Slow-Churn Democracy: Ice Cream in 18th and 19th c. America

Kelly K. Sharp

As a historian of antebellum foodways of Charleston, South Carolina, it’s a pleasure for me to bring my work home with me — my husband and colleagues have endured historic recipes for cornbread (it was intolerably dry), sweet potato pudding (surprisingly boozy), and spring pea purloo with Carolina Gold rice (pleasantly creamy). However, my personal ice cream consumption must far outdo that of even the most gaudy, excessive, and conspicuously-consuming planter-elite. While today’s average American eats about twenty quarts of ice cream a year, freezing a liquid mixture laden with sugar — a special commodity — by using ice — an ephemeral luxury — was something elite Americans began enjoying only late in the eighteenth century.

While French and Italian confectioners published books in the late seventeenth century giving directions for water ices and cresme glacée, the prototypes of ice cream, the earliest known written account of ice cream embellishing an American dinner table is from the mid-eighteenth century. [1] The following is an excerpt from William Black’s description of a dinner given by Maryland’s colonial governor, Thomas Bladen, in 1744:

Following a Table in the most Splendent manner… came a Desert no less Curious, among the Rarities of which it was Compos’d, was some fine Ice Cream, which with the Straw-berries and Milk, eat most Deliciously.[2]

George and Martha Washingtons’ visitors enjoyed desserts made in a “cream machine for ice” bought for one pound thirteen shillings in 1784 and Mrs. Washington, after the general became president, served ice cream and lemonade to the ladies who attended her levees.[3] As the new republic grew, frozen desserts became less than state treats.

To make ice cream, popular London cookbook author Elizabeth Raffald used an eight-step recipe that involved paring apricots and beating them in a mortar, mixing them with sugar and scalding cream, working them through a sieve, breaking ice and packing it around a pailful of the apricots and cream, stirring the partially frozen mixture, repacking it for more freezing, unpacking and molding it, and finally refreezing it. In Mary Randolph’s “Observations on Ice Cream” from The Virginia Housewife, she comments that “it is the practice of some indolent cooks, to set the freezer containing the cream, in a tub with ice and salt, and put it in the ice house” but she advocates instead “the freezer must be kept constantly in motion during the process.” Ever economical, Randolph explains the freezer “ought to be made of pewter, which is less liable than tin to be worn in holes” but emphasizes that a silver spoon with a long handle should be used to scrape ice from the sides.[4]

With the bottom portion filled with ice, just the top portions of these glaciers were filled with ice cream to be dished into individual dishes at the table by the host or hostess. Image Credit: Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Pair of Glaciers, 1790-1810, Jingdezhen, China, Hard paste porcelain, Lime glaze, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1965.706.1,.2
With the bottom portion filled with ice, just the top portions of these glaciers were filled with ice cream to be dished into individual dishes at the table by the host or hostess. Image Credit: Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Pair of Glaciers, 1790-1810, Jingdezhen, China, Hard paste porcelain, Lime glaze, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1965.706.1,.2

Although today vanilla is far and away the most popular ice cream flavor, in 1800 the bean was considered a “peculiar and delicious flavor, agreeable to some palates and disagreeable to others.”[5] While cooks of the first half of the nineteenth century largely ignored vanilla as a flavor, they made good use of dozens of other flavors including strawberry, pineapple, lemon, peach, blackberry, chocolate, almond, pistachio, and coffee. Hostesses served ice cream in several ways — piled high in individual glasses or china cream cups, spooned it into an ice pail called a glacier, or pressed it into a mold and turned it out into a plate with tall geometrical shaped among the most popular.

This newspaper advertisement promotes an evening’s festivities at Charleston’s Vaux Hall Garden. The garden, located in the center of Charleston at Queen and Broad Street, was opened by French immigrant Alexander Placide- also a dancer, acrobat, actor, tightrope walker, and theatre impresario. Image Credit: The Charleston City Gazette, June 13, 1808.
This newspaper advertisement promotes an evening’s festivities at Charleston’s Vaux Hall Garden. The garden, located in the center of Charleston at Queen and Broad Street, was opened by French immigrant Alexander Placide- also a dancer, acrobat, actor, tightrope walker, and theatre impresario. Image Credit: The Charleston City Gazette, June 13, 1808.

However, a Charlestonian needed not churn for hours to enjoy the specialty confection. In 1800, Frenchman Alexander Placide opened a pleasure garden in the center of Charleston at Queen and Broad Street called Vauxhall Gardens. Just as in fashion in mid-eighteenth century France, Charleston’s pleasure garden offered “benches and other convenient seats,” “cold suppers prepared at a minute’s warning,” and the garden remained illuminated “for those ladies and gentlemen who wish to take ice cream and refreshments until 10 o’clock in the evening.”[6] The name “Vauxhall” was later given to tea gardens in not only Charleston but also New York and Philadelphia. Ice cream became so associated with pleasure gardens throughout early nineteenth century America including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that “ice cream garden” became synonymous with the urban greenspaces.

Food consumption can alter any space, turning a work-desk into a gourmet delicatessen or the glove box of one’s car into a mobile vending machine. And between the mid-18th century and the early  19th century — paralleling America’s political independence — ice cream transitioned from a dessert enjoyed by elites in protected political spaces to one celebrated by members of the general public within the open spaces of pleasure gardens. 

[Interested in learning more about the mechanics of making ice cream in the 18th and 19th centuries?  Check out Sally Osborn’s 2013 post on ice cream and ice houses!]

[1] Laura B. Weiss, Ice Cream: A Global History (London, UK: Beakton Books, 2011), 15-17.

[2] R. Alonzo Brock, ed., “Journal of William Black, 1744.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 2 (1877): 117-123.

[3] Louise Conway Belden, The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, 146.

[4] Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, Or, Methodical Cook ed. Janice Bluestein Longone (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1993), 143.

[5] Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia, quoted from Louise Conway Belden, The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, 154.

[6] South Carolina Gazette, May 1, 1800.

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Kelly K. Sharp is a PhD candidate and instructor at University of California, Davis. A native of Encinitas, California, Kelly earned her BA in History at Willamette University and volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA teacher with Community Housing Works in 2012-2013. Her dissertation, entitled “Farmers’ Plots to Backlot Stewpots: The Culinary Creolism of Urban Antebellum Charleston,” is a culinary history of race-making in the urban center of the South.

Kelly has experience teaching survey courses in United States history, women and gender history, and material studies at University of California, Davis. She has been active in public history, including editorial and curatorial work for the Blackville Historical Center and at the University of California, Davis, and mentorship initiatives within the Coordinating Council of Women Historians.

Outside of her academic work, she enjoys hiking, traveling, reading, and eating.


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