A Brief History of Ice Cream: From its Invention to its Rise in Popularity.


Ice cream is a classic treat that is loved worldwide. It exists in many forms, in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and textures. You have ice cream, soft serve ice cream, gelato, ice cream bars, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream sundaes and so much more. 

Many cultures even have their very own special variants of this iconic treat: In Italy, they call ice cream: gelato; in India, they call it kulfi; in Turkey, they call it dondurma; the French were adding egg yolks to their ice cream, and making back then, what we now call frozen custard today. 

Different kinds of ice creams found over the world. 

Ice cream is super versatile, loved by many, and found all over the world. But, it begs the question: what is the history of ice cream? 

How long ago were humans eating ice cream? 

The history of humans eating ice cream is a long winded one, and to tell you the truth, there’s no exact date for how long humans have been eating ice cream. Furthermore, no one has received sole credit for the invention of ice cream.

Even without an exact date, there is one thing for sure: humans have been eating ice cream for centuries. Experts speculate humans were eating ice cream as early as 3000 B.CThere’s been reports on ice cream (or an ancient version of it) as early as 200 B.C. Famous explorers like Marco Polo have talked about ice cream in their expeditions, kings and royalty valued this delectable treat for centuries, even American president Thomas Jefferson had his very own 18-step ice cream recipe! 

Thomas Jefferson Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe

Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten 18-step vanilla ice cream recipe, no date. 

Supplee Ice Cream Advert

Humans have been eating ice cream for centuries–Ice cream advertisement for Supplee Ice Cream, 1922.

Ancient Ice Cream

It’s important to mention that ice cream back-in-the-day, would have looked A LOT different than the traditional ice cream that you know and love today. Experts at the Carpigiani Gelato Museum speculate early versions of ice cream would be more similar to a frozen slushie consistency; a cold and refreshing summertime drink. They would use natural flavourings like: cinnamon, honey, fruits, nuts, and juices to add flavours to their iced drink. 

Ancient Ice Cream was more similar to a frozen slushie type consistency. Image of coloured slushies in a cup

Early versions of ice cream would be more similar to a watery frozen slushie consistency.

Where did Ice Cream originate from? 

Experts believe that many cultures independently had their own version of “ancient ice cream.” Ice cream traces its origins back to Mesopotamia. There are records that suggest Indian, Chinese, & Arab cultures may have all had their own versions of these “frozen slushies.” The process would look different between each of them: with varying methods of preparation, flavours, and type of milk used. 

Experts speculate that this method of preparing “frozen slushies'' was brought back to Italy in the 16th century from Marco Polo’s expeditions in China. Italians thoroughly refined this process of making “frozen slushies” and evolved it into what we know and love today: ice cream. 

Still, the origins of ice cream have been widely disputed. We believe the process for making “frozen slushies” or iced drinks (ancient ice cream), was an independent invention found across the world–but, Italians refined the process: turning frozen slushies into modern day ice cream. 

Ice Cream’s Rise in Popularity - The Ice Cream Revolution

Ice cream has always been loved but it wasn’t always easy to get… For Centuries, ice cream was primarily only enjoyed by the ruling elite class–as a refreshing and delectable treat. Common people would not even know about ice cream, yet alone have tasted it. 

It took until the mid 1600s that ice cream was made available to the general public at Paris’ oldest standing cafe & restaurant: Le Procope. 

Cafe Procope in Paris

Ice cream was first made available to the general public at the Cafe Procope in Paris.

It took until the mid-late 1800s for dairy and ice cream production to truly soar. By now, humans had achieved many technological advancements with steam and electric power, mechanical refrigeration and freezing methods, and tools to easily package goods. All of these innovations led to a booming ice cream industry. It was easier to produce ice cream in larger quantities, store it and transport it. Ice cream became far more widely available and easily accessible.

Refrigerated ice cream storage room

Modern technology like refrigeration, electric and steam power, and packaging heavily increased the output of ice cream. Image from: The Book of Ice Cream by W. W. Fisk, 1919.  

The Ice Cream Soda 

As ice cream became more mainstream, so did human ingenuity. Ice cream sodas were a popular invention made by soda shops in the late 19th century. A young man operating a soda fountain was known as a “Soda Jerk.” Soda Jerk’s would serve famous ice cream sodas, known today as an ice cream float

Soda Jerk handing over ice cream soda between two soda fountains

“Soda jerk" passing ice cream soda between two soda fountains, 1936. 

The Ice Cream Sundae

Ice cream sodas had been on the receiving end of backlash from religious communities when served on Sundays. Because of this, on Sundays, soda jerks and ice cream vendors would only serve the ice cream without any soda. They named this new product: an Ice Cream Sunday–later renamed: Ice Cream Sundae to avoid any confusion with the Sabbath. A classic treat that is still served and loved today! 

An Ice cream sundae: Scoop of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce and a cherry on top

A modern-day classic: ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. 

The Invention of the Soft Serve Machine & Soft Serve Ice Cream

The invention of the soft serve machine is responsible for the next big boom for the ice cream industry. Inventor: Tom Carvel is credited for inventing the first “no air pump” soft serve machine in 1936

First Soft Serve Machine
First “No Air Pump” Soft Serve Machine by Tom Carvel, 1936

Tom Carvel was a great businessman who coined the popular marketing phrase: “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” and is a pioneer in the franchising model of retail business. Today, there are currently over 400 Carvel Ice Cream shops across the US. Tom Carvel is known as the "Father of Ice Cream." 

Picture of Tom Carvel holding an ice cream cone
Tom Carvel, “Father of Ice Cream” 

A few years later, in 1939, another inventor by the name of Harry Oltz developed and advertised his very own invention: a machine for dispensing frozen custard. 

Frozen custard machine by Harry Oltz - 1939
Frozen custard machine by Harry Oltz, 1939

The McCulloughs, a father & son duo, who had invented a soft serve mix the previous year in 1938, formed a partnership with Oltz. And with McCulloughs' mix and Oltz's frozen custard machines, they would go on to start the Dairy Queen Industry! The very first Dairy Queen store opened it's doors in 1940. And by 1950 they grew to over 3000 stores! Today, there are over 6000 Dairy Queen locations worldwide!

First Dairy Queen opened it's doors in 1940.
The first Dairy Queen opened in Joliet, Illinois, 1940. 


In conclusion, ever since it’s been discovered hundreds of years ago: ice cream has been loved, desired, and prized by the ruling elites, kings and presidents alike. Because of technological advancements, ice cream has become more widespread and accessible to the common people. Since then, Ice cream consumption exploded and it quickly became the World’s go-to favourite treat–with ice cream found everywhere, in all kinds of shapes, sizes, textures, and flavours globally. 

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