Museum stories
Ice cream: the inside scoop

Voltaire once famously said: ‘Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal.’ Whether that’s a reliable citation (debatable) or just wishful thinking, it’s still my favourite ice cream quote and reflects our historic obsession with this frozen treat. After all, there won’t be many of us who didn’t have an experience of ice cream eating as a child, scrabbling to finish it off before the whole thing melted down your arm. Or perhaps it’s in our older years, when we have craved that taste of nostalgia and some cool relief during a hot summer’s day. So, with summer fast approaching, I wanted to reflect on the ancient techniques of this icy dessert, delving into the Museum’s collection (and my own) to give you a little taste of history.

A black-and-white photograph of a large conical ice house inside a defensive wall.
Lantern slide, showing an ancient ice house inside a defensive wall. Iran. Photographed by Gen Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes KCIE. Around 1900.

Before we can talk about ice cream, we must talk about ice, because in the era before freezers you needed to know how to collect and store ice before you could even think of making a frozen dessert. The technology for keeping ice originated in the Middle East and was developed in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 2000 BC. There’s a fantastic image of an ancient Iranian ice-house in the British Museum collection, which shows the predominantly subterranean building that enabled the ancients to keep water frozen throughout the sweltering seasons. Beyond the thick walls and tiny entrance of the building was a funnel-shaped room, dug far down below ground level. This stabilised the temperature within, like a thermos flask, while allowing for melted ice to drain away and new ice to be added every year. The ice would have been collected from the high up in the mountains or frozen lakes in winter – which is why Europeans would later refer to this sort of building as a ‘snow-pit’. However, there wouldn’t be any mention of actual ice cream in Europe until the 17th century, thousands of years later.

A black-and-white portrait of King Charles II who wears a suit of armour and has long curly hair.
Abraham Blooteling (1640–1690), Portrait of King Charles II after Sir Peter Lely (1618–1680). Brush drawing in grey wash, 1655–1690.

The first printed ice cream recipe in Europe was in the handwritten receipts of Lady Anne Fanshawe (1625–1680) in 1665 – whose husband Sir Richard was Charles II’s ambassador to Spain. Her recipe titled ‘To make Icy Cream’ suggests the addition of ambergris or orange-flower water, which were both fashionable ingredients at the time. However the recipe would never have worked, as she forgot to mention that you needed to add salt to the ice around the ice cream mixture. The technique of adding salt, or saltpeter, to the ice surrounding the ice cream base, was an early modern development that allowed mixtures to be frozen solid. The salt creates an endothermic reaction that lowers the freezing temperature of water, therefore making it colder. Prior to this discovery, mankind’s experience of ices was in the form of semi-frozen drinks, such as the Persian sherbat or sherbet, which was made by whisking ice shavings or snow into sugar syrup and citrus juice. As such, the early flavours for ice cream in the West had an Eastern influence, with rosewater, orange-flower blossom and fragrant citrus flavours dominating.

A colour print of a sorbet seller who is holding a glass cone of sorbet and stands next to a sorbetiere.
Gaetano Dura (1805–1878), Sorbettaro ambulante (Mobile sorbet-maker). Hand-coloured lithograph, around 1850.

But how were they actually making ice cream before freezers? The primary piece of equipment was a sorbetiere, which can be seen in the images above. This pewter vessel was nestled into a mixture of ice and salt, with the ice cream mix then poured into the interior. This was then agitated using the handle, or a flat spoon, known as a spaddle. This technology was surprisingly effective, freezing the mixture in a shorter amount of time than most contemporary ice cream machines. The machinery relied on a supply of ice, but was otherwise simple and portable.

A colour print of three women sitting at a table eating ice cream. A male waiter approaches from the right with a menu.
Les glaces from Le Bon Genre. Hand-coloured etching, 1801.

The 18th century was arguably the heyday for ice cream, with more varieties on offer in Georgian London than could be found in most establishments today. Flavours such as chocolate, pistachio, pineapple, jasmine, artichoke, candied pumpkin, pine nut, pear and chestnut appeared in many of London’s fashionable ice cream parlours.

A photograph of three different kinds of ice cream in historic containers.
18th-century ice cream flavours (brown bread, apricot & orange flower blossom, and chocolate water ice). Photo Tasha Marks.

As well as these fabulous flavours the Georgian era promoted the shaping of ices into a myriad of forms. The ice cream cone hadn’t quite been invented yet, so making moulded ice cream was the most fashionable way to serve your dessert. The moulds, made from pewter, were available in all sorts of shapes; from lobsters and joints of ham, to pineapples and roses – all waiting to be cast in your frozen dessert. To make an ice cream using one of these hinged moulds, they would first be filled with partially frozen ice cream (made using a sorbetiere), then closed, sealed with a wax mixture and plunged into a tub of ice and salt for three hours. The frosty forms were then painted with their natural colour, decorated with real stalks and foliage – or in the case of a certain candle-shaped ice cream mould that I have in my collection, adorned with a working wick for an illusionistic centerpiece.

A photograph of a pewter candle-shaped ice cream mould, opened in the middle to show the inside.
Pewter ice cream mould, shaped like a candle. Photo Tasha Marks
A photograph of an ice cream 'candle' made using the mould above. The wick is alight.
Ice cream candle, with working wick. Photo Tasha Marks.

As well as these amazing icy banquets for the super wealthy, the 18th century also saw the appearance of several notable ice cream parlours, aimed at both nobility and the growing middle classes. If I could go back in time I know which one would be top of my list… The Pineapple in Berkeley Square, London. This infamous ice cream shop was run by Italian confectioner Domenico Negri (1760–1800 fl.) and boasted an incredible list of flavours and forms. Established favourites like Royal Ice Cream (with lemon, orange-flower water, orange and pistachio) sat beside more experimental flavours, like Parmesan Ice Cream and Cucumber Ice (with ginger brandy and lemon).

A black-and-white print of a trade card for Negri confectioners.
Ignatius Fougeron (c.1750/68– fl.) after Peter Babel (1752–1763 fl.), Trade card of Domenico Negri (1760–1800 fl.), confectioner at The Pineapple, Berkeley Square, London. Etching and engraving, 1760–1767.

While sadly Negri didn’t publish any of his recipes, many appeared in the book The Complete Confectioner by Frederick Nutt (1906). Nutt was Negri’s apprentice and author of one of the most important ice cream recipe books of the century. Not only did the publication have detailed instructions of how to make the desserts, it also had measurements, which are crucial in ice cream making – too much sugar and it won’t freeze properly, while too little creates a rough texture. Finally the full secrets of ice cream had been revealed, and that meant more of it for everyone.

A colour print of the inside of a cafe from the 1820s. Well-dressed people sip coffee and eat ice cream from cups.
John James Chalon (1778–1854), La Café from Twenty-four subjects exhibiting the Costume of Paris. Hand-coloured lithograph, 1820.

However, the popularity of sweet treats like ice cream had devastating consequences that were unseen by the average visitor to the ice cream salon. The production of the dessert went hand in hand with the import of sugar throughout the 18th century. Ice cream had become available to more echelons of society partially due to the decrease in the price of sugar, which was a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. This disturbing episode of history saw enslaved people treated as objects, and commodities treated as kings. Primarily sugar, but also tobacco, coffee, cotton and rum. This undercurrent of ice cream history is something that is uncomfortable to incorporate into the narrative, but for every grand banquet full of sculptural ices and for each ice cream shop offering icy treats, there was a very different diorama happening in the bows of ships and the cane fields of the Caribbean.

A black-and-white print showing diagrams and a description of a slave ship.
Plan and cross-section of the slave ship ‘Brookes’ of Liverpool. Woodcut print, 1789.

Like most food history, ice cream reveals more about society than you might expect. Food is political, it’s anthropological, and revealing in ways that both entice us in and make us uncomfortable. Ice cream is an iconic foodstuff with worldwide appeal; it crosses borders and class boundaries in unique ways. So with that in mind I wanted to conclude with two very different visions of the ice cream experience – both produced in the 19th century and both used to serve ice cream. The first is this entrancing Napoleonic ice cream pail from 1811, belonging to Bonaparte himself.

A photograph of a porcelain ice-pail, which is in the form of a large gold cup with elephant heads and trunks as 'handles'. An urban scene with buildings and carriages can be seen on the front of the object.
Porcelain ice-pail, one of a pair. Sèvres Factory, France, 1811.

When exploring the British Museum collection for ice cream paraphernalia, this piece’s gilded façade and exceptional design drew me in. The design survives at the Sèvres factory and shows the position of the metal liner, now missing, which held the ice cream surrounded by crushed ice. As an opulent method to serve ice cream, it’s excessively ornate and fantastical.

A close-up photograph of the top of a glass 'penny lick', showing the small indentation which ice cream sits.
Penny lick. Photo Tasha Marks.

On the other hand, I wanted to show you a penny lick – an object from my own collection, which was used to serve ice cream in the street throughout the Victorian era. You paid – you guessed it – a penny, and the glass would be ‘filled’ with ice cream. However as you can see the glass itself is an illusion, with only a slight indentation to be topped up. These glasses were then licked clean and passed back to the vendor, to be lightly rinsed for the next patron.

Philibert Louis Debucourt (1755–1832), Gouter des Anglais. Hand-coloured aquatint with stipple engraving, 1815.

Two very different experiences of ice cream eating that could easily have been happening in parallel. But I’ve put these two side by side because for me, the joy of ice cream is in the eating. Do I think that Emperor Napoleon enjoyed his first taste of ice cream any more or less than the Victorian child paying a penny in the street? Absolutely not! Ice cream is a great leveler, a lick of escapism that we can all enjoy – and on that note, I’m off to get myself one!

A photograph of a silver cup with ice cream and sprinkles.
18th-century brown bread and marmalade ice cream. Photo Tasha Marks.

Tasha Marks is a food historian, artist and founder of AVM Curiosities, which explores the link between art and the senses. Discover more on the AVM Curiosities website here. You can also follow AVM Curiosities on Twitter and Instagram at @AVMCuriosities.

You can read more from Tasha’s in our ‘Pleasant Vices’ blog series below: