Thursday, 2 August 2012

How the Ice Cream Got its Cone


Cool, creamy, crunchy – there’s nothing like an ice cream cone to bring back memories of summer fun.  While ice cream itself has a long history, stemming back to early civilizations, serving it in cones is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Just how and when the ice cream cone was invented, however, has been the subject of an ongoing debate. 

Sources dating to the 1770s recommended serving “iced puddings” or “ice cream puddings” with small almond wafers.  These were considered “stomach settlers,” and were served at the conclusion of a meal to calm one’s digestion.  Eventually, these became little treats in their own right.  When rolled into “funnels” or cornucopias, they could be filled with creams and iced puddings.  The 1770 publication The Complete Housekeeper & Cook (Newcastle: 1770), recommended filling cornets with ice cream “as a garnish.”

An Italian confectioner working in London in the early 19th century described baking almond wafers into “little horns” and filling them with a variety of sweet fillings, including “creams.”
In the mid-19th century London, the production and sale of food in public, particularly ice cream, provided a steady income for many Italian families of the time.  Selling their cool treats from a cart, vendors would often serve the ice cream in a small glass, referred to as a “penny lick.”  These dishes were typically made of a thick glass with a heavy base and shallow depression on top, in which the ice cream was placed.  The customer, paying one penny, would lick the contents clean and return it to the vendor for reuse.  This presented two main challenges – the vendor couldn’t serve the ice cream fast enough, and sanitary conditions were difficult to maintain.  Penny licks were banned by 1899, due to concerns about the spread of disease, as these cups could not normally be washed between uses.

Food historians most often credit the first true ice cream cone, that is, one made specifically for ice cream, to the Italian immigrants living in Manchester in the mid-19th century.   Seeking to speed their sales and replace the troublesome penny licks, which were often stolen or broken, they began to produce large quantities of rolled, waffle-style biscuits for serving ice cream.  It is estimated that by the turn of the 19th century, there were nearly a thousand ice cream vendors, or “Hokey Pokey Men” in London’s Little Italy. 

The traditions and techniques associated with public ice cream vending were brought to North America through immigration, including the use of the cone.  It wasn’t until the 1904 St. Louis World’s fair, however, that ice cream cones became enormously popular, widespread and readily available.  The fair was home to more than fifty ice cream stands and a large number of waffle shops.  There are several competing versions of the story about who it was who actually rolled the nearby waffles into cones and served ice cream from them at the fair.  What is widely acknowledged, however, is that cones became so popular that, at the conclusion of the fair, companies throughout North America scrambled to produce equipment to efficiently manufacture them.  

These are the beginnings of a sweet tradition that thrives to this day.  Come to Westfield Heritage Village for the Ice Cream Festival on August 5th and 6th to learn more about this and other delicious traditions.


Lisa Hunter
Programme Co-ordinator
Westfield Heritage Village


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