The lives of our ancestors were not always as simple and easy-going as we sometimes imagine. In the late nineteenth century, ice cream, a popular but poorly understood dessert, brought illness and death to America’s fairs and festivals.
In Victorian America, ice cream became an increasingly popular dessert. As historian Edward Geist writes, it was also sometimes a dangerous one, with semi-regular reports of whole groups of picnickers or fair-goers becoming terribly sick with bowel pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some, typically children, died.
Geist explains that ice cream’s widespread availability in the mid-nineteenth century came thanks to the rise of the commercial ice trade, abundant sugar production, and the invention of the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. Custard-based ice creams favored by the rich remained too expensive for most people, but eggless “Philadelphia style” ice cream or even cheaper flavored ices were widely available.
The hygienic practices of the vendors who sold these treats were, to an observer in the twenty-first century, horrifying. They often used reusable glass dishes, which were merely wiped off between customers. And some refroze melted ice cream, something we now know offers a perfect opportunity for bacterial growth.
You can read more in an article by Livia Gershon and published in the jstor.org web site at: https://daily.jstor.org/death-by-ice-cream/.