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Where did the ice cream truck come from? How the summer staple came to be.

The history of ice cream trucks in America
The sometimes dark history of ice cream trucks in America 04:50

Excited children run through parks and race down blocks to get cones, bars and soft serve on sweltering summer days as the sound of the iconic jingle gets louder and the ice cream truck nears.

While frozen sweet treats have been around in some form or other for thousands of years, inventions over the years have brought ice cream to the people. One innovation, the ice cream truck, has been luring children and adults alike to the street for a century. The trucks are now a staple part of summer in the U.S.

"Ice cream trucks changed the way people viewed ice cream as they created a new level of accessibility that didn't exist before," said Manish Vora, co-founder and co-CEO of Museum of Ice Cream, which started as a pop-up experience in 2016 and and now has locations in multiple cities.  

Early ice cream sales 

Frozen sweet treats have been around for a long time; predecessors to ice cream were popular in China and Japan, though Persia is pointed to as a sort of "motherland of ice cream," food historian Sarah Lohman said. Persians figured out how to make ice and stored it in giant freezers called yakhchāl.

Further developments in the history of ice cream came in the 16th century when alchemists discovered that adding salt or saltpeter to ice would lower the freezing point, she said. By the end of the century, people — mostly servants in elite houses — were making ice cream. 

"We don't really see it being sold regularly until the 18th century when it would be made by confectioners and bought by wealthy households. And that price continues to come down through the 19th century due to several technological advances," said Lohman. "That sort of shift from something being served in private, wealthy households to being a confection everyone can enjoy really happens in America."

And it was a woman who made the next great leap for the industry. In the early 1840s, Pennsylvania inventor Nancy Johnson created the world's first hand-cranked ice cream freezer.

Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson 1794-1890, Active in American Missionary Association, Taught Freed Slaves, Volunteer and Inventor, Head and Shoulders Portrait by Julius Ulke, 1875
Nancy Johnson invented the first ice cream freezer in the 1840s. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"That tool, that resource was a big change," said Lohman. "And at almost the exact same time, America was building an ice industry. A saw was created that could be hauled by horses across frozen lakes as opposed to being sawed by hand." 

America is a very dairy-based country, so the dairy and eggs needed for ice cream were affordable throughout the 19th century, Lohman said.

Italian immigrants began selling ice cream on the streets in the mid-19th century. They'd scoop out the flavors into glasses called penny licks. As the name suggests, it cost a penny.

"Throughout the majority of the 19th century, it would be scooped into these single-serving leaded glass vessels," said Lohman. "A consumer would have to eat it right there using either their tongue or their fingers to scoop out the ice cream. And then they'd hand the penny licks back to the seller."

The street vendors were extremely popular, especially by the end of the 19th century. There was a gradual movement away from penny licks as sellers realized they could sell more ice cream if the customers were able to leave with their sweet treats. They began selling dabs of ice cream on paper, then started selling it in edible wrappers, like cookies and wafers. 

The first ice cream trucks

The invention of the ice cream truck has been largely attributed to Good Humor. Ohio confectioner and ice cream parlor owner Harry Burt created a chocolate-coated ice cream and, based on a suggestion from his son, froze a stick into the ice cream to give it a handle. 

The automobile industry had developed refrigerated vans to make it easier for suppliers to transport stock to shops, a Good Humor spokesperson said. Burt had the idea to paint one of his refrigerated vans white, put the name Good Humor Ice Cream Sucker on it and equip it with five bells taken from his son's bobsled. His son donned a white uniform and cap to sell Good Humor bars from the truck.

Ads for some of Good Humor's early products
Ads are shown for some of Good Humor's early products. Good Humor

After that, Burt outfitted a fleet of 12 street vending trucks with bells and freezers so they could travel around selling frozen treats. 

"Everyone loved their local ice cream trucks! It was an inexpensive way to get a treat during the day," a Good Humor spokesperson said. 

The first trucks only sold Good Humor bars, but around 1926, Burt added flavors, including chocolate, Neapolitan and chocolate malt, according to the company. Sundae cups were added to ice cream trucks around 1928.

The sellers wore white uniforms with black shoes, a red bow tie and a change belt. They trained for three days to be a "Good Humor Man."

"Good Humor" Man Serving Children
"Good Humor" ice cream man serving ice cream from his truck. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

"For children and adults alike, ice cream has always been a uniting force, inspiring connection and togetherness — in fact, ice cream trucks remained successful even during the Great Depression, creating a momentary distraction for people in poverty," Vora said.

Earlier on in the history of the ice cream truck, customers were limited to purchasing pre-made ice cream as early trucks mainly operated as mobile freezers, Vora said. Over time, trucks evolved to allow for on-site ice cream making and flavor customization.

The increase in ice cream truck popularity 

Good Humor's fleet expanded in the 1930s to include pushcarts, bicycles, tricycles and shoulder boxes, a Good Humor spokesperson said. Two thousand Good Humor vehicles were used to sell ice cream in neighborhoods across the U.S. by 1950; as the popularity grew, Good Humor was able to further modify trucks to start selling soft serve ice cream. 

Mister Softee, which is now the largest franchiser of soft ice cream trucks in the U.S., began sales in 1956, according to the company site. The company has more than 625 trucks and over 350 franchise dealers operating in 18 states. 

Mister Softee Ice Cream Truck, Rego Park
A small group of adults and children gathered around the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck on 63rd Drive, in the Rego Park neighborhood, Queens, New York, New York, on July 2, 1995. Walter Leporati/ Getty Images

The 1950s and 60s saw the peak of ice cream truck popularity, Vora said. It's estimated there were as many as 10,000 trucks operating across the U.S. then. 

Good Humor sold its ice cream trucks in 1978 and began focusing on selling in grocery stores, according to a company spokesperson. Some of Good Humor's trucks were bought by ice cream distributors and others were sold to individuals.

As a whole, today's ice cream industry has a $11.4 billion impact on the U.S. economy, but the ice cream truck industry does face some challenges. According to a 2022 International Dairy Foods Association survey, 84% of consumers prefer to buy ice cream at the grocery store and eat it at home.

Still, Vora views the trucks as a staple of American life and said they're here to stay.

"What started as a simple idea back in the 20s has become a worldwide phenomenon, with no slowing down in sight — people want to enjoy ice cream whenever and wherever they can, and the creation of ice cream trucks helped make this infinitely more possible, and accessible," Vora said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated Persia's history with icemaking.

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