How the Ice Cream Truck Made Summer Cool

As innovations go, the Good Humor vehicle is as sweet as it gets

As innovations go, the ice cream truck might seem merely nutty. But summer would never be the same. (Illustration by Jason Raish)
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Delicious, but too messy to handle,” was how Ruth Burt described the new ice cream treat her father, Harry Burt, concocted in 1920—a brick of vanilla ice cream encased in chocolate. So her brother, Harry Jr., offered a suggestion: Why not give it a handle? The idea was hardly revolutionary in the world of sweets, of course. Harry Burt Sr. himself, a confectioner based in Youngstown, Ohio, had previously developed what he called the Jolly Boy, a hard-candy lollipop on a wooden stick. But ice cream on a stick was so novel that the process of making it earned Burt two U.S. patents, thus launching his invention, the Good Humor bar, into an epic battle against the previously developed I Scream bar, a.k.a. the Eskimo Pie, a worthy rival to this day.

Burt’s contribution to the culture was bigger than a sliver of wood. When he became the first ice cream vendor to move from pushcarts to motorized trucks, giving his salesmen the freedom to roam the streets, his firm greatly expanded his business (and those of his many imitators) and would change how countless Americans eat—and how they experience summer.

By the end of the 1920s, Good Humor settled on its signature vehicle: a gleaming white pickup truck outfitted with a refrigeration unit. Burt’s mobile freezers offered a sanitary alternative to the street ice cream sold from pushcarts, a number of which had been the source of food poisoning and were known to peddle fare of dubious quality. An 1878 article in the Confectioners Journal complained that street ice cream was “apt to be adulterated with ingredients which sacrifice health to cheapness.” To assuage consumer concerns, Good Humor had its drivers (all men, until 1967) dress in crisp, white uniforms reminiscent of those worn by hospital orderlies. And of course the men were taught to tip their caps to the ladies.

Classic Good Humor Ice Cream Truck
A 1938 truck that once rolled through the Boston area dispensing “Good Humors”—the company’s name for its various frozen treats. (National Museum of American History)

In 1932, some 14 million Good Humor bars were sold in New York and Chicago alone, and even during the Great Depression, a Good Humor driver working on commission could clear a whopping $100 a week—over $1,800 in today’s money. Drivers became a welcome, personable neighborhood presence. A Good Humor truck had no door on the passenger side, so the driver could pull up to a curb, hop onto the sidewalk with a smile and quickly distribute iced treats from the freezer unit in the back. Thanks to Burt’s canny idea to equip the trucks with bells, children were guaranteed to hear them coming. Consumers gave the bells a (ringing) endorsement, and summer days could now be organized around the arrival of the Good Humor man. Joan S. Lewis, a New York journalist, would recall in a 1979 essay how “new friends were made while purchasing that delicious ice cream,” while “sleepovers, birthday parties and picnics were often planned right at the truck’s wheels.”

Good Humor expanded in the postwar years, and by the 1950s the company had some 2,000 trucks operating across the country, with the majority of their customers under 12 years old. Acquired by conglomerate Unilever in 1961, the company began to see increasing competition from Mister Softee and other rivals. Significantly, Mister Softee sold its products from step vans, which allow the driver to walk right back into the freezer area and dispense items directly from a side window. It didn't take a brainstorm to see that was an innovation, and Good Humor stopped ordering pickup trucks and transitioned to step vans.

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light in the mobile frozen goodies business. In 1975, New York City authorities charged the company with 244 counts of falsifying records to hide evidence of excessive coliform bacteria in its products. According to the indictment, 10 percent of Good Humor’s ice cream sold between 1972 and 1975 was tainted, and products from the company’s Queens production facilities were “not securely protected from dirt, dust, insects and parts thereof, and from all injurious contamination.” The company was fined $85,000 and forced to modernize its plants and improve quality control. By the end of the decade, Good Humor had gotten out of the mobile ice cream business altogether, turning to grocery store distribution.

Yet some drivers continued to make their rounds under the Good Humor banner on their own, to the delight of generations of children. In White Plains, New York, Joseph Villardi, to cite one diehard, bought his truck from Good Humor in 1976 and kept the same route he’d had since the early 1950s. By the time he died in 2012, he had become such a beloved fixture that the town declared August 6, 2012, “Good Humor Joe Day.”

In introducing America to the ice cream truck and its mobile refrigeration unit, Harry Burt Sr. helped launch a revolution that we are still enjoying. Indeed, our mobile food options have never been more plentiful than they are today: Food trucks now offer everything from kimchi tacos to fancy French fries to high-end Spam cuisine. In doing so, they carry on Burt’s legacy of combining several American obsessions—mobility, novelty, instant gratification, convenience—to change the taste of summer.

About Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is a writer whose work has appeared in the LA Review of Books and Lapham's Quarterly.

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