NARA Screams for Ice Cream! National Ice Cream Month

Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an expert archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. 

There’s nothing quite like the sweet taste of ice cream, especially with these hot summer days. We hear the ice cream truck rolling through the neighborhood, parents bringing their kids ice cream cones at the pool, getting some soft serve or frozen custard while on a date, or just sneaking into the freezer late at night for a quick spoonful.

There are decadent gourmet ice creams that feature rare ingredients or sugar and lactose free ice creams for those with dietary restrictions. Whether you enjoy simple flavors or indulge in outrageous concoctions, there’s a choice for everyone.

Ice cream flavors have been practically endless ever since its humble beginnings nearly a thousand years ago or more, depending on the historical accounts. Whether the ancient Persians, Romans, or Chinese first concocted this delicious treat, we are certainly grateful for their ingenuity. A world without ice cream would certainly be much duller. 

In the United States, we love ice cream, a lot. Over $6 billion in sales are generated and six billion pounds of ice cream are sold in the U.S. annually. Those numbers have risen steadily throughout the nation’s history. We love ice cream so much that Congress and the White House emblazoned its importance in the Federal Register. On April 11, 1984, Representative Kika de la Garza of Texas sponsored a joint resolution establishing July 15 as “National Ice Cream Day.” It was then followed by Senator Walter Huddleston of Kentucky who sponsored another joint resolution on May 17, 1984, creating “National Ice Cream Month.”

From there, President Ronald Reagan signed them both into public law on July 9, 1984, under Presidential Proclamation 5219 which reads:

“Ice cream is a nutritious and wholesome food, enjoyed by over ninety percent of the people in the United States. It enjoys a reputation as the perfect dessert and snack food. Over eight hundred and eighty-seven million gallons of ice cream were consumed in the United States in 1983. The ice cream industry generates approximately $3.5 billion in annual sales and provides jobs for thousands of citizens. Indeed, nearly ten percent of all the milk produced by the United States dairy farmers is used to produce ice cream, thereby contributing substantially to the economic well-being of the Nation’s dairy industry. The Congress, by Senate Joint Resolution 298, has designated July 1984 as “National Ice Cream Month,” and July 15, 1984, as “National Ice Cream Day,” and authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in observance of these events.

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim July 1984 as National Ice Cream Month and July 15, 1984, as National Ice Cream Day, and I call upon the people of the United States to observe these events with appropriate ceremonies and activities….”

The history of ice cream in the U.S doesn’t stop with a Presidential proclamation. People have been eating and making ice cream innovations since cold storage became more commercially affordable. Early founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regularly enjoyed ice cream, and it was a featured dessert at James Madison’s inauguration ball in 1813. 

Ice cream manufacturers and other dairy businesses constantly tinkered with new inventions to help mix, freeze, store, and transport ice cream while keeping its flavor and temperature perfect for the market. 

Click through images from the U.S. Patent Office collection in the National Archives Catalog, and you’ll find plenty of schematics for ice cream contraptions. 

Dairies and creameries competed for who could deliver the coldest and most flavorful ice cream, which meant having the latest technology or developing it yourself. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, waffle cones were improvised when a Syrian vendor, Ernest Hamwi, rolled one of his pastries into a cone shape and offered them to an ice cream vendor. The resulting success gave rise to the ice cream cone, freeing people from eating with a spoon and could enjoy this tasty dessert with their hands (inevitably leading to millions of children having sticky, sugary hands every summer). 

The Prohibition era witnessed a spike in ice cream sales as soda fountains, ice cream parlors, and hotels began serving more nonalcoholic options. Dairies and creameries were selling more ice cream than before Prohibition. Breweries like Anheuser-Busch switched production to butter and ice cream to meet increasing demands. This was a simple change as they already employed the latest refrigeration technology for brewing and fermenting beer. Ice cream was an easy substitute.

Around this time, soft serve ice cream was invented and quickly made its way into the U.S. market. Soft serve was different because air was mixed in during the freezing stage. This meant that producers didn’t have to use as much milk and the product could be served faster. 

The U.S. Armed Forces love its ice cream as well. On July 1, 1914, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the U.S. Navy banned all alcohol onboard every vessel. This blow to the sailor’s one form of enjoyment found a new replacement: ice cream. Quartermasters in both the Army and Navy made sure that mess halls, galleys, and clubs were stocked with ice cream. 

In World War II, about 80 million gallons of ice cream were manufactured annually for just the Armed Forces alone. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal believed that serving ice cream was a significant morale booster and went to great lengths to supply all Navy and Marine Corps personnel with the dessert. In 1945, a decommissioned concrete barge was converted into a refrigeration ship that could store almost two thousand gallons of ice cream, and it patrolled around the Pacific Ocean delivering its precious cargo. Service members required all the tools they needed to finish the job, which also meant having some ice cream to keep morale high. 

Today there are over seven hundred businesses solely dedicated to the production of ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s ranks number one in sales in the U.S., and Unilever dominates the global ice cream market with billions of dollars in sales. Large franchises and small independent businesses alike serve up millions of cones, cups, sundaes, malts, milkshakes, and other frozen treats every day, and there’s no sign of slowing down. Celebrate National Ice Cream Month this July with your favorite flavor and think just how distasteful the world would be without ice cream.

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