The Cool History Behind the Truck Serving Sweet Treats in Sweltering Heat

The first thing you think of when you hear the words ice cream truck may be the jingly ice cream truck music and kids running wild in the streets. But did you know that bacteria and Prohibition had a lot to do with shaping this mobile part of the ice cream business?

Pasteurized milk wasn't widespread in America until the 1890s, so there was a very real risk of poisoning if dairy wasn't kept at the correct temperature. As food safety and hygiene improved at the beginning of the 1900s, there was less bacteria and more happy and healthy customers.

At the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, the invention of the ice cream cone officially premiered. Waffle cones were already invented but no one had thought of putting the ice cream into the cone for a portable treat.

In the early 1920s, electric refrigeration was improving and prehistoric icebox refrigeration was disappearing. The combination of two technologies-- refrigeration and cars-- made the ice cream truck possible.

America was also missing its booze. It was Prohibition and people are people, no matter the century. We need our vices. Ice cream parlors became a popular hangout and mobile ice cream brought that vice to adults and kids alike.

The first ice cream truck was created by Harry Burt in Youngstown, Ohio. He had already created the Good Humor brand of ice cream by selling ice cream sandwiches and tubs of ice cream. Burt was already delivering ice cream to his wholesale customers like ice cream parlors and shops from a motorized delivery truck.

Harry Burt had one of those lightbulb ideas. He was a smart man and he listened to the mothers who would be cleaning up their kid's ice cream covered clothes and faces. The mothers didn't like the mess, so Harry made it less messy. He put his ice cream bars on a wooden stick!

He took it one step further, and started selling his novelty ice cream right from his truck. The ice cream cart had now evolved to an entirely new business model. Truck owners could design their own service area. There were low overhead costs, and people loved the affordable pricing with less mess because of that simple wooden stick. That wooden stick was also handy in selling popsicles. Twin popsicles with two sticks were a popular treat to make two kids happy when they were simply snapped in half.

Good Humor trucks became the gold standard and other ice cream trucks and sellers started popping up. Alcohol may have legally come back to the masses in 1933 with the end of Prohibition but the ice cream man was now just as beloved as your favorite bartender.

Mister Softee was founded in Philadelphia in 1956 by the Conway brothers from New Jersey. The brothers invented a soft serve ice cream machine built specifically for a truck. Now there were more options for that traveling truck. You could now have a traveling sundae with rainbow sprinkles, hot fudge topping, and more recently crushed Oreos.

Today, it's common to hire an ice cream truck to park at your school event, corporate event, or birthday party. Especially during the pandemic, hiring a food truck or ice cream truck to keep the festivities all outside kept a lot of ice cream trucks in business.

The happy jingle of an ice cream truck's music box can still be heard in some neighborhoods on a regular basis. As a child of the 1970s, nothing was more exciting than hearing that music and screaming for our moms to get their purses. "Hurry! before he drives away!!"

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