The Philadelphia Ice Cream Tradition of Innovation

700 Block of Sansom. 1963. DOR Archives.

Abbott’s Ice Cream advertised for sale on Sansom Street, 1963.

By Brady Dale.

With spring and summer upon us (not to mention an announcement that even Yuengling has entered the ice cream business, the history of local ice cream has been on our mind.

Philadelphia has long been a leader in ice cream production, and the city is still home to Bassett’s Ice Cream, which started here in 1861. In a previous Philly History post on another famous brand, Breyer’s Ice Cream, we wrote about the ups and downs of a company that changed hands many times before it finally left Philadelphia in 1993. Breyer’s started here in 1866 and its first store was at Frankford Ave and Somerset, in Port Richmond, which the company opened in 1882.

By 1900, the North Bros. Manufacturing Company (acquired in 1946) was a leading manufacturer of ice cream freezers and other ice related equipment. So even if companies made ice cream elsewhere, they still needed Philadelphia goods to make it happen. Founded at 23rd and Race Street, the company really became big when it moved its operation to Lehigh and American Streets.

Abbott’s Dairies, Chestnut and 30th St. 1930.

Abbott’s Dairy shut down in 1984, after 108 years. It is too bad. It sounds like it was a fun company. In 1937 they put out a book called Raggedy Ann and Maizie Moocow, with an ice cream driven plot (meant to illustrate the healthful benefits of ice cream). It’s dairy truck drivers are remembered to have been known to throw kids free ice cream sandwiches, in Philadelphia ReflectionsIn truth, Abbott’s core business wasn’t ice cream so much as dairy. It had a home delivery business that started selling non-dairy products in 1967. By 1975, non-dairy sales by milkmen were making up some 20% of their home delivery sales, according to The Times-News.

Here’s a photo of some Abbott’s trucks in South Philadelphia. Here’s a photo of stacks and stacks of Abbott’s branded ice cream.

Ice cream for sale near UPenn’s campus, 1952.

Let’s talk ice cream innovation, too. To start, let’s focus on something that’s been subject to a long history of debate: the city origin of fried ice cream. Today, the inventive dessert is often found in Asian and Mexican restaurants, though it’s connection to those cuisines is debatable. Some say the desert was introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but other sources around that time credit it to Philadelphia. A recipe called “Alaska Bake,” effectively the same thing as Fried Ice Cream, turned up in the Philadelphia Cook Book in 1886.

Philadelphia is also the birthplace of another spectacular snack. While the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Company was still operating here, one of its VPs created the Choco-Taco in 1984, an ice-cream confection that continues to engender cavities to this day.

There’s something about ice cream that’s meant for travel. While the milkmen is a fondly remembered icon of the past, the ice cream truck is still going strong. One of the pioneers of wandering trucks luring children’s allowance away from them started here in 1956, the still familiar Mister Softee.

Fulleborn's Bakery, Germantown, 1957. DOR Archives.

Bassett’s and Dolly Madison Ice Creams for sale in Germantown, 1957.

Unfortunately, this last story is not as great as it could be. All the good details seem to have been lost to the winds of time. Augustus Jackson was an African-American man who was born in Philadelphia in 1808 and worked as a chef at the White House. He came back to Philadelphia after a while, though, in his early 20s, and started an ice cream company. We don’t know its name. There are accounts of Jackson all over the web. They say he was prosperous, that he invented new flavors that are still popular today and that he improved the process of making ice cream. That’s where the trail goes cold. He never filed for any patents, so the details of his contributions to the creamy confection business seem to have been lost. If anyone knows any more, please let us know in the comments.

Here’s to your first ice cream cone this season: Let it not melt.

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One Comment

  1. James F. Clark
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    My father was a milkman, he worked for a door to door milk company which changed hands four times when he worked there (late 30′s to 70′s). Started out as Scott-Powell, then Aristocrat, Foremost and finally Lehigh Dairies. The ice cream division went along for the changes ride also. Their brand was “Dolly Madison” which was later sold and became a snack cake maker. But they had an ice cream which came in a mold (six sided) with three flavors inter twined. Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry, called “Darlene” mold. It was, and still is the best ice cream I have ever tasted.

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