The History Thread Cools Off!

As the weather (at least in this part of the world) heats back up to barely tolerable levels, I found a fun article by Tasha Marks of the British Museum, exploring the rise of ice cream in the 19th Century. I’ll post some excerpts along with illustrations.

The 18th century was arguably the heyday for ice cream, with more varieties on offer in Georgian London than could be found in most establishments today. Flavours such as chocolate, pistachio, pineapple, jasmine, artichoke, candied pumpkin, pine nut, pear and chestnut appeared in many of London’s fashionable ice cream parlours.

As well as these fabulous flavours the Georgian era promoted the shaping of ices into a myriad of forms. The ice cream cone hadn’t quite been invented yet, so making moulded ice cream was the most fashionable way to serve your dessert. The moulds, made from pewter, were available in all sorts of shapes; from lobsters and joints of ham, to pineapples and roses – all waiting to be cast in your frozen dessert. To make an ice cream using one of these hinged moulds, they would first be filled with partially frozen ice cream (made using a sorbetiere), then closed, sealed with a wax mixture and plunged into a tub of ice and salt for three hours. The frosty forms were then painted with their natural colour, decorated with real stalks and foliage – or in the case of a certain candle-shaped ice cream mould that I have in my collection, adorned with a working wick for an illusionistic centerpiece.

Even then, ice cream wasn’t just the province of the rich. Street vendors became common in London and other cities, serving these tasty treats to famished working class patrons. There were few complaints about the taste, but much concern that the vendors used expired milk or tainted ingredients, which led health authorities to crack down on ice cream vendors at various points in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Since most ice had to be stored underground in elaborate cellars, it wasn’t uncommon for decay and contamination to impact ice cream, and serving dairy in the pre-Pasteurization days was always a crap shoot. One investigator discovered that particularly unscrupulous ice cream salesman purchased old, unsold product from other vendors and resold it to unwary patrons.

And, as Marks notes, increased production of ice cream across Europe stimulated the sugar trade, which was driven by slavery in the West Indies. Unfortunately, this was neither the first nor last case of one culture’s luxuries developing through the exploitation of others.