How the Ice Cream Man Became an American Icon

Family History
16 August 2016

A Good Humor man in Maryland, 1942

It’s a timeless American ritual: the distant chime of an ice cream truck, a stampede of sneakers on hot sidewalks, and sticky fingers gripping frozen treats. For a century, the ice cream man has been among the most popular faces in the neighborhood.

Let’s take a look at the history of how the ice cream man became an American icon.

Ice Cream: An American Love Story

Americans have loved ice cream since Colonial times, but before modern refrigeration, it was hard to transport. Ice was harvested from ponds in the winter and stored in sawdust, then used to create a makeshift summertime freezer.

In the 19th century, sidewalk peddlers sold “penny licks” of ice cream from rented pushcarts. Ice cream sandwiches soon followed, becoming a popular portable treat.

"hokey pokey" ice cream man selling 'penny licks' in the late 1800s
“Hokey Pokey” ice cream man selling “penny licks” in NYC in the late 1800s


The Birth of Good Humor and Refrigerated Trucks

Harry Burt upped the ante. In 1920, the Youngstown, Ohio, confectioner hit on the idea of coating ice cream in chocolate and putting it on a stick: the Good Humor bar was born. Then he outfitted 12 white delivery trucks with freezers so he could bring the novel dessert straight to customers. For a finishing touch, he added bells from his son’s bobsled.


A 1900 city directory lists Harry Burt as a “manufacturer and dealer in fine confectionery, ice cream and pure home-made candies.”

City Directory listing Good Humor

Frederick McKinley Jones was another crucial player in the field. In 1938, he invented the refrigerated truck, which made it possible to ship produce, meat, and frozen goods across long distances. Ice cream in trucks could now last longer and be stored at a controlled temperature.

Mister Softee Takes Soft-Serve Mobile

In 1956, brothers William and James Conway started Mister Softee. For St. Patrick’s Day, they drove around West Philadelphia selling cones of green soft-serve ice cream. Soft serve had been invented some 20 years before—the founders of Dairy Queen and Carvel came up with it around the same time—but the Conways took it mobile. After some electrical shortages and technical issues, Mister Softee took off and was quickly franchised around the country.

Mister Softee
Image via Creative Commons, Marcus Quagmire

The famous jingle? Les Waas, a Philadelphia adman, wrote it for a Mister Softee radio commercial in 1960, including now-forgotten lyrics. (The creamiest, dreamiest, soft ice cream…) [Source: NYT]

Good Humor Joe

As an ice-cream truck driver developed a regular route, he became a minor celebrity to local kids. In White Plains, NY, that celebrity was Joseph Villardi, or “Good Humor Joe,” who sold ice cream for 66 years until he passed away in 2012.

Joseph Villardi Good Humor Joe
Joseph Villardi Good Humor Joe, via

Always dressed in white, he drove around the suburb in a 1971 Ford van and refused to serve kids who cursed. (“They have to behave,” he remarked.) Villardi knew if you liked strawberry shortcake flavor or toasted almond and carried a special variety for a diabetic boy. Like many an ice cream man, Villardi embodied summer.

What Cool Stories Are in Your Family History?

A lot has changed since the early days when they harvested ice from frozen ponds to make ice cream.

Most of us don’t have an ice cream man in our family tree (though you can find out what your ancestors did for a living via a quick search of census records).

But we do all have great stories.  Start your family story discovery today.


– Rebecca Dalzell