The History of the Ice Cream Sundae

January 15th, 2016

Do you like ice cream sundaes? Most people do. In fact, the iconic desert became a pop culture sensation and was one of the defining symbols for American diners in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The origin of this legendary food is a topic of debate, and the source of a rivalry. The rivalry is between Two River, Wisconsin and Ithaca, New York, who both claim to be its inventor. What’s the truth? We may never know for sure, but let’s examine both sides of the story, and you can decide for yourself.

Two Rivers, Wisconsin

Two Rivers, Wisconsin

Ed Berner’s Ice Cream Parlor claims the sundae originated by accident. The creation began when Ed was asked by a patron for an ice cream soda. The year was 1881, and it was a Sunday. At the time, soda’s were not to be served on Sundays for religious reasons, so the owner compromised by putting ice cream in a bowl and using chocolate syrup on top as flavoring. Syrup was only used in ice cream sodas at the time. This compromise invented a new desert, and “ice cream with syrup” was sold for a nickel. The desert took off, and soon became a local favorite. The sign below is a proud landmark for the small Wisconsin town.

Ice Cream Sundae Landmark Two Rivers, Wisconsin

Controversy

The landmark has not gone uncontested. Further investigation into the story has brought up some interesting counter-arguments. The only evidence in support of the origin story is an article from a local paper in 1929, written by Seymour Althen. The story was written nearly 40 years after the desert’s alleged invention. If the article is correct, the owner Ed Berners would have been only 18 at the time of the invention, making him unusually young for a restaurant entrepreneur at the time. Author Michael Turback later discredited the story, saying the Wisconsin journalist was known for pulling a hoax from time to time. We may never know for sure, and Ed Berner’s Ice Cream Parlor closed in 1927. The town has not backed down from its claim to fame, and along with the landmark monument a replica of the legendary ice cream parlor can be seen at the Washington House Hotel Museum in Two Rivers.

Ithaca, New York

Ithaca, New York

This origin story begins on a Sunday in 1892. After Sunday service, Reverend John Scott liked to visit his favorite downtown spot for some refreshments. Chester Platt, owner of Platt & Co Pharmacy, would meet with the reverend for a nice talk after service. Platt asked his server for a bowl of ice cream for him and the reverend. To accommodate the guest, Platt topped each bowl with chocolate syrup and a candied cherry. Scott was such a fan, he suggested naming the creation after the day. The title was “Cherry Sunday”. Unlike the Two Rivers account, this product is supported by documentation. Though the record came 11 years after the alleged Two Rivers invention, there is written support in it’s favor. Platt’s version of the sundae gained enough notoriety that he tried to trademark the sundae. The attempt didn’t meet the guidelines at the time, and the trademark was unsuccesful.

Platt would eventually sell his business to the server who was there for the sundae’s invention, and moved into politics. The business stayed open through the 1920’s, and was around when ice cream sundaes were becoming a national phenomenon.

evantson, illinois

Evanston, Illinois

Our own Evanston, Illinois has a role in this too. Though they do not claim to be the desert’s inventors, they do take credit for giving it it’s name “ice cream sundae”. Evanston was very strict in observing Sabbath, and the town was then known as “Chicago’s heaven”. According to this account, the sundae started at Garwood’s Drugstore.

At the time, there was a law banning sodas on Sunday, or otherwise known as the “Sunday Soda Menace.” Apparently, ice cream sodas were not allowed, so the ice cream sundae was a loophole to get an ice cream fix. On Sundays, the ice cream soda was served sans-soda, and the legend of the ice cream sundae began.

ice cream sundae chart

There are dozens of origin stories, and we chose the few most credible accounts. Ice cream sundaes would go on to become one of the most popular deserts in America, and they made their way into pop culture as a defining image for American diners. The true origin is still up for debate. Whose side are you on?

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