Ice Cream: From a Rare Delicacy to America’s Favorite Dessert

With beginnings as an elite dessert for ancient kings, ice cream was churned by many hands before becoming America’s favorite treat.

Some millennia ago, ice cream was a decadent dessert only rulers had the means to make. Pre-refrigeration, there was no simple way to get ice cream; it required days of work and preparation. So how did ice cream go from being a rare delicacy to America’s most ubiquitous dessert option? Below we share the unique history of ice cream.

The History of Ice Cream Goes Way, Way Back

For the greater part of ice cream’s history, it was a hard-to-attain, exclusive dessert for the elite, and a favorite among ancient rulers, including:

  • Alexander the Great—The Macedonian conqueror was said to crave snow and ice flavored with honey and nectar.
  • King Solomon—Biblical references reveal how fond this wealthy ruler was of sweetened iced drinks, perhaps inventing the first milkshake along the way.
  • Nero Claudius Caesar—The Roman emperor sent men to collect snow from the highest points of the Italian Alps and bring it back to Rome to be flavored with flowers and fruit juices.

Their requests were extravagant and fit for kings. Thankfully, we live in an era where ice cream shops are plentiful. There are endless types of wacky flavors to choose from, and just as exciting is the number of new internationally inspired ice cream parlors (like Thai-style rolled ice cream) opening in the United States.

As the owner of an ice cream shop, you wouldn’t believe the journey your product took to get here.

For decades, ice cream has been a quintessentially American dessert, but in 3000 B.C.E. it was a Chinese recipe designed to impress noble guests and countrymen. As the story goes, the origins of the first ice cream recipe go back nearly 5,000 years ago to when Chinese emperor King Tang of Shang tasked 94 men with mixing together flour, buffalo milk, and camphor. The result would have been a rich, sweet version of ice cream. (We are endlessly curious about why it took 94 people.)

This was not the last time ice cream would be served in China. When adventure-seeking Marco Polo traveled east in the 13th century, he was treated to this otherworldly dessert. Impressed by the unusual concoction, Polo sent the recipe back to Italy (along with noodles!), and gelato was born.

It took roughly another 300 years for ice cream to blow up in Europe—thanks to Catherine de Medici, born in Florence and later queen consort of Henry II in France. When she introduced gelato to the French, it didn’t take long for other nations to develop their own versions of ice cream, adapting the recipe to satisfy their varying culinary preferences.

In the 1600s, Europeans began immigrating to the New World to start their lives anew. By the 1800s, it’s estimated that nearly one million new immigrants settled in the United States. With them, they brought a smorgasbord of cultural qualities, from religious beliefs to culinary creations—including ice cream.

In time, a new ice cream version was created that had a base of heavy cream and milk. This version of ice cream is still considered “American” to this day.

Because it wasn’t possible to store ice cream for long periods, it was reserved for special holidays. Until the invention of the refrigerator in the United States, ice cream was a delicacy that everyone craved but that was reserved for rare occasions at a high price. With refrigeration technology, ice cream became an affordable product available at all times. The invention of a cooling box kick-started mass manufacturing, and the ice cream industry was born.

By the 1920s, most US households had a refrigerator, (which was a status symbol as ubiquitous as the iPhone in the late 2000s), and by the ‘40s and ‘50s, ice cream parlors were the heartbeat of American social life. Young men and women had a socially acceptable place to mingle and flirt over ice cream shakes and root beer floats.

During World War II, ice cream was a symbol of morale, with each branch of the military trying to outdo each other by serving more outrageous quantities of ice cream. As an example, in the West Pacific, a floating ice cream parlor was built for sailors who needed a scoop and a reminder of home.

In time, the image of a double-scooped ice cream cone came to symbolize Modern America, where innovation reigned supreme and possibilities were limitless. Ice cream was so much a symbol that Italian fascist dictator Mussolini banned ice cream production and consumption in Italy—ice cream’s first destination in the Western world. When the war was over in 1946, America celebrated with pints of ice cream. It’s said that 20 quarts of ice cream were consumed per person that year.

Launching An Ice Cream Shop

If you’re interested in starting an ice cream business, you can start by learning everything you can about the business. To help you have a good start, here are a few tips you may find useful.

Decide on your product. Yes, an ice cream business sells ice cream, but you have to create a product that can make your business stand out from the rest. You may want to add some distinguishing style, taste, or packaging to your ice cream so you can offer something different. Of course, one very important thing is to decide on a product that people will surely love.

Research and study your target market. If you want your products to sell, you have to make sure they’re what your target market wants. Simple market research could be of great help, especially if you’re just starting out. 

Decide on your budget. You can actually make a feasibility study as well and jot down everything you need to put up the business. If your financial resources won’t suffice, find ways to raise money for your business. You can apply for a small business loan, borrow from friends, or opt for a partnership, sharing the costs and profits with a partner.

Plan how to market your business. Restaurant marketing is an essential element of any ice cream shop. If you want to make your business grow, you have to plan your marketing and find ways to reach your target market. If your plan doesn’t work, find other marketing strategies. Keep abreast of the competition in the industry.

These are just a few of the things to keep in mind as you start an ice cream business. As with any business, there are risks and uncertainties involved, but the rewards can more than make up for them!

Increase your profits. And keep them.

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