The sound of an ice cream truck jingling and jangling down the block is etched on the memories of generations of American kids. Its invention actually dates back to a critically important development that celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
In 1920, Harry Burt, a candy maker in Youngstown, Ohio, owned an ice cream shop. He created a block of ice cream like one would find in an ice cream sandwich. The difference was that he perfected a mix of coconut oil and cocoa butter that solidified the ice cream enough to be coated in chocolate. Burt inserted a lollipop stick and created the now-famous Good Humor bar.
He then took his invention a step further and built the first refrigerated ice cream trucks — the Good Humor truck. By the middle of the decade, he had a fleet of a dozen bell-equipped vehicles driving around the area spreading the gospel of Good Humor to Midwesterners.
Burt found huge success even during the Great Depression. A cheap ice cream treat was a momentary distraction for parents and children in the deepest despairs of poverty.
It took until 1956 for Good Humor to find a serious challenger for the ice cream truck market. Brothers William and James Conway of Philadelphia installed a soda shop soft-serve machine in a truck and launched the first Mister Softee truck on St. Patrick’s Day. Jim Conway, the son of James, told the magazine Mental Floss that the power required to keep the freezers running and the ice cream cold often overwhelmed the truck in its early days. Within two years, they had sorted out the power issue and were franchising Mister Softee across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, serving up soft-serve cones in addition to premade ice cream bars.
Millennials and Gen Z’ers have likely never seen a Good Humor truck outside of a museum; in the late 1970s, the company took its fleet off the road as it turned its focus to in-store ice cream products. But Mister Softee is still going strong, with more than 600 trucks in 16 states. In Tampa Bay, you can find Alex Koutsouradis’s Softee the King truck around festivals, markets and other events. And if you find yourself in Tarpon Springs, keep your ear out for the unmistakable jingle of the ice cream truck. There might be a cone calling your name.