Those Were The Days

Ten cool facts about ice cream and New York City history PLUS: where was New York’s first frozen yogurt shop?

Lewis Wickes’ photograph of a few children enjoying a bit of ice cream on a hot day, 1910. (NYPL)

1. America’s first ice cream shop was located on Dock Street** (roughly today’s Pearl Street) in 1774.  The British confectioner Philip Lenzi advertised ice cream of “any sort”, along with a host of treats, including sugar plums, jams and sweetmeats.

2.  Hanover Square (near Stone and Pearl streets) was the center of commerce in colonial New York, and apparently of confections as well.  In 1777, in the midst of British-occupied New York during the Revolutionary War, Lenzi moved his shop up into Hanover Square next to another ice cream shop owned by Joseph Corree at 120 Hanover Square. [source]

3. George Washington and his wife Martha were huge fans of ice cream.  During the first year of Washington’s presidency, back in 1789, when the seat of government resided in New York, Martha would make several batches of it from the Washington’s home at One Cherry Street She sometimes complained of the lack of fresh cream, sometimes serving “unusually stale and rancid” desserts at her weekly tea parties.  One well-repeated legend states that the Washington’s spent over $700 on ice cream desserts in the summer of 1789.

Above: A 1803 map of Vauxhall Garden, at Broome Street between the Bowery and Broadway, a lovely place to enjoy a bowl of ice cream in early New York

4. Manhattan’s pleasure gardens — early precursors to the modern park — became instrumental in spreading the joy of ice cream.  The aforementioned Joseph Corree opened the Mount Vernon Garden at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1800, a few months after ice cream-lovin’ Washington died at his estate in Mount Vernon.

On top of the many festive entertainments at the garden — fireworks, theatricals, topiary, tableaux vivant — Corree also offered ice cream for sale.  Other popular pleasure gardens of the day, such Vauxhall Garden and Niblo’s Garden, would follow suit.

5. Delmonico’s, before it became the finest name in restaurant dining in New York in the 19th century, got its start as a small confectionery shop on 23 William Street in 1827 which featured ice cream on its menu. (Learn more about Delmonico’s from my podcast on its history.)

6. Ice cream vendors were on the streets of New York as early as the 1820s, the best way for less affluent people to enjoy the dessert.  Within a couple decades, of course, the ‘pleasure gardens’ would lose their patina of class and become playgrounds for poorer New Yorkers.  In 1852, one garden near the Bowery was described as “a sort of ice-creamery, and general rendezvous for the Bowery fashionables.” [source]

At right: A Century Magazine illustration from 1901 of a New York ice cream vendor or ‘hokey pokey man’ (NYPL)

7. Ice cream saloons, by mid-19th century, were aplenty along the main thoroughfares of New York, experimenting with different kinds of production.  One saloon, Parkinson’s on Broadway, claims to have invented pistachio ice cream.  Another, the Patent Steam Ice Cream Saloon, named for its steam-operated freezing unit, catered to the women of the middle class, “the wives and daughters of the substantial tradesmen, mechanics and artisans of the day,” according to New York by Gas-Light.

A Brooklyn confectioner ad from 1876:

8. The hokey pokey men, the nickname for one-cent ice cream street vendors, were briefly hindered by the Ice Cream Strike of 1913, a walkout by all 2,500 members of the Ice Cream Workers Union in New York, effectively shutting down the production of ice cream, especially in the Lower East Side.  The strike lasted several weeks.

Below: A Macy’s ad in 1913 for a home ice-cream maker:

9. Ice Cream Profiteering or Newspaper Self-Promotion?  After the war, many merchants continued to sell massively overpriced ice cream.  The Evening World reported in 1921 that “profits from ice cream range from 500 to 1,000 percent” at a survey of local ice cream vendors.  “In few articles of food has there been found any greater evidence of extortion from the consumer.” [source]

A few days later, the newspaper extolled upon its own crack reporting, claiming that ice cream prices were going down because of their investigations.  “Hundreds of manufacturers and retails have already cut prices,” the World boasted.

10. Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream was not created anywhere near Scandinavia, but rather in the Bronx, the product of two Polish-Jewish confectioners Reuben and Rose Mattus.  The official reason for the name was “to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship to which he remained dedicated.” Reuben later admitted, “We wanted people to take a second look and say, ‘Is this imported?'”

The first Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop, which opened in 1976, is located at 120 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The store is still going strong.

EXTRA: Frozen yogurt was the original cronut The trendy dessert was first sold over the counter in New York at Bloomingdale’s Department Store in the early 1970s.  As far as I can tell, the first actual yogurt store in the city — the first of many — was the Dannon Yogurt Store at 207 East 86th Street, opening in February 1975.

That was the year that New Yorkers first went WILD for frozen yogurt, well at least according to the New York Times (but you know how they are with trend stories!)

Yogurt: “It’s the biggest thing since hamburgers and chicken,” according to one fast-food executive in 1976.

**There were two Dock Streets back in old New York, so it’s possible (although more unlikely) the original shop could have been on the other one, which is near today’s Water Street and Coenties Slip.

For more sweet New York City history, check out my prior articles on:
New York and the history of soda fountains
New York, World War I and the history of the doughnut

2 replies on “Ten cool facts about ice cream and New York City history PLUS: where was New York’s first frozen yogurt shop?”

wonderful history, especially on a hot summer day. But how can you talk about ice cream in NY an not mention Carvel?

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