Ice Cream hits the streets of New York

By Laura Brose

Before the ice cream cone

The Industrial Revolution of 19th century was sweetened for the working masses by an accompanying revolution in ice cream: mass production, distribution of ice, and the beginnings of refrigeration technology made it possible and potentially profitable to produce ice cream and ices commercially and sell single servings for low prices. Ice cream had heretofore usually been enjoyed only by those who could amass the means of production: the money to buy imported sugar and hand-cranked ice cream freezers, the livestock to produce the eggs and milk, and the kitchen staff to make it were the necessary capital. In Europe, ice cream had initially been a rare treat for the rich and the royal. In the New World, ice cream was known to have become available in the market economy to anyone who was in the right place and could afford it by the time of US independence.

Then as now, New York was on the cutting edge of food fashions and luxury retail for upscale consumers: The first Gelateria (ice cream shop) in the United States was established in New York in 1770 by an Italian emigrant, Giovanni Bosio. (Stradley, Linda, 2004) It wasn’t long before Bosio had competition: In 1774, “The first public advertisement of ice cream was made by Filippo Lenzi, a caterer and confectioner. He notified residents of New York city that he had just arrived from London and would be offering for sale jams, jellies, pastries, sugar plums, ice cream, and other luxuries. Caterers and chefs of this era sometimes prepared ice cream for a limited clientele, usually on special order. Lenzi inserted other advertisements in the newspaper in order to call attention to his wares. In the New York Gazette-Mercury for May 19, 1777, he thanked his customers for their valued patronage, told of his move to Hanover Square and stated, ‘May be had almost every day, Ice Cream’." (op. Cit.) “Lenzi reputedly came from London and set up business in Dock Street and later in Hanover Square, now renamed Stuyvesant Square. (Liddell, Caroline, and Weir, Robin, 1995, Frozen Deserts, St. Martin’s Press, Griffin imprint, NY, p. 15.) There seems to be no trace of his shop in Hanover Square today, but many of the buildings and the street plan layouts of the time period exist in the surrounding community. Cargo brokers, commodities traders, ships’ chandlers, and the legal and financial firms that go with them abounded, as did retail and restaurant establishments that served the upscale working rich clientele. In today’s lower Manhattan, only the technology and the location of the shipping industry has changed. And New Yorkers then, like New Yorkers now, created a consumer demand for inexpensive versions of luxury products that were priced for the general population.

“The first ice cream street vendors were familiar figures on the streets of New York as early as 1828. The National Advertiser in Washington reported that a group of noisy fellows, with kettles in their hands, had added “I scream, ice cream” to the street cries of New York. Much of the ice cream was, in truth, ice milk, because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh cream.” (Reynolds, Al, 1998-2002 “IACV Memories The History of Ice Cream” published by the International Association of Ice Cream Vendors) Now the enjoyment of ice cream was democratized: anybody with a few pennies could buy a serving.

However, serving it up to a transient public was problematic at first. Ice cream parlors, cafes, and soda fountains which attracted a middle-class clientele served ice cream in porcelain or glass goblets made in a vaguely conical shape, similar to present-day ice cream sundae glasses: those who wished to do a volume business by selling “low end” portions of ice cream developed smaller versions of this kind of dish to serve smaller amounts of ice cream at a lower price. These dishes, which were about the size of egg cups, and the ice cream served therein were called “penny licks”. Though there are drawings showing penny lick dishes of ice cream being served on a saucer accompanied by a spoon and some wafer cookies, in real life, most vendors probably never gave out spoons or bothered with this sort of ceremony. I remember once seeing an old photo of a Coney Island ice cream stand by the beach with a crowd clustering around it, licking ice cream from these tiny dishes. The advantage of serving ice cream this way was that costs were minimal and since the diminutive glass dishes were returned to the vendor, there was no litter. “A further advantage of serving ice cream in the lick was that customers, instead of continuing their promenade along the beach, would be obliged to stand around the ice cream seller creating a crowd, until they had finished their ice cream and returned the lick.” (Liddell, C., and Weir, R., 1995, Frozen Deserts, St. Martin’s Press, Griffin imprint, NY., p.20.) The vendors who used them continued to use them well after the invention of the ice cream cone and into the 1920s. However, as part of keeping costs down, the dishes were often not washed, or simply soaked in a communal basin of water! An increasingly germ conscious public started to look for alternatives, and government authorities attempting to stop communicable diseases, especially tuberculosis, banned the licks in some major cities, and they eventually fell into disuse as these public health measures became more widespread. The tiny uncoated paper cup that most Italian Ices are served in might have been developed at this time as a disposable alternative to Penny Lick dishes.