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The History of Ice Cream Trucks

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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13 Thoughts on “The History of Ice Cream Trucks

  1. My Parents {Lee & Vera Truett} owned a Carvel stand. One of the earlier ones # 52) they tried Ice cream trucks . 4 of them. They were VW’s Mistake #1. The Biggest problem was finding Decent people that wanted to work only 4 months out of the year, This would work better in a better climate such as Florida.

  2. As a kid I couldn’t wait for that ice cream truck to pull up along the beach. In these later years I really like one or two Sponge Bob cicles.

  3. A question for the author of the article…
    You noted that in the 1970’s, due to increased competition and the fuel crisis, Good Humor exited the ice cream truck business and focused solely on grocery store sales, but then when explaining about the ice cream truck jingle/song, you credit Good Humor with recently creating a new song in collaboration with RZA. So did Good Humour stop their mobile operations or are they still a ‘player’ in the ice cream truck business in the United States? I’ve not seen them in New England, but perhaps there are still franchises in other areas?
    Thanks for an interesting article!!!

    1. Bungalow Bar was by far the best! When I lived in Astoria in the 1950’s there were 4 different ice cream trucks which drove through our street at least once a each day. Although Bungalow Bar was not the first, it was the one we always waited for. In 1958 we moved to Auburndale. Although it was still Queens population density was far less. Good Humor was the only truck which came for many years. Bungalow Bar never made it there. Definite downside of the move.

  4. The son of a dear friend became a Good Humor vendor, back in the 30’s. However, his career was aborted when his appetite for the ice cream exceeded his truck’s supply.

  5. I’d like to find someone who remembers creamsicles that were tan and white instead of orange and white. Tan – as in cream soda colored.

    1. Those chocolate flavored creamsicles were the best but not as always as available as the orange ones.
      The light chocolate ones are a favorite childhood memory.

  6. We used to have aaa ice cream truck in our neighborhood that would play xmas tunes even in the summer. Then there was the one that had a little jingle and in the end you heard a woman say “HELLO” very loudly. In some ways I am glad they are gone. The lates ones were kind of bazaar.
    However I do remember them from years ago. They were a treat.. Today no one seems to trust them anymore.

  7. A wonderful piece of nostalgia. I would take exception to one word, “inflated” gas prices. Inflated is an action word and implies that there is an outside force inflating gas prices when the rise in gas prices is caused by short supply. A more neutral position would be “high” gas prices.

  8. Hello, I would like to share a poem a wrote a couple of years ago.

    FANTASY RIDE IN THE ICE CREAM TRUCK

    Do you know who lives in an ice cream truck
    Come lets all take a look and see
    There’s plenty of ice cream tenants
    Wanna take a trip with you and me.

    We’ll the polar treats live in the artic case
    Hope the artic doesn’t melt away
    Cause the polar bear on the Klondike box
    Will have to swim the whole live long day

    There’s Italian ice, they live in a boot
    When the ice cream man calls it a day
    But when the ice cream man is busy at work
    Italian Ice is being scraped away

    There’s freeze pops, push pops, slush puppies too
    So take your pup a walk in the sand
    There’s squeeze pops, ice pops, drum sticks too
    So you can keep the beat with the band

    That strawberry scoop on your sugar cone
    Will put a mile smile upon your grin
    Plus a couple inches ‘round your belly
    1000 calories arn’t a sin

    When you lick your last lick off your fudgecycle stick
    You know you’ll be back for more
    But give a different try, try an Eskimo pie
    He’s a whale of a kind of a guy

    Ben n’ Gerry live in the neighbor Hood
    Making Cherry Garcia a star
    But the Half Baked Flavor and Choclolat Chip Chunk
    Makes Garcia wanna strum his guitar

    If your picnic basket needs a picnic lunch
    Ice cream sandwiches would be your treat
    Forget the ketchup, relish and mustard
    Toppings have to be something sweet

    Well thats a li’l glimpse inside an Ice Cream Truck
    Hope one comes soon to where you are
    Take a look inside but don’t be surprized
    See me eating an Ice cream bar

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