History of ice cream

Where it all started

It is a little unclear exactly what the history of ice cream is but it has often been said that the Chinese invented ice cream and that Marco Polo brought the idea to Europe in the thirteenth century.


This is more myth than historical fact backed by evidence, but it can be stated with some confidence that ice cream was invented in China in the first millennium. It is documented that in the thirteenth century they used a mixture of salt and ice (to help lower the temperature below freezing) which was then stirred as it was chilled in an ice house. This was the basic process until the freezer as we know it today was invented in the twentieth century.


Since the method of producing ice cream depended on a supply of ice, it was of limited use without that precious commodity. Ice could be gathered from ponds and lakes, in winter, and the storage of ice in ice wells and ice houses goes back several centuries. Ice remained a luxury and dependant on nature to produce it, and cumbersome methods to harvest it.

A rare luxury

Ice cream made with a milk mixture was first recorded in Europe in Italy. In England, the first recorded serving of this rare luxury was in 1672, to King Charles II, whose table at a banquet was served a delight denied to those sitting at more humble tables. Ice being rare, ice cream was a luxury for the well off in all countries and had to be made and served immediately, there being no way to store it for any great time.

Becoming more accessible

The second half of the nineteenth century was the period in which ice cream became a treat for ordinary people. Italy continued to lead Europe in ice creamery and immigrants to the UK from there brought with them a tradition and expertise which led to the popular name “Hokey Pokey” which is thought to derive from a corruption of the Italian for “try a little”. In other countries too, especially the United States, ice cream gained popularity.

Ice cream as we know it

The commercial harvesting of ice in cold climates and its transport to population centres was a growth area from the early nineteenth century. This ice trade made large volumes of ice available at a realistic price and it became possible for ice cream sellers to offer a taste of ice cream to the ordinary person.


Ice was sold on glasses which were wiped clean and re-used. These glass “licks” remained in use in London until they were made illegal in 1926 for reasons of public health. Ice cream edible cones were first documented by Mrs Agnes Marshall in her book Fancy Ices of 1894.

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