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The snack that signals summertime joy
A brief history of ice cream trucks (with a sprinkling of raw emotion because I can't help it right now)
Hello, Snackers. Things melt, things fall apart.
Our local ice cream truck, run by a company called Blue Bell, just resumed its rounds. Its return is a rite of spring here in Minneapolis, as predicable and welcome as budding tulips and cheeping baby birds and neighbors sitting on their porches.
The regular driver is an East African immigrant named Gary. He knows my kids and welcomes them with a huge smile—“Hi, guys! How’s it going?” His vehicle looks like a mail truck, a white box on wheels with parcels for the whole neighborhood. It plays “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” interspersed with a tinny recorded voice that says, “Hello!” with a slight inquisitive inflection at the end, both announcement and question: Hello! (Are you there?)
My kids are six and four, two girls with long blonde hair in ponytails and a fondness for pink dresses and bare feet. One day last week, after Gary and his truck had been absent for the long, frigid months of fall and winter and early spring, my older daughter—playing outside, giving herself a mud facial in the front yard—heard the music from several blocks away.
She ran to her room and dug out her binoculars and $6 from her personal cash stash and sprinted down the sidewalk, barefoot, to see if she could spot Gary down the street. She was a delightfully sitcom-y version of herself: dirt-smudged cheeks and broad smile and binoculars held to her eyes, scanning the horizon, as one hand gripped her precious bills, her entire body spring-loaded with excited anticipation.
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An ice cream truck is slow-moving happiness. Its schedule is not always predicable; it’s not trackable by apps. It shows up when it shows up, though you can hear its approach.
Gary only takes cash. This is how it should be, in keeping with the timeless nature of the endeavor. Sometimes, when we haven't been to the ATM for a while, the sound of the bell prompts a mad dash to the change jar. Gary is unperturbed; he’s used to it. His prices are quarter-friendly, starting at $1.50 for popsicles that taste like bubble gum or cotton candy, each a whirl of bright colors, and topping out at $5 for the ice cream bars with the good chocolate.
It’s simple, it’s fulfilling, it brings the neighborhood together, kids and adults gathering on the sidewalks, drawn by the bell. The whole thing runs on spontaneity and a summertime energy of savoring the moment while it lasts.
I love the ice cream truck because it captures something so pure and delightful and heartbreakingly ephemeral. It is, to me, a beautiful emblem of childhood in this place. It makes me wistful and hopeful.
It is joy, through and through—something we desperately need right now.
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I’ve been working on this post on and off since Tuesday, and every time I sit down to write, I feel like Kate McKinnon in the SNL “Dr. Wenowdis” sketch: I’m trying to stay on-point but it’s impossible to focus because we are obviously not okay. I deleted a long rant here—about how the (apparently!) imminent dismantling of Roe is a fucking outrage (abortion is health care and a baseline, essential part of any society with any aspirations to equity and, most of all, it’s a fucking personal decision) and the endurance of Covid and … assorted other things—but I will just leave it at this: If you’re also feeling overwhelmed right now, you’re not alone. I see you. It’s bad! Real bad!
Tell it like it is, ad in LIFE magazine in 1961:
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If you read most histories of ice cream trucks—like this one in Smithsonian—you’ll learn that they started with Good Humor trucks in the 1920s, an innovation dreamed up by company founder Harry Burt Sr., who also supposedly (ahem) created the first ice cream bar on a stick, in 1920.
According to this established lore, the key selling point, in both cases, was cleanliness. The stick meant that people could eat their treat without getting sticky hands, and the manufacturing process could also be free of human touch and the germs that come with it.
Here’s an ad from the Rutland (Vermont) Daily Herald in 1922, emphasizing one ice cream bar as “never touched by human hands”:
The same concept was at play in ads for other prepackaged ice cream products like Arctic Sweethearts (a sort of proto-Malt Cup), which claimed to have sold 500,000 unit in the first five weeks after their debut in October 1923. Note who’s eating the ice cream (fancy people) and the slogan “It’s pure.”
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It’s true that ice cream sales, up to this point, had some associations with suspect hygiene. Smithsonian cites an 1878 article in the Confectioners’ Journal, which claimed that the product sold by street vendors was “apt to be adulterated with ingredients which sacrifice health to cheapness.” I also found stories about ice cream being adulterated with glue to make it more viscous, in 1884, and a newspaper ad placed in 1867 by an ice cream manufacturer named G. M. Stephans, criticizing street vendors who fraudulently claimed to be selling his brand.
But as I read old newspaper stories about those street vendors, I also found many odes to their ability to bring people together—they had a sort of leveling effect, giving people of minimal means a taste of luxury. Here’s one such piece, from Buffalo in 1856, and packed with amazingly evocative details:
The ice-cream vendors at the corners, find abundant business during these hot days, and many a penn’orth of the glacial luxury glides down the throats of the very humble and the very poor. The delicacy with which the President sooths his parched throat and cools his heated blood; over which regal celebrities flirt and talk nonsense, and which, not long since, was the special prerogative of the “higher circles,” has been brought, by levellers, within reach of the meanest of the “dangerous classes,” and Lord Coronet and Mr. Secretary Vellum may no longer pride themselves upon their superiority over the commonality in regard of the exclusiveness of the confectionary. Clymer, the dirty chimney-sweep, Besom, the ragged scavenger, Draylode, the carman, Diggery, the well-sinker, can now emulate the luxury of their betters, and pewter spoon in hand, may practice at the street corners, all the graceful manipulations which they used to enviously study through the plate-glass of aristocratic mansions, on nights of high revel.
Given this background—and, again, that paragraph is just one example of many articles I found—it’s hard not to see the Good Humor trucks as, in essence, a corporate reboot that promised a gentrified ice cream experience.
I’ve done quite a bit of research on the evolution of diners (long story for another day), which started as late-night lunch wagons outside factories, then morphed into more mass-market but still blue-collar dining cars, and were then repackaged into the iconic chrome-and-jukeboxes postwar family restaurants that we associate with the word “diner” today. The history of ice cream sales feels like a similar process, with the corporate latecomers emphasizing their very corporate-ness to differentiate themselves from the unwashed masses.
The mythology of Good Humor is also undercut by the existence of popsicles, which had been around since 1905—it’s hardly a stretch to jump from “frozen juice” to “ice cream” and, anyway, I found multiple examples of “ice cream lollypops” before 1920.
Still, it’s clear that ice cream on a stick really did take off in the 1920s, seemingly from many sources at once. It wasn’t Harry Burt’s singular idea, but a product whose moment had arrived. It’s also clear that quirkiness, not cleanliness, was the primary sales pitch that resonated with consumers.
“You have eaten ice cream in dishes, bricks, cones and pies, but have you eaten it on a stick?” asked one ad in Indiana, in 1922. And in 1935, there was a full-on trend piece about sticks and how they were killing the cone, which reads like one of those present-day pieces on how Millennials or Gen Z are killing [insert product].
I love that subhead, by the way. Third-wave coffee might mean “artisanal,” but for ice cream, in the 1930s, it meant sticks, following bowls and cones.
The Good Humor ice cream truck, then, was selling corporate novelty. This, more than anything else, was its pitch.
And that’s what continues to resonate today.
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At Gary’s ice cream truck, the piggy-bank-friendly prices are part of the appeal; so are the novelty shapes and flavors, which underscore the overarching theme of fun.
Other places have different ice cream truck formats—New York has Mister Softee, for example—but here, as with the original Good Humor trucks, it’s all about the bars.
Soft serve and gelato do not exist in this culinary universe. Neither do the labels “premium,” “organic,” “small batch,” “low-fat,” “keto,” or “slow-churned.” Gary does, however, sell PowerPuff Girls popsicles, a long-tail relic of a show that hasn’t aired new episodes since 2004.
These kinds of bars, with the bright colors and cartoon faces, are a product of the 1980s, it turns out, as I learned in a trend piece from the Indianapolis Star from 1986.
This was the moment when ice cream truck treats moved beyond popsicles and bomb pops and ice cream sandwiches and into their current eclectic line-up. In 1985, the Star reported, ice cream novelty sales were up fifteen percent, to six million products sold each year, or roughly enough for every American to have 30 novelty treats.
This, as it happens, was my era, my childhood. These kinds of packaged ice creams were new then, though I didn’t know it—they arrived in the world about the same time I started eating ice cream, so they felt normal to me.
This, I suppose, is why Gary’s ice cream truck feels so comforting: it’s a throwback to my childhood, specifically, a product of that place and time that has endured today.
My tastes have matured since then, and the ice cream landscape has continued to evolve. Last year, for Fathers Day, we drove to a nearby tourist town and ate architectural soft-serve cones studded with gummi worms and graham crackers and edible glitter. It was great. The kids loved it. But it also made me appreciate the simplicity of the ice cream truck and the knowledge that sometimes, the best things in life come in small packages you can pay for with a handful of quarters.
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