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Love ice cream? Thank these Philadelphia women and people of color.

Without women and people of color, Philadelphia would not have become the home of the American ice cream standard. The contributions they made resulted in both the popularity and accessibility of ice cream, paving the way for the Breyers and Bassetts of the world.

When ice cream entered the market in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century, it was sold as an exotic treat, available only to the wealthy. That changed, however, when in 1819, Eleanor Parkinson opened Parkinson’s Ice Cream Saloon on Chestnut Street, next door to her husband’s tavern. Soon after, Parkinson’s business skyrocketed, forcing her husband to join her because of intense demand. Her success was a result of her sensational yet simple Philadelphia-style ice cream.

Philadelphia ice cream, made only of cream, sugar, and flavoring, set the standard nationwide. Other recipes included milk, eggs, gelatin, salt, and preservatives. The Philadelphia method was generally safer to eat, since it did not include eggs and always used fresh cream from local dairy farms. It also supposedly tasted better because it did not include preservatives.

Parkinson’s location in Philadelphia provided convenient access to local dairy farms, lessening the cost of expensive cream. A variety of cookbooks from the time featured her recipe from her, uplifting it as the preferred method of ice cream-making.

Ice cream was made more widely available by women who transformed their domestic knowledge into scientific advancement. In 1843, Nancy Johnson revolutionized ice cream production when she invented and patented a hand-cranked ice cream churn. Not much is known about Johnson. Her only invention of her was her ice cream machine, which she patented several times. She was an abolitionist and her husband was a scientist.

Johnson obtained her patent prior to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in Pennsylvania in 1845; after the law’s passage, women could own property and earn a wage without their husband’s permission. Johnson intended her invention to be an at-home appliance, and since she could not afford to produce the device commercially, she sold the rights to Patent No. 3,254 in 1848. This allowed the invention to be mass-marketed. Johnson’s “Artificial Freezer” streamlined production and decreased ingredient costs so greatly that ice cream became affordable.

Prior to Johnson’s invention, ice cream was typically made using the pot freezer method. Ice cream makers would place a smaller, metal bucket into a larger bucket filled with ice, usually extracted from a lake or pond. They would stir the ice cream mixture by hand in the smaller bucket. This process was extremely labor intensive, and often resulted in lumpy ice cream. Johnson’s hand-crank made it easier and faster to consistently produce quality ice cream.

As ice cream became more popular and accessible, more people became ill from unsanitary practices. Lack of refrigeration and ice cream distribution in unwashed, reusable glasses elicited concerns, particularly among the government. The City of Philadelphia finally acted in 1908 when Mary Engle Pennington, a bacteriological chemist, was hired to monitor Philadelphia’s dairy industry. She worked directly with both farmers and ice cream distributors.

Her work improved cleanliness of machinery, tools, and ingredients, which lowered the risk of sickness. Pennington completed the degree requirements for a bachelor’s of science in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, but the school denied her a degree on the basis of her gender. Ironically, she later obtained a Ph.D. from Penn. (Pennington completed undergraduate coursework in 1892, but received only a certificate of proficiency because the university did not bestow bachelor’s degrees to women until 1895. However, Penn granted women graduate degrees beginning in 1880.)

During her long career in health administration, Pennington developed sanitary methods for processing and storing perishable foods, founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory, and went on to head the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Research Lab.

The history of ice cream would not be complete without also acknowledging the contributions of the Black community. Referred to as “criers,” Black confectioners reduced production costs and increased accessibility. The primary peddlers of ice cream in Philadelphia were Black men who walked the city’s streets, carrying tin containers full of the most popular flavors at the time — like vanilla and lemon — on their shoulders. They are said to have sung songs and couplets while hawking the dessert, perhaps serving as the blueprint for modern-day ice cream trucks, and possibly providing a hint into the origins of the saying “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”

Several Black confectioners appear in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s 1838 Black census, which is held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Among these men is Augustus Jackson, a White House chef who worked under three presidential administrations in the early 1800s. Jackson, a Philadelphia native, returned to his hometown in 1837 to open a confectionery. He not only sold single servings to the public but also tins of ice cream to other Black vendors. Jackson also pioneered a new ice cream-making technique by adding salt to his recipe, which both increased flavor and extended the shelf life of the sweet treat.

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The development of the ice cream market in Philadelphia occurred as a direct result of the contributions of these women and people of color, who succeeded despite societal constraints. Recognition of their contributions is the cherry on top of an already intricate history.

Without the recipes of Parkinson, the innovation of Johnson, the advocacy of Pennington, or the entrepreneurialism of Jackson, Philadelphia would not have been able to become renowned for its ice cream.

The work of these ice cream pioneers proves that innovation requires participation of all members of a community. History — as told through dessert — demonstrates that innovators come from diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and cities that cultivate them become great business centers.

Selena Bemak is the programs and communications coordinator at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


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