The History of Ice Cream Trucks

Ice cream trucks have been traveling along American roads for a century, spreading from one Ohio city to neighborhoods across the country.
ice cream truck history

Is there a more quintessential summer experience than hearing the jingle of an ice cream truck, racing out of the house to catch up to it, then devouring a sweet, frozen treat?

People have been performing this seasonal ritual since ice cream truck history began in the early 20th century. Since then, these mobile dessert parlors have become a warm-weather mainstay across the country. But it hasn’t all been rainbows and sprinkles. There have been notable ice cream controversies along the way, and today, operators face an unpalatable future.

Let’s look back at 100 years of ice cream truck history.

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The First Ice Cream Trucks

Ice cream trucks trace their roots back more than a century. In 1920, a Youngstown, Ohio, confectioner named Harry Burt devised a chocolate coating that could encase ice cream. He gave the treat to his daughter, who loved the taste but was less enthused by the mess that came with eating it. Her brother offered a solution: put a handle in it. Burt had previously developed a hard-candied lollipop, which utilized a stick handle. By freezing those sticks into the ice cream bars, Burt revolutionized the way we eat ice cream. He called his new creation the Good Humor bars.

During this time, Burt was already delivering ice cream via motorized trucks. But because his new ice cream didn’t need to be served in a bowl or cone, he could sell it directly to consumers on the street. He purchased 12 refrigerated trucks, equipped them with bells and sent the fleet out to hawk Good Humor bars. In turn, Burt became the first ice cream truck vendor in history.

A 1938 Good Humor ice cream truck (Credit: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)

The Rise of Good Humor

It didn’t take long for the company to flourish, thanks to some apt marketing maneuvers. Street ice cream of the time, usually sold from pushcarts, didn’t have the best reputation. It was known to be made of low-quality ingredients and was often the source of food poisoning. To distinguish itself, the Good Humor company’s fleet consisted of sparkling white trucks. Its drivers were outfitted in similarly colored uniforms, not unlike those worn by hospital orderlies. The company took cleanliness and appearance so seriously, it even had a training manual instructing drivers to “get the proper amount of rest each night and eat good food … and always have a clean shave and neat haircut.”

In addition to pristine appearances, Good Humor also benefitted from, of all things, Prohibition. Americans sought comfort in this indulgence after the other was taken away. Ice cream consumption rose an estimated 40% during the 1920s. 

Combined, these factors were a boon to Good Humor. The company sold 14 million bars in New York and Chicago in 1932 alone, according to Smithsonian Magazine. By the mid-1930s, Good Humor trucks could be found throughout most of the country. In the 1950s, the company boasted a fleet of 2,000 ice cream trucks.

Mid-Century Ice Cream Trucks

Ice cream consumption boomed following World War II, after wartime dairy rationing was lifted. Americans consumed more than 20 quarts of ice cream per person in 1946, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. This increase in demand led to an influx of competition in the ice cream truck business.

The most notable new entrant was Mister Softee, started by brothers William and James Conway in Philadelphia the mid-1950s. The pair were working for an ice cream machine manufacturer when they began receiving more and more requests for machines that could be installed in trucks. However, this jury-rigged technique inevitably led to mechanical problems.

They were taking the ice cream machines and bolting them to the truck,” said Jim Conway, William’s son and Mister Softee’s current vice president. “But for a lot of reasons, that doesn’t really work well. You need shock absorbers, and you need to be able to keep the machine cool.”

ice cream truck history
(Credit: Steve McFarland / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Conways concluded that ice cream trucks needed to be specifically built for the task. Their employer, however, did not want to invest the time and money needed to manufacturer such vehicles. So the brothers set out on their own to create a better ice cream truck. And that’s exactly what they did, developing a specially designed machine that produced perfectly smooth soft ice cream from the back of a moving truck. The Conways gradually added trucks to their fleet over the proceeding years, but soon realized that the more lucrative business would be selling their trucks as franchises. From 1955 to 1970, Mister Softee franchising grew 3,600%.

Good Humor was still going strong during this time. By the 1960s, it boasted more than 85 different ice cream treats. The demise of its ice cream truck operation, however, was in sight. In 1975, New York City charged the company with hundreds of counts of falsifying food safety records in order to hide evidence of bacteria in its products. Authorities alleged that about 10% of Good Humor ice cream sold between 1972-1975 was tainted. The ordeal and the fines it brought combined with factors like declining sales, increased competition and the 1970s fuel crisis led Good Humor to exit the truck business and focus exclusively on grocery store sales.

The History of the Ice Cream Truck Song

Few sounds whet the appetite like the ice cream truck jingle. But the origins of this seemingly benign tune are downright stomach churning. The melody you hear emanating from many ice cream trucks is based off a 19th century folk song called, “Turkey in the Straw,” which itself is a take on an even older British tune, “The (Old) Rose Tree.” In the 1800s, “Turkey in the Straw” was given new, overtly racist lyrics as it was incorporated into traveling minstrel shows. By the 1890s, this new version was commonly heard in ice cream parlors, which often played the popular minstrel songs of the day. When ice cream purveyors began selling their products out of trucks and needed a way to announce their presence on the street, they opted for this familiar song.

To help right this wrong, Good Humor recently partnered with legendary rapper and producer RZA to create a new ice cream truck jingle. The song is available to drivers across the country free of charge.

As for the Mister Softee tune, it too was adapted from an earlier song. The melody is based off that of composer Arthur Pryor’s early 20th century composition “The Whistler and His Dog.” In 1960, Philadelphia ad executive Les Waas put lyrics to the song, which he titled, “Jingle And Chimes.”

The Last Frozen Bite?

It’s difficult to imagine ice cream trucks, once a staple of Americana, not meandering down neighborhood streets on hot summer days. But that could soon become a reality. “[The ice cream truck is] unfortunately becoming a thing of the past,” said Steve Christensen, the executive director of the North American Ice Cream Association.

A crippling combination of rising ice cream costs, inflated gas prices and ever more costly vendor permits have melted much of the profit away from operating an ice cream. Add in substantial frozen treat competition and you see why many owners are now finding the business untenable. So, the next time you see an ice cream truck in your neighborhood, be sure to grab a snow cone or two for old times’ sake.

Now that you’ve got ice cream on the mind, read up on the best spots in the Northeast to grab a scoop or two!

Featured image: Karah Levely-Rinaldi / CC BY-ND 2.0


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