Ice cream wasn’t invented in Philadelphia, but that much is true for wholesome, all-natural Breyer’s brand (first, a Philadelphia family business). A recent article in the New York Times bemoaning the latest corporate iteration of Breyer’s — “frozen dairy dessert” — reminded many of this bittersweet fact.
The Breyer’s factory at 700 South 43rd Street in disrepair.
Breyer’s aficionados claim the current “dairy dessert” product is hardly recognizable, but that, in some way, has a sort of melancholy logic. Today, the Breyer’s factory (pictured) that was once described as a chilly, bustling facility that employed about 500 workers at its peak, no longer exists. It’s been paved over and serves as part of the University of the Science campus in University City. Even the Breyer’s factory that still stands at 9th and Cumberland is difficult to associate. The hollowed out structure that Hidden City recently highlighted looks more like a prison than a place where a nation’s favorite dessert was churned.
The combination of corporate treat and crumbling concrete would probably also puzzle William A. Breyer, the original creator of the eponymous ice cream. He hand-churned the first batch of ice cream in 1866 in North Philadelphia. Then, beginning in 1882, he opened five shops throughout the city. At the time, Breyer wasn’t the only Philadelphian making a living producing ice cream, but after turning over the business to his son, Henry Breyer, his version probably became the most famous.
The younger Breyer constructed the factory at 700 South 43rd Street in 1924, then just two years later sold the company to the National Dairy Products Company.
At one time, the green mint leaf Breyer’s insignia was everywhere. Below you can see a few examples of corner stores and parlors displaying the logo to attract ice cream lovers across the city.
One of the trademark Breyer’s green mint leaf logos on a storefront at 4th and Vine in 1964.
The Breyer’s ice cream float on display in the 1926 Industrial Parade.
But the ubiquity of the staple confection belied its somewhat volatile ownership. Between 1926 and 1995, the company changed hands three times, moving from the Breyer family to the National Dairy Products Company to Kraft to Unilever. Unilever NV bought the company in 1993 then ditched Philadelphia shortly thereafter.
It’s been almost two decades since Breyer’s manufactured ice cream in Philadelphia. The plant had been in operation for about 71 years when Unilever NV shuttered it in 1995. At the time, the company reportedly claimed that the cost to modernize the facility — approximately $15 million dollars — was too high. According to the same article, Ed Rendell valiantly tried to keep the tell-tale green mint leaf branded ice cream in Philadelphia, but the corporation shifted production to Framingham, Massachusetts, where a bigger, more modern plant was waiting (though it’s no longer produced there, either).
Although, by the time of its closing, the company had multiple manufacturing locations, the Philadelphia Breyer’s factory was the companies oldest. And the green mint leaf that represented its product both pervaded the city and welcomed visitors to it.
The Breyer’s company smokestack as seen from the nearby train tracks in 1955, likely somewhat before the Breyer’s billboard went up.
At the time the Breyer’s factory closed, an Inquirer reporter wrote, with no small amount of nostalgia:
“Its Philadelphia factory is crowned by a large billboard bearing the Breyers insignia – a green mint leaf – that can be seen from the Schuylkill Expressway and passing Amtrak trains.”
For anyone that loves ice cream, it really is a bit sad. After all, what better way to invite visitors or welcome back travelers than with the promise of a cool scoop of “home” made ice cream.