Britain’s blistering heatwave has created a record-breaking demand for the treat that, over the course of the last century, has become a summer favourite the world over: ice cream. Sales have increased 100 per cent year on year, and London is even hosting an ice-cream themed pop-up exhibition, fittingly titled ‘Scoop’.
Just 350 years ago, ice cream was a rare delicacy, reserved for kings and the richest of aristocrats. To enjoy it a person had to be able to afford refrigeration, which in the pre-industrial world was arduous and expensive.
Back then, to refrigerate foodstuffs, people needed the land to build an ice house (to store the ice), fresh water access, and servants to cut and hull the ice. The ice would have to be regularly restocked and was available only in some climates at some times. But thanks to technological and scientific progress, ice cream has become available to pretty much everyone.
The first recorded mention of ice cream was on the menu of a feast given in 1671 by King Charles II. The banquet was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Charles’ ascendency to the British throne. The flavour remains unknown, but the dessert was exclusive to the King’s table and served with “one plate of white strawberries”.
The new treat quickly took off. Eating ice cream not only demonstrated very high social status, but flavours themselves were a means to show off. From cucumber to carnation, sherry to daffodil (even though daffodil is poisonous), the more outlandish the flavour, the more it was valued by aristocrats.
Fast-forward 150 years to the 1850s, and ice cream had become available to the masses, albeit in a very different way than we know today. Italian immigrants who came to the United Kingdom to escape the Napoleonic Wars and poor economic conditions created The Penny Lick. Street vendors would sell a small glass of ice cream for a penny to crowds of joyous customers. This light-hearted contraption ended up having deadly consequences.
The Penny Lick was banned in 1898 after it was directly linked with an outbreak of tuberculosis. TB is an airborne disease and is spread by the “cough, sneeze or spit” of an infected person. It is therefore not surprising the glass, that would be licked, cleaned with a dirty rag, and then reused, would be infested with germs. Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention and concerns over hygiene meant when the ice cream cone was first created in New York in 1896 (or St. Louis in 1904 — we are not quite sure) it quickly displaced the glass Penny Lick.
Then came Londoner Agnes B. Marshall’s hand-cranked ice cream machine. In the late 1800s, Marshall started using the new technology of liquid nitrogen to make better quality ice cream. Sam Bompas, the co-director of the Scoop ice cream exhibition, describes Marshall as “the Victorian equivalent of (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver,” and claims the machines she created are still more effective than today’s household ice cream makers.
In 1930, Cadbury’s began serving soft whipped ice cream with a small chocolate flake — known as “the 99”. By using more efficient manufacturing processes, the treat reached new heights of popularity and quickly became synonymous with British summertime, pebble-beach holidays and picture-perfect post cards.
Ice cream’s story is a common one: from a good reserved for kings, to a status symbol amongst the aristocracy, to something enjoyed by us all. This type of progress, from luxury to everyday good, is common to nearly all modern foodstuffs; from cake to chocolate, from waffles to syrup. Even the idea of keeping leftovers is a relatively recent phenomenon, made possible by cheap refrigeration.
As Humanprogress.org continues to show, “more often than not, we tend to overlook our truly spectacular rise from grinding poverty to previously unimaginable abundance… scientific progress make(s) a king out of each of us”.
The future of ice-cream is, literally, a bright one, with glow-in-the-dark, chewy, fizzy and alcoholic varieties all on the horizon. Even a non-poisonous variant of the daffodil ice cream is now available. As we wait for the cooler weather to return, remember that everyone can now indulge in a delight that was only available to kings just a few centuries ago.
This first appeared in CapX.
Alexander C. R. Hammond is a researcher at a Washington DC think tank.