(I originally wrote this blog entry in May 2011. It is about a part of “The American Experience” that I’ll bet almost everyone of every age can relate to!)
Summer finally arrived here a couple of weeks ago. No, I didn’t pay any attention to the exact date on the calendar. I knew it was summer because I heard the first Ice Cream Truck of the season! It was several blocks away when it first dawned on me what I was hearing. There is no mistaking the sound of any other vehicle for an ice cream truck. It’s not a sound of a motor rumbling, or brakes squealing, or a horn honking. It’s a blaring loudspeaker playing a never-ending loop of an unidentifiable rinky-tinky musical instrument’s rendition of an aging song.
More often than not the song is “Turkey in the Straw.” If not, it’s likely “The Entertainer.” Beyond that, there’s a very short repertoire that some company in the ancient past created for the purpose. Actually, this year it was amazing to me to think that ice cream trucks are still plying the streets in many towns and cities across the country. They’ve been at it for almost a century now, and you’d think they’d have gone the way of the milkman and his milk wagon delivering glass bottles of milk in the early morning to doorsteps.
After all, you can go into almost any grocery and find a whole frozen dessert section with just about any kind of ice cream treat you can imagine. There are six-packs and 12-packs of Fudge Bars, Popsicles, Push-ups, Strawberry Shortcakes, Drumsticks, and much more. All of these are sold at discount prices, so any family can have a stash of goodies in their own freezer. So why would anyone bother to buy from an ice cream truck?
Anyone who doesn’t know the answer to that likely had no childhood. Buying something from the Ice Cream Man and his Ice Cream Truck was never just about having a dessert! It was about excitement and anticipation. Hearing that first faint tinkle in the distance and estimating just where he was at the time in your neighborhood and how long it would take him to get to your block.
And it was about self-expression … about the freedom of having a quarter in your sweaty little hand and the power to dispense it for anything your heart desired at that very moment in time. Yeah, maybe Mom could buy a big pack of popsicles and keep them in the ‘fridge so you could have one any time you wanted one. That was nice in one way. But what if on any given afternoon you didn’t WANT a popsicle … you wanted a chocolate-covered ice cream bar in the shape of a Mickey Mouse head? Being six years old and having the authority to make such an earth-shaking decision all on your own, on the spot, was … priceless.
Well, actually, although I grew up in the 1950s I don’t really have any memories of my own of ice cream trucks! For some reason, they didn’t ply the streets of my childhood neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio. We went to the corner Mom and Pop grocery store with our quarter and bought our treats there. Nor, when I moved to the small northern Michigan town of Traverse City in the mid-50s, did they have ice cream trucks. Our quarters there went to the local Dairy Queen.
My Ice Cream Truck Memories are second-hand nostalgia of my daughter, who is now 40+. It was her shivering excitement at age 3, hearing the ice cream truck in the distance, that I remember fondly. It’s seeing her in my mind’s eye out the front window, running shrieking into the house from the front yard squealing “Icequeam twuck! Icequeam twuck!” that still makes me smile.
For all you fans of the Icequeam Twuck out there, I thought I’d pull together a little mini-history of this childhood treasure.
Icequeam Twuck History
Here are pics of the earliest type of motorized Ice Cream trucks. This kind of truck would have had no refrigeration unit, and would have sold only hand-dipped ice cream made by a local dairy and carried around in insulated containers.
But 1919 saw the beginnings of the more creative frozen treats we all connect with buying from the Ice Cream Man these days. That’s the year that Christian Nelson figured out a way to get melted chocolate to stick to bricks of ice cream—and dubbed his invention the I-Scream Bar. He joined forces with local chocolate producer Russell Stover to mass-produce them under the new name that stuck from then on … Eskimo Pie.
A year or so later, ice cream parlor owner Harry Burt was making a similar treat. But handling the lump of chocolate-coated icecream was pretty messy. Burt and his son experimented with putting a lollypop stick inside the lump, and voila’! The Good Humor ice cream bar was born.
Burt was a creative merchandiser, and shortly outfitted small vending trucks with bells to drive up and down the streets hawking their frozen wares. For many years the Good Humor company dominated and set the pace for the Ice Cream Trucks of America. Their white-uniformed salesmen, taught to tip their hats to ladies and salute men passing by, became proverbial across the nation. There is even a movie titled The Good Humor Man from 1950 available on DVD!
Down Memory Lane in an Ice Cream Truck
But of course the most memorable thing about Ice Cream Trucks is that “special” brand of music that heralds their coming. The Daily Apple blogger summarizes the history of that music:
From jingling bells, the trucks graduated to playing music. In 1929, a California ice cream man bolted a music box to the roof of his truck and connected it to an amplifier.
Other ice cream men followed suit, sort of. But for most of them, they had to crank the music boxes by hand. It was pretty tricky to drive and crank the music at the same time, so a lot of the time the songs ran out while the trucks were driving, and the drivers waited until they’d stopped to crank up the music again.
Then they graduated to a “clockwork-style machine,” which I’m guessing was a variant on the amplified music box.
In the 1950s, Nichols Electronics invented a transistorized version of the machine. Amplifiers on those systems ran off the truck’s battery.
More recently, the chime-like music was burned onto microchips which were connected to amplifiers that played the music through a loudspeaker which looks like a horn. The microchip music could loop and loop and loop without any input from the driver.
One driver estimates that he has listened to the same 40-second song 13,500 times. He hears it in his sleep.
See more on The Daily Apple blog.
You can read a bit more extensive history of the Ice Cream Truck music box on the Canadian CBC Music site. The Real Song of Summer . Here’s a bit of that story, explaining how we ended up with that weird tinkly music blasted by the modern Ice Cream Truck.
So how did the chime box become the go-to music device? According to ethnomusicologist Daniel Tannehill Neely, 19th century ice cream parlours had music boxes, mechanical cylinders with pins sticking out to pluck the tines of a steel comb as they rotated. Early foot-powered ice cream carts used racks of bells and shouting salesmen to attract customers, but when trucks came along, vendors needed something louder to be heard over the engine. Inspired by their nostalgia for the old ice cream parlours, they went back to the familiar music box technology.
In 1927, the first known chime box was custom built, and it played a traditional Polish song called “Stodola Pumpa.” It became its vendor’s trademark. Ice cream trucks didn’t become ubiquitous until after the Second World War, and that’s when the Nelson Company began manufacturing chime boxes, though they weren’t terribly energy-efficient. In 1957, Nichols Electronics improved the electronics of the design, and introduced the digital version in 1985.
All that to say, when you hear an ice cream truck playing “Little Brown Jug,” you’re hearing an updated version of a 30-year-old digital unit that replicated the sound of a 55-year-old electronic unit, based on a 65-year-old mechanical unit, which was based on the music box, which was invented more than 200 years ago. And they’ve been using the same song for 70 years, and that song was written 75 years before that. A lot of technology went into making it sound so archaic, like the sonic equivalent of Instagram. [Instagram is an internet photo-sharing service, with software that lets you “photoshop” your cellphone’s hi-def, hi-tech digital photos–to make them look like fuzzier, faded, old-fashioned, vintage print photographs!]
(You can check out even more details at the link given above.)
The Washington Post even had a special article on Ice Cream Truck music a while back.
So I’m obviously not the only person with sticky memories of the Ice Cream Man! I’ll bet even you do. If you’re not nostalgic yet, I dare you to listen to the video below and not have the slightest craving for a chocolate-coated ice cream bar.