Nancy Johnson brought ice cream to the masses when she filed her patent No. 3254 in September of 1846. With that patent, an ice cream revolution began. Little is known about the woman who gave us so much, other than the fact that we love her.
She was a housewife, probably living in Philadelphia and she was a game changer. Her simple hand-cranked ice cream churn launched a “disruptive technology” that made it possible for everyone to make quality ice cream.
In their article on Legends and Myths of Ice Cream Making and Ice Cream History, What’s Cooking America writes that the exact origins of ice cream are murky at best. “Legends and facts meet and sometimes inaccurately become part of the history.” One thing is certain. The laborious collection of snow and ice by servants and the delicate techniques of cooks mixing that ice with costly sweet ingredients produced a treat enjoyed only by the wealthiest.
While myth and fact converge, we do know that:
– Chinese conserved winter ice for the summer by building icehouses. Around 200 B.C., they made a frozen mixture of milk and rice.
– Persians in 400 B.C. mixed their ice with rose water, fruits, saffron and other flavors.
– Alexander the Great coveted his snow mixed with honey in the 300s B.C.
– In 37 to 68 A.D., Caesar had ice brought from the mountains to be mixed with fruits in the first Snow Cones.
– Fruit sorbets were enjoyed in the 16th century Asia with relays of horsemen bringing ice from Hindu Kush to Delhi.
– In 1533, Catheine de’Medici brought her Italian chefs to France where they served their “frozen snow” treats. Their recipes wee later sworn to secrecy.
– In the 1718, the first ice cream recipe was published in England in Mrs. Mary Eales’s Receipts.
We can thank the Quakers for bringing their recipes with them to America. During the Colonial Era, ice cream was sold in shops in New York. Early adopters included Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who brought a “cream machine” home with him from France when he was Secretary of State.
We won’t call George Washington an addict, but a merchant in 1790 reported that he purchased $200 worth of the confection. He also owned two pewter pots to make his favorite treat. Ice cream was often served at his Presidential Thursday Dinners. An entry in his ledger states that he also purchased a “cream machine” for Mr. Vernon.
As with so many inventions in the Industrial Revolution, Nancy Johnson’s device was a stepping-stone in the burgeoning technology of the treat.
Before she perfected her contraption, ice cream was made by the “pot freezer” method. You placed a metal pot inside a bin or bucket filled with ice. You added your ingredients to the inner pot and stirred like mad. That method was a lot of work with unpredictable, often lumpy results.
Nancy Johnson’s hand cranked ice cream churn was simple, but elegantly genius. It consisted of concentric cylinders, a lid, a paddle and a crank.
An inner can was placed inside the main bucket. Ice and rock salt were placed between the two vessels. Because salt lowers the temperature of ice, a thin layer of milk froze in the inner can.
Ingeniously, she used a crank on the outside that was connected by meshed gears to a paddle inside. The hand crank moved the paddle that scraped the frozen milk from the walls to expose a layer of milk not yet frozen. The consistent stirring and temperature resulted in smoother ice cream with a consistent texture. Brava Nancy!
Thanks to Nancy Johnson’s patent, ice cream could be made much faster than before. Because her device was small, less salt and ice were necessary. Thus, ice cream was affordable for everyone. As progress was made in the technology of manufacturing and freezing, ice cream became a mega industry.
According to the International Dairy Foods Association, 1.53 gallons of ice cream were made in 2013. That resulted in $5.4 billion in sales. Americans eat a whopping 22 pounds per year.
The majority of American ice cream companies have been in business for more than 50 years. Many of them are still owned by single families.
Sadly, she did not have the funds to manufacture her own invention. She sold it to William Young for $200. We’re happy to report that Young called it, “The Johnson Patent Ice-Cream Freezer.
Augusta Jackson was an African American confectioner who has been called “the father of ice cream.” He left his job as a White House chef in the late 1820s and moved back to Philadelphia to start a highly successful catering business.
Jackson became known for creating several unique flavors of ice cream. He also pioneered manufacturing techniques that made his product superior. He packaged his ice creams in tin cans and distributed them to ice cream parlors across Philadelphia. Sadly, there is no evidence that Jackson patented any of his recipes or techniques.
Since Augustus Jackson worked in the White House, it’s fair to assume that George Washington’s love of ice cream influenced him. We wonder if Augustus Jackson’s ice cream in turn inspired Nancy Johnson who was also believed to live in Philadelphia when she filed her patent in 1846.
Notable differences in the number of male and female patent inventors persist despite greater female participation in science and engineering occupations and entrepreneurship. The percentage of all patent inventors that are women, or the annual “women inventor rate,” reached only 12% in 2016.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released a report in 2016 that paints a rather dire picture for women inventors. The report, “Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents,” outlines trends in women inventors named on U.S. patents from 1976 to 2016. As of 2016, all-female issued patents constituted only about 4%.
Success has many “fathers” or in this case, perhaps a mother or two. The number of people racing to claim credit for the first cone looked like a gold rush. We’ll dive into that mystery in our next post, Behold The Ice Cream Cone: Invention of Necessity.
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