “good freezer — one working easily with a side crank and a double revolving dasher,” in reference to an invention patented by Philadelphian Nancy Johnson in 1843. Allowing for people to hand-crank ice cream themselves, Johnson’s invented her freezer for at-home use, but it played a key role in making ice cream more accessible to the public!
Ice cream was made further accessible by Black men in Philadelphia who “cried” and sold ice cream in the street. Dubbed “ice cream criers,” these men carried tins of ice cream on their shoulders, calling out to customers. The book “City Criers,” published in 1850, claims the peddlers “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.” Alongside increased distribution, these vendors mitigated the class divide amongst ice cream enjoyers.
While Philadelphia ice cream was already safer to eat than other recipes because of its lack of eggs, poor sanitation practices caused a public health threat. The peddlers carried dishes to lend out to their customers, but lacked the ability to properly clean them when they were returned. Instead, the dishes were rinsed in a bucket of water, and then refilled for the next customer.
Enter Dr. Mary Engle Pennington, a bacteriological chemist. Pennington completed coursework for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, but the university did not bestow the degree due to her gender. However, this did not stop Pennington, who later returned to Penn to obtain her PhD in 1895. Ten years later, Dr. Pennington received a position at the Department of Agriculture, and the year after, she played an instrumental role in the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act. During her time with the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Pennington was put in charge of Philadelphia’s milk and dairy products, ensuring they were safe for consumption. Pennington preached proper sanitization of machinery, tools, and serving dishes for ice cream to lower the risk of contracting illness. She spoke directly to ice cream vendors, demonstrating how to properly clean dishes and tools between patrons, making Philadelphia ice cream all the more popular.
These city criers weren’t the only Black men that had a hand in making Philadelphia ice cream more famous. Augustus Jackson worked as a chef in the White House from 1817 to 1837, serving under three presidential administrations. After leaving Washington, D.C. in 1837 and returning to his hometown Philadelphia, Jackson used his kitchen training to open a confectionery that would later on earn him a fortune. Jackson’s ingenious ice cream flavors made him well-known, but his largest contribution to the ice cream industry was in his technique. When making his ice cream, Jackson combined salt with ice, which not only made the dessert more flavorful, but also lowered the temperature of the ice cream, which kept it frozen for extended periods of time. Jackson appears in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s 1838 Black census, which is held at HSP.
There are a lot of people to thank for making Philadelphia ice cream available to all: the innovators like Nancy Johnson and Augusutus Jackson who revolutionized ice cream production, the vendors whose distribution methods and low costs brought ice cream to the public, and Mary Engle Pennington, whose work made ice cream safe to eat.