The ice cream, not the cone, might be the main attraction, but the cone is just as important when it comes to the history of ice cream.
In the days before disposable cups, the ice cream cone took the frozen treat from the dessert table to the fairground, boardwalk or the park. “It was a revelation,” writes Pagan Kennedy for The New York Times. Ice cream was a popular treat of the time, but it took the cone to give it its modern character. Thing is, nobody’s sure who invented the ice cream cone, though many have tried to lay claim to the invention.
In the late nineteenth century, ice cream went from being an elite treat consumed by the likes of George Washington to a popular one. But prior to the cone, writes patent attorney and food historian Chris Clarke, ice cream vendors dished out their wares in “small, thick-walled glasses, known as ‘penny-licks.’ These were usually wiped with a cloth and re-used, and were thus a considerable health hazard, particularly for children.”
The earliest claimant for the invention of the ice cream cone can date her innovation back to 1888. Agnes Marshall was a British celebrity chef and food hygiene specialist who wrote four popular cookbooks and even patented an ice cream maker. Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Cookery Book contains a recipe for “Cornets with Cream.” She instructs home cooks to fill the cornets, basically horn-shaped cookies, with whipped cream, but acknowledges “these cornets can also be filled with any cream or water ice, or set custard or fruits.” Given the history of cream-filled desserts from trubochki to cannoli, she probably wasn’t the only one to serve ice cream that way at some point in the past.
On the other side of the Atlantic, writes Erin Blakemore for Mental Floss, both ice cream and ice cream parlors were the targets of a moral panic. “Despite its adoption by Americans like Thomas Jefferson, the cold treat was associated with foreign tastes,” she writes–”tastes that were associated with the specter of ‘white slavery,’ a dated term used to describe sex trafficking, prostitution and other kinds of sexual debauchery during the 19th and 20th centuries.” Despite this less-than-stellar reputation, public taste for ice cream abounded.
Although it was probably around earlier, the cone made its big debut at the 1904 World’s Fair, which is often credited for popularizing everything from the hot dog and hamburger to iced tea–although the invention stories for these foods linked with the fair are apocryphal, writes Robert Moss for Serious Eats. What’s true about the fair, he writes, “is that, for a few brief months in a single place, it captured an entire culture of eating that was being remade for the modern world.” Many “key elements of modern foodways” were being introduced to consumers, he writes–including the concept of food that hadn’t been touched (or licked) by anyone else.
In the case of the ice-cream cone, the most commonly told origin story is that a Syrian concession stand operator named Ernest Hamwi “curled a waffle cookie and transformed it into a receptacle for ice cream,” Kennedy writes. “This freed tourists to climb miniature Tyrolean Alps or witness the creation of the earth while slurping ice cream.”
But that’s not the only story, she writes. Anne Funderburg, a food historian, told Kennedy that she’s discovered seven different legends about the cone’s birth. “A Turkish entrepreneur also claimed credit for the idea. So did two brothers from Ohio. An Italian immigrant tried paper cones, but, frustrated with the litter, switched to a cookie cup,” she writes. The idea likely spread from one booth to the next, Funderburg told her, so it’s impossible to know who started the cone. What is for certain is that the 1904 World’s Fair is the moment the ice cream cone–and portable ice cream–emerged as a commercial possibility for American audiences.