historic ice cream truck
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The Surprising History of Ice Cream Trucks

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historic ice cream truck
NoDerog/Getty

Frozen in Time

Chasing an ice cream truck after hearing its siren song of sugary goodness was a 20th century rite of passage, but the neighborhood-roaming ice cream trucks of yesteryear aren't as prevalent as they used to be. Today, many can be tracked via GPS or ordered directly curbside to your home address, but they still exist, and still evoke American nostalgia in a way that few other things do. Ever wonder about how these roaming purveyors of icy treats got started? Here is the sweet — and sometimes seedy — scoop on ice cream trucks through the decades.

Related: 20 of the Oldest Ice Cream Shops in America

ice cream cart historic
eBay

Before There Were Trucks

Though ice cream trucks as we know them now didn't exist until the 20th century, they have their roots in the 1800s, when New York City immigrant street vendors sold sugary items including frozen confections from wooden carts. Popular offerings included Neapolitan-like hokey pokeys and penny licks, which were small glass dishes filled with ice cream to be licked clean by buyers. After the penny lick was finished, the dish was returned to vendors, who swirled the dish in a pail of water before refilling it for the next patron.

Related: The True Origins of 19 Classic 'American' Foods

Harry Burt and Good Humor
Harry Burt and Good Humor by Jack Pearce (CC BY-SA)

They Were Invented By a Marketing Visionary

Ohioan Harry Burt is widely credited with inventing both the Good Humor bar, a chocolate-encased ice cream bar on a stick, as well as the ice cream truck. Announcing his bars as "the new clean convenient way to eat ice cream," he started selling them from a truck in the 1920s. A 2005 magazine article in the national archives credits Burt as a marketing visionary. "At a time when standardization of products was relatively unknown," it reads, "Burt wanted to create a national brand name product that would retain the same ingredients and flavor in all markets."

Related: 18 Irresistible Ice Cream Flavors from the Freezer Section

It Became a Soda Because of Prohibition
It Became a Soda Because of Prohibition by University of Maine Library (None)

Anti-Booze Laws Helped Their Rise

While the invention of refrigeration played a role in the ice cream truck's proliferation, Prohibition helped, too. When bars were outlawed in 1920, many people sought to replace alcohol with the offerings of ice cream parlors and soda fountains and, eventually, the even-more-convenient trucks that peddled similar wares.

Old Good Humor Truck
Old Good Humor Truck by Unknown (None)

There Weren't Always Jingles

Early on, Good Humor trucks were staffed by drivers who rang a bell, with the prototype truck's bell coming from Burt's son's bobsled. According to lore and reported by the BBC, a Good Humor driver and California businessman named Paul Hawkins was the first to replace his bell with a "cylindrical device equipped with nails that cranked out a tune" — reportedly the Eastern European folk tune "Stodola Pumpa."

The Entertainer
Amazon

There are Dozens of Jingles

No one really knows just how many jingles have existed throughout ice cream truck history, but this "ice cream truck chimes" YouTube video playlist proves there are at least 43. One or two of the more old-school — like "The Entertainer" and "Turkey in the Straw" — will be recognized by many a Boomer and Gen-Xer. The latter of those two, however, has a rather unfortunate history.

vintage ice cream truck
vintage ice cream truck by Codepro (CC BY-SA)

They Used to Be Driven by Men In Uniform

Burt wanted his ice cream truck drivers to inspire thoughts of safety and sanitation in parents, so he dressed them in immaculate white uniforms that typically included bow ties and hats. According to Good Humor company legend, "in the early days, Good Humor men were required to tip their hats to ladies and salute gentlemen. It took three days of training and orientation to become a Good Humor Man."

Good humor truck
eBay

They're Part of American History

A Good Humor ice cream truck is part of the Smithsonian's collection of national artifacts. It's a 1938 Chevrolet truck that reportedly operated in the neighborhoods of Boston. It's painted a crisp white, with Good Humor branding and bright red hubcaps.

Related: The Best Soft Serve Ice Cream Trucks in America

Good Humor Man
eBay

They've Inspired Pop Culture …

The Good Humor ice cream truck driver served as at least partial inspiration for the 1950 film "The Good Humor Man" starring Jack Carson, with a plot revolving around romance and murder. A review by The New York Times made it clear the critic wasn't a fan: "... it does nothing to enhance the reputations of either the movies or a national confectioner's brand."

Delirious
Amazon

… And Even Comedy Gold

Ice cream trucks inspired one of the greatest comedic skits of all time, according to what The New York Times called a segment from Eddie Murphy's 1983 "breakthrough" TV special "Delirious." While other jokes in the nearly 40-year-old performance don't necessarily match today's standards, "this bit holds up." You can watch it here, but beware — some of the language is definitely NSFW.

lickety split
Lickety Split

Ice Cream Truck Breaks Bad

In 2011, 31 people, including a New York City Lickety Split ice cream truck driver, were busted in a drug trafficking ring that sold nearly 43,000 oxycodone pills — worth $1 million — from an ice cream truck to people who knew to wait at "specially designated locations." That driver was not the first to be accused of using a truck to peddle more than Push Pops. 

White Mister Softee ice cream truck
Andraz_Naglic/istockphoto

They Stirred Up A 'Turf War' ...

The world of ice cream trucks can apparently be so cutthroat that it inspired a "turf war" between veteran Mister Softee and newcomer Master Softee. You see where this is going, right? After the veteran sued the upstart for its too-similar moniker and for using its signature jingle — and won — the rival changed its name to New York City Ice Cream. But the drama didn't end there. The feud reportedly continued, involving private investigators, intimidation tactics, bullying, and even physical altercations.

police lights
Yulia Arsenova/istockphoto

… That Wasn't the Only One

It seems New York ice cream truck operators take their business very seriously, as another truck turf war made the news in 2013 when Gloversville, New York, rivals Sno Cone Joe and Mr. Ding-A-Ling went at each other. Those altercations eventually resulted in harassment and stalking charges.

running red lights
Garrett Aitken/istockphoto

Not All Truck Vendors are Good-Humored

And, to round out these cones of shame, 46 ice cream trucks were seized in New York City in 2019 in "Operation Meltdown" for dodging nearly $5 million in fines over a number of years. The fines stemmed from 22,000 violations "including running red lights, parking near fire hydrants, and blocking pedestrian crosswalks, according to the city complaint." The seizure, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, marked "the end of the road for these scofflaw ice cream vendors."

Vintage 1963 International Ice Cream Truck
eBay

You Can Own One

If the stain of bad behavior hasn't soured your ice cream truck enthusiasm, know you can buy a truck of your own. There are regularly ice cream trucks for sale on sites like Used Vending and eBay, and even vintage models like this restored 1931 Ford Model A beauty that set one buyer back a little more than $64,000.

ice cream truck
nrqemi/istockphoto
portland maine boat
Mickrick/istockphoto

Not All Mobile Ice Cream Vendors Drive Trucks

Portland, Maine-based Sea Snacks calls itself "the original ice cream boat" and drives around Casco Bay with a raised flag delivering to other boaters.

Treatbot
David N./Yelp

They Aren't All What They Used to Be

These days, ice cream trucks don't just peddle ice cream on the side of the road. Some, like Coolhaus Awesome Ice Cream, will cater parties, corporate events, weddings, and more. Others push past the popsicle when it comes to menu offerings, like Portland, Oregon's Fifty Licks, which offers up flavors like Mango Sticky Rice and Golden Milk (turmeric, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper with coconut milk). Others go even further — one California-based ice cream truck, Treatbot, hands patrons a mic so they can karaoke along with the truck's music.

Related: 50 Unique Ice Cream Flavors and Creative Creations