Health and Wellness
A Historian’s Guide to Summer – The Ice Cream Edition

A Historian’s Guide to Summer – The Ice Cream Edition

Whether you’re overlooking the sandy shores of your local beach chowing down on a Gaytime, discretely licking the sides of your mouth to make sure there’s no lingering trace of that chocolate Paddle Pop you just scarfed, or running down the street hoping to catch that ice-cream truck tolling those god-awful bells, summer is synonymous with ice cream. It conjures images of warmer weather, leisure time, and sweet messes.

Although the exact numbers vary depending on who you talk to, most people agree that Americans consume a lot of this delicious frozen treat (although with hearty competition from Australians and New Zealanders). In 2010 the American ice-cream industry generated revenue in the ballpark of $10 billion dollars. WebMD had consumption at 14 pounds of ice cream per person in 2008 on average, a number which had decreased since 1988. The Dairy Farmers of Washington have this figure at about 4 gallons per person each year, and the (not infallible) Wikipedia has Americans consuming 23 litres annually.

The vast quantities of ice cream consumed — and the fond associations that go along with it —  suggest the special place reserved for ice cream in America’s cultural imagination. How it is that these overwhelmingly positive images came to be formed, however, is something of a mystery to me.

As a product which markets itself with fun and frivolity it’s easy to brush aside the shadier aspects of ice cream’s history, but it hasn’t always been all sunshine and lollipops. With numerous poisonings recorded across newspapers and medical periodicals, the ice cream of the nineteenth century offers up quite a different picture. Though my job is not to scare you or dampen your love for this creamy delicacy, today’s Summer Special brings a bit of ice cream’s checkered past to the table.

Americans were also eating ice cream by the ton (figuratively) in the late nineteenth century. Decreasing manufacturing costs (both of ingredients and ice for freezing) and new machinery in the form of the ‘hand cranked ice-cream freezer’ made it more readily available to a wider variety of people. Although it may not necessarily have resembled the (relatively expensive) custard-based ice creams we know today, it became a treat available in many familiar venues: at parks and fairs, or at picnics and parties. The increased consumption of ice cream, however, also saw the rise of a spate of poisonings attributed to this sweet treat.1 Everyone was enjoying this newly democratized dessert — until they weren’t.

Ice-cream poisonings were common enough that, in not very much time at all, I turned up a number of incidents reported in the contemporary press. This tale of a party held by Arthur Jones at Greenfield, New York, in 1898 was one of the more serious. A couple of days before hosting his Sunday-evening dinner party, Jones bought a lemon-flavored extract from a traveling salesmen and used this to flavor an ice cream he was making (or, more likely, had made).

Many at the party indulged in the treat organized by Mr. Jones on their behalf, but by 9pm that evening the first guest, a Mrs. Seder, “was attacked with nausea.” It wouldn’t be long after that others would follow: “by midnight … two cottages were filled with the sick.” By the time the New York Times article was published, 3 people were already dead, including Mrs. Seder, and local physicians indicated that there were 6 more not expected to recover. In all, the article listed 21 individuals adversely affected by the ice cream.2

Dr. J.F. Curlette, the physician attending the scene, proclaimed the cause of these deaths and illnesses to be ptomaine poisoning.3 Ptomaine poisoning probably sounds unfamiliar to most, but historian Edward Geist explains it nicely as a process by which poisonous substances were produced by bacteria from “the putrefacation of organic matter.” Ptomaines are not quite the same thing as current bacterial understandings of food contamination, and would soon fall out of favor, however, they offered a means of explaining poisonings without relying on the introduction of external taints.4

Although ptomaine poisoning may have been offered as the eventual cause, doubt still lingered over the possibility that this was the result of the introduction of an additive of some kind. Additives, after all, were the other primary means by which food poisonings were often explained. The subtitle of one article read: “Deadly Effect of the Use of Lemon Extract Purchased from a Traveling Salesman.” In the same article as Curlette pronounced ptomaines to be responsible, the New York Times indicated the possibility that it might have been an impurity in the lemon extract instead, perhaps laced with a toxin that had been introduced to the ice cream at the time of production.5

This newspaper article nicely encapsulates the struggle highlighted by Geist in his own (and much more comprehensive) writing on the phenomenon of toxic ice-cream. What was causing these poisonings? Was it an “adulterant”? Was the lemon flavoring used by the traveling salesman lethal? Was it food handling or preparation, and thus the ice cream itself that was problematic? Or was it some combination of the two? Could the lemon flavoring have produced the ptomaines rather than the ice cream itself?

A Reid Ice Cream Co. truck, probably in Washington, DC, c. 1918. (US Library of Congress)

For our purposes, it’s not the absolute answer which is of greatest relevance, not least because we will probably never know, but the fact that all of these possibilities existed. People were becoming sick from consuming ice cream, and authorities simply could not identify with complete certainty why it was happening or how to prevent future outbreaks. It could have been any number of factors.

Refrigeration, improved food handling and preparation, and the regulation of raw ingredients (like milk) and additives (like lemon flavorings) have all meant that summer’s favorite treat has undergone a radical improvement by becoming a substantially safer snack after a hot day at the beach. Whether this alone moved ice cream from a high-risk, taking-your-life-into-your-own-hands kind of food to a fun-loving and care-free summer special, I’m not sure. It’s possible that this is only one facet of a much more interesting story highlighting the ways in which ice cream, and other cultural phenomena, are continually reinvented. Here we are, after all, guzzling ice cream with no thought for the reality that was.

I’m not suggesting that anybody think twice about the next pint, scoop, or cone that you eat. We can’t live in the shadow of now unfounded old-world fears, but I am thinking that at the next pool party, BBQ, or impromptu summer dinner party you attend (or throw, though maybe go easy on the lemon extract?) you can regale your crew with a gripping, and topical, tale of historical nastiness, mixed with a touch of twenty-first-century intrigue. History, as we all know, is bound to make you the life of any party, and so just imagine what could happen if you combined that with the sensational popularity of ice-cream.

Did you know: That under President Reagan July became National Ice Cream Month? The International Dairy Foods Association says that “He recognized ice cream as a fun and nutritious food.” Do with it what you will, I’m not going to tell you to go perform your civic duty or anything like that….

Just in case you were interested: While it depends on who you’re asking, it looks like Alaskans might just edge out the rest of the country as the greatest consumers of ice cream, consuming 6 gallons per person per year. The most money spent on ice cream, however, seems to come from California or the East Coast.

If you’ve never seen (or eaten) a Golden Gaytime and it, or the above advertisement, has piqued your interest you might want to check out these fun retro commercials:

Some fine print: Edward Geist is quite correct when he writes that there is limited scholarship available specifically examining the history of ice-cream. If you’re interested in reading something a little meatier, you should definitely check out his work, cited in the footnotes. For ease though, it’s also here: Edward Geist, ‘When Ice Cream Was Poisonous: Adulteration, Ptomaines, and Bacteriology in the United States, 1850-1910,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86, no. 3 (2012), pp. 333-60.


  1. Edward Geist, “When Ice Cream Was Poisonous: Adulteration, Ptomaines, and Bacteriology in the United States, 1850-1910,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86.3 (2012), 339. Return to text.
  2. “Poisoned By Ice Cream,” New York Times, August 26, 1898, 12. Return to text.
  3. Ibid. Return to text.
  4. Geist, “When Ice Cream Was Poisonous,” 335-336. Return to text.
  5. “Poisoned By Ice Cream,” New York Times, 12. Return to text.

Sean Cosgrove's research areas lie at the intersection of histories of medicine, science and technology, gender, and popular culture primarily in the late nineteenth century, united by an interest in the experiences of, and ideas surrounding, the human body. He is also committed to public engagement and actively interested in fostering greater inclusivity in higher education. He has previously conducted research focusing on patients, hermaphroditism, and sexual violence and criminality in the nineteenth century, but has also worked on projects outside of academia.