Ice cream is now a universally beloved summer treat. But in the early 20th century, the dessert was the flashpoint in a fight for the identity of a small Massachusetts town.
In 1908, a group of missionary women in the town of Winchester, Massachusetts decided to take on at the city’s ice cream vendors.
“Nevermore shall the minds of youth in Winchester be perverted from their Sabbath texts by such worldly things as Ice cream, lemon, ginger and lollipops. Not if 200 of the town’s fair enthusiasts of reform can help it,” reads a story in the Boston Sunday Post, reporting that a group of women were worried that eating ice cream on Sunday was corrupting the young people of the town.
When the confection came to the American colonies in the eighteenth century the challenge of keeping it frozen made it an elite dessert. But as refrigeration improved, ice cream wagons took to the streets. Hand-crank machines to make ice cream at home were invented in the 1840s. And the masses got hooked.
“So the one hand, Americans love ice cream. It’s delicious. It’s pure. You can serve it to the sick. You can serve it to children,” explained Ann Kordas, a history professor at Johnson and Wales University. “But on the other hand, there are these people who feared that ice cream is dangerous physically, dangerous morally, dangerous to society.”
At the time, women were gaining independence, working outside the home, and fighting for the right to vote. Meanwhile ice cream parlors were often run by immigrants or African American men. Kordas said in towns like Winchester, those changes crystallized into paranoia about the dangers of eating ice cream for young white women.
“The fear was that these cravings for things like ice cream would lead to things like cravings for alcohol, craving for exotic foods like Chinese food, and craving for, quote ‘exotic men.’ So ice cream was kind of the nineteenth century version of the gateway drug.”
In Winchester, a group of two hundred women hired a lawyer tasked with getting the town to enforce so-called “blue laws” still on the books. These old Puritan laws regulated activity on Sundays, including limiting the type of business allowed to operate.
The Boston Sunday Post article continued, “Presto! Two hundred grabbed at the reincarnated laws as a drowning man grips a straw. Saved! Saved! And forthwith reform struck Winchester in a cyclone that has downed the last pinhead of wickedness.”
According to the Post, leaders of the local missionary society hoped preventing Sunday sweet-eating would preserve the town’s Puritan morals and reputation. But the battle against ice cream wasn’t so easily won.
As the story goes, drug stores were exempt from the blue laws about Sunday sales and saw a business opportunity. A comic in the same issue of the Boston Sunday Post shows crowds flocking into a drugstore for ice cream.
“Ice cream reigns triumphant because people want their ice cream,” Kordas said, adding that this might be how the classic drugstore soda fountain was born.