How Did Ancient Civilizations Make Ice Cream?

On a hot spring afternoon in 1963, two men from the American CIA crept into the Havana Libre Hotel cafeteria.

Their mission? To retrieve a poison pill from the freezer and sneak it into Fidel Castro’s chocolate milkshake.

Castro, who was known to indulge in up to 18 scoops of ice cream after lunch, seemed like the perfect target.

But things didn’t go as planned—the pill froze to the freezer coils and broke, spoiling the CIA’s plot and giving Castro more days to enjoy his sweet tooth.

Ice Cream’s Ancient Beginnings

Ice cream has always had a special place in our world’s history and culture, but where did it all begin?

The earliest records of cold desserts and iced drinks go back to the first century. In ancient Rome, Mughal India, and Tang dynasty China, these icy delights were reserved for the royal elites.

Keeping these treats cold was no easy feat. Wealthy Mediterranean nobility would send laborers up mountains to collect glacial ice and snow, while ancient Persians used a method called sky cooling.

They built shallow, insulated pools of water that radiated heat into the dry desert skies at night, causing them to freeze.

The Birth of Creamy Ice Cream

The creamy ice cream we love today came much later. It was inspired by sharbat, an icy drink from Persia that became popular in the Middle Ages.

European travelers brought back sharbat recipes and started experimenting with flavors like chocolate, pinecone, and even eggplant. In 1692, Neapolitan chef Antonio Latini recorded a milk-based version, which some historians consider the first ice cream.

Ice Cream’s Journey to America

In the 18th century, ice cream spread to North America with European settlers.

At first, it was a luxury enjoyed by the upper classes due to the expensive ingredients—sugar, salt, and cream—and the laborious process.

George Washington reportedly spent the equivalent of $6,600 on ice cream in one summer!

The Golden Age of Ice Cream

But ice cream’s golden age began on American soil. Inventors and entrepreneurs found ways to make it accessible to everyone.

In 1843, Nancy Johnson from Philadelphia patented a hand-cranked ice cream maker, making it easier for home cooks.

By the mid-1830s, “Ice King” Frederic Tudor had improved the ice trade, shipping tons of ice globally.

Ice Cream for the Masses

Soon, ice cream was everywhere. In the late 1880s, Italian immigrants brought their ice cream street vending to cities like London, Glasgow, and New York, selling scoops for a penny each.

American druggists then combined soda with ice cream, creating the soda fountain—a new social hub.

The Prohibition Era and Ice Cream

When Prohibition hit in 1920, many American saloons transformed into soda fountains, and breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling switched to making ice cream.

With refrigeration technology improving rapidly, by the end of World War II, most American homes had freezers for storing ice cream.

Even trucks were equipped with freezers, bringing frozen treats to neighborhoods everywhere.

Ice Cream Today

Today, ice cream continues to evolve in exciting ways.

While some of its mysteries remain, one thing is certain: our love for ice crea