From Emperors to ice men and ice harvesting to pot freezers, the history of ice cream begins with snow and ice stored in snow houses and can be traced back centuries. There are even stories that attribute its success and spread throughout Europe to Marco Polo. Although it is not mentioned in any of his writing, Polo is often credited with the introduction of sorbet-style desserts after discovering it during his travels to China. It has also been said that this frozen treat was introduced by Catherine de'Medici, the Italian duchess who married Henry II and relocated herself and her chefs to France in 1533. A century later Charles I of England was so impressed by 'frozen snow' that he offered his personal ice cream maker a lifetime salary to keep the recipe a royal secret.
What historians do know is that the earliest frozen dessert was just snow or ice mixed with honey and wine or flavoured sugar syrups that were poured over the top. Despite its humble beginnings, it was still considered a luxury since mechanical refrigeration was non-existent. Roman Emperor Nero is said to have sent his slaves into the mountains to collect the snow to mix with nectar. During China's Tang period, King Tang of Shang kept 94 ice men whose sole job was to lug ice back to the palace from the mountains to make a dish made of heated, fermented milk, flour and camphor.
Until the fall of 1843, ice cream was made using the pot freezer method—reducing the temperature of the ingredients by a crushed ice and salt mixture. On September 9th of that year, the artificial freezer, created by Philadelphia's Nancy Johnson was patented. The design consisting of a tub, cylinder, lid, dasher and crank is still widely used to this day.
In 1851, with a surplus of cream, Baltimore dairyman Jacob Fussell—who later became known as the father of the wholesale ice cream industry—opened the first commercial ice cream factory in Pennsylvania and shipped it back to Baltimore via train. Around the same time, the first Canadian to start selling ice cream was Thomas Webb of Toronto, Ontario. More than 40 years later William Neilson produced his first commercial batch of ice cream, using cream not milk, on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto in 1893. His company—Neilson Dairy—produced ice cream at that location for almost 100 years.
Between 1885 and 1894 Agnes Marshall, known throughout England as the queen of ices wrote four books making ice cream popular and more accessible to the middle class. Marshall gave public lectures on cooking and even suggested using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. She was the first to refer to cones—or cornets as she called them—in her book Mrs. A.B. Marshall's Book of Cookery, but wrote that they were made from almonds and baked in the oven. It wasn't until almost two decades later—at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missori—that ice cream cones would become popular. Banana splits followed soon after.
New York, Wisconsin and Illinois all claim to have created the ice cream sundae which first appeared in soda fountains during the 1880s.
Since ice cream sodas were prohibited from being sold on Sundays, sundaes became a way to get around the law. Ice cream parlours and soda shops became even more popular during the American Prohibition, essentially replacing bars and saloons as a meeting place in town. Despite it's popularity at ice cream shops and soda fountains, grocery stores didn't start selling ice cream until the 1930s. By WWII, it became so popular with the troops and was seen as synonymous with the United States of America, that Mussolini banned it in Italy for that very reason.
The second half of the 20th century saw the introduction of cheap refrigeration and with it, ice cream's popularity soared even higher. An explosion of ice cream shops followed and competition between them grew based on the variety of flavours they offered. At the time Baskin Robbins had the most with 31 flavours, one for every day of the month. Soft serve was also created during this time and North American chains such as Dairy Queen and Tastee-Freez helped make soft serve ice cream popular from day one.
Despite it's humble beginnings or maybe because of it, ice cream has a rich history that spans centuries and is popular around the world. Almost every country has their own take on this old-fashioned treat. In Italy, there's gelato. India, Kulfi and Japan, mochi. Sharbat, which is said to have originated in Persia, and is made from fruits or flower petals was the very first rendition of what North Americans have come to know as sorbet. Ice cream in all its forms and variations is equally loved throughout the world.