How did people make ice cream before freezers?

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.

While working as archivist for the Congregational Church of Needham, I came across a tattered poster advertising a Strawberry Festival the church held in 1890.

I continue to be fascinated by this poster. This week, I’ve been obsessed with the question of how people made ice cream without mechanical or electrical refrigeration.

How did people make ice cream without a freezer?

My copy of The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook includes several recipes for ice cream, but sadly no instructions for how one would actually go about freezing it. Marion Harland etal’s New England Cook Book from 1905 also includes lots of recipes, but no actual instructions on process.

The 2002 commemorative edition of The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book. (Image: Shala Howell)

1896 Recipe for Vanilla Ice Cream I (Philadelphia)

  • 1 quart thin cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla

Mix ingredients and freeze.

(Source: The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook)

1896 Recipe for Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream

  • 3 pints thin cream
  • 2 boxes strawberries
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons arrowroot

Wash and hull berries, sprinkle with sugar, let stand one hour, mash and rub through strainer. Scald one and one-half cups milk; dilute arrowroot with remaining milk, add to hot milk, and cook ten minutes in double boiler; cool, add cream, freeze to a mush, add fruit and finish freezing.

(Source: The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook)

Wait — those recipes say “mix ingredients and freeze. But how do you freeze ice cream without a freezer?

Thank goodness for suite101.com. Their article on 1890-1920 Ice Cream Pudding Recipes is quite detailed on this point. Basically, to make homemade ice cream back in 1890, you would take today’s process and add a bunch of manual labor.

Advertisement for the 1890s Gem Freezer: “The Best in the World” (Image via stilltherllbemore, who has put the postcard up for sale on ebay.)

In other words:

  1. Prepare fruit, nuts, and other ice cream mix-ins, and set aside.
  2. Mix the liquid ingredients for the ice cream together in an earthenware jar.
  3. Crush a bunch of ice and add salt to it. (1 part salt to 3 parts ice)
  4. Put the ice and salt in a basin with plenty of room to hold the ice as well as your earthenware jar.
  5. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth with a slit in it or with several layers of thick grease-proof paper. Carefully insert an egg beater through the slit in the cloth and/or paper.
  6. Put the jar in the basin with the ice and salt. Let it sit for five minutes, then turn the crank on the egg beater slowly and steadily for a few minutes. Freeze to a mush.
  7. Add mashed fruit, nuts and other flavorings when the mixture is half-frozen.
  8. Keep stirring, increasing your speed steadily until the mixture freezes completely.
  9. Once frozen, let the ice cream sit in the jar or a mold for at least an hour to “ripen.”

Suite101 includes a number of ice cream recipes, in case you want to try this at home. They sound interesting, but frankly I doubt the Friendly Society would have served Irish Moss ice cream at a Strawberry Festival. They were much more likely to use something like the homemade Strawberry Ice Cream recipe from my 1896 Fanny Farmer.

What about ice cream cones? Did they have those in 1890?

Although Agnes Marshall (1855-1905) included a recipe for an edible ice cream cone in her 1888 Mrs A. B. Marshall’s Cookery Book, ice cream cones didn’t become widely available until some time after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. So for a truly authentic recreation, you’ll need to serve your 1890s-style ice cream in a bowl.

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