Ice Cream: Like Us, Our Ancestors Loved It

Introduction: In this article – in honor of this Sunday being National Ice Cream Day – Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to find stories and recipes about ice cream that our ancestors enjoyed. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Ice cream has a history in the United States dating back to the 18th century! Who was eating ice cream back then? Early American ice cream eaters include our first president, George Washington. I don’t know what flavor Washington preferred, but you can find our third president, Thomas Jefferson’s, vanilla ice cream recipe online. (1)

Photo: chocolate ice cream served at Leopold’s Ice Cream Shop, Savannah, Georgia
Photo: chocolate ice cream served at Leopold’s Ice Cream Shop, Savannah, Georgia. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Most likely, if you are purchasing ice cream this summer you are grabbing your favorite flavor. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? Obviously, flavor preference changes over time (anyone still love bubble gum ice cream?) but certain ice cream flavors seem to be favorites over multiple generations.

Neapolitan Ice Cream

It’s the best of three worlds: vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. Neapolitan ice cream takes those three flavors and stacks them together to make one delicious treat. According to one online article, it’s also the trend setting ice cream of the first decade in the 1900s. (2) Judging from the mentions in menus printed in historical newspapers from the early 20th century, I’m not surprised that Neapolitan was a favorite.

A banquet menu, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 24 October 1902
Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 24 October 1902, page 7

While not specifically about Neapolitan, this 1905 article explains how to make strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate ice cream. A recipe for cherry ice cream is also included and can be substituted for the strawberry if you’re making Neapolitan.

An article about ice cream, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 28 November 1905
Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 28 November 1905, page 10

What sets Neapolitan ice cream apart from others is that you scoop most ice creams – but Neapolitan was originally sold in “bricks” so it could be sliced, showcasing the three flavors.

An article about ice cream, Houston Chronicle newspaper article 25 January 1940
Houston Chronicle (Houston, Texas), 25 January 1940, page 8

Rocky Road

What are the origins of that ice cream that blends chocolate with marshmallows and nuts? That’s up for debate, but it’s safe to say that it is an early 20th century invention. (3)

It appears from newspaper advertising that various types of Rocky Road existed decades ago, including black raspberry and strawberry. While I’m not clear if these flavors included marshmallows and nuts, they do appear to be a combination of two ice cream flavors.

An article about ice cream, Daily Times newspaper article 23 September 1942
Daily Times (Chicago, Illinois), 23 September 1942, page 87

Want to try your hand at making some Rocky Road? Grab 24 marshmallows and follow this recipe.

An article about ice cream, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 1 May 1952
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 1 May 1952, page 32

19th Century Favorite Ice Creams

What type of ice cream recipes might have been an ancestral favorite? I found mentions of ice cream in 19th century newspapers, with recipes. What were some of those early recipes? Well, it’s no surprise that vanilla was one of the earliest ice cream recipes I found. Vanilla ice cream continues to be a favorite of many Americans.

An article about ice cream, Muskegon Chronicle newspaper article 6 August 1889
Muskegon Chronicle (Muskegon, Michigan), 6 August 1889, page 9

You could add some orange to the vanilla to make an orange ice cream. This recipe includes a presentation with coconuts and dried rose leaves.

An article about ice cream, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 15 November 1893
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 November 1893, page 7

I found a recipe for caramel ice cream in an advertisement. The recipe calls for “new milk,” brown sugar and vanilla.

An article about ice cream, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 25 March 1895
Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 25 March 1895, page 4

What’s Your Favorite?

My favorite ice cream flavor has changed over time. I was a huge fan of Neapolitan growing up. I then enjoyed Rocky Road or anything chocolate in my teens. I think today I favor Pistachio or Salted Caramel. Whatever your favorite, treat yourself with some this Sunday for National Ice Cream Day.


(1) “The History of Ice Cream,” IDFA ( accessed 21 June 2021).
(2) “The Most Popular Ice Cream Flavor in Every Decade,” Taste of Home ( accessed 3 June 2021).
(3) “The Conflicting Stories Behind the Invention of Rocky Road Ice Cream,” Mental Floss ( accessed 3 June 2021).

2 thoughts on “Ice Cream: Like Us, Our Ancestors Loved It

  1. When I was young (in the 50s) Neapolitan kept peace in the family. Mom wanted strawberry, Dad and I the chocolate… we all didn’t like vanilla but had to eat it to get rid of it. Still don’t like strawberry. Still like Rocky Road but it is hard to find.

    1. Laurene, Neapolitan is one of those flavors that the family can typically agree on. Even if it means only eating one layer!

      Thanks for sharing that memory with us.

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