When you think about it, ice cream is not only a culinary marvel but a technological one as well. Invented long before the days of refrigeration, the cold confection was initially a rare delicacy reserved for the well-to-do. As summer gets into high gear and we look into the freezer for a way to cool off, I’d like to highlight a few women whose innovative thinking has contributed to our enjoyment today.
Nancy M. Johnson
In 1843, Nancy M. Johnson did something unusual. At a time when women in most of the United States relinquished their legal rights upon marrying, and with it the ability to control their finances, own property, or sign legal agreements, she filed a patent—in her own name—for an “Artificial Freezer,” or ice cream maker. Although there were no legal barriers to women receiving patents, many women inventors often had to rely on husbands or male relatives to get their inventions through the expensive business of patenting. Johnson, the wife of Walter Rogers Johnson, distinguished chemistry professor and first secretary of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, stepped forward, independent of her husband.
Johnson’s invention consisted of a pail with a lid. Inside the pail was a metal container, also fitted with a lid, to hold ingredients. Ice and salt were packed in the space between the container and pail. Perforated S-shaped paddles inside the container more efficiently scraped the sides and evenly blended the ingredients. The paddles attached to a spindle, which extended through the lid and attached to a hand crank located outside the pail.
In her US Patent 3,254, Johnson explained the mechanics of her invention: “When the revolutions are made by carrying the hand from right to left between the axis and the operator, the vertical edges of the beater tend constantly to carry the liquid or semi-fluid mass from the center to the circumference of the containing cylinder or freezer and that on the contrary when he turns the crank from left to right between himself and the shaft, it will tend to cut off any frozen matter from the inner surface of the freezer and to gather it toward the central parts, thus constantly allowing fresh portions of the cream or other substances to be frozen to come in contact with the refrigerating surface.”
While ice cream was enjoyed in colonial times, Johnson’s “Artificial Freezer” was the first patent filed in the United States for an appliance to make ice cream. Prior to her invention, cooks would usually place ice cream ingredients in a metal pot and nest it inside a bucket filled with crushed ice, to which salt was added to further lower the ice’s freezing point. Continuously scraping the cold walls inside the metal pot and stirring would eventually chill the ingredients. The problem with the “pot freezer” method was that it was quite labor intensive, taking hours to make a single batch, and the texture of the ice cream was often lumpy from inconsistent mixing.
Not only was ice cream easier to make using Johnson’s exterior hand crank, it only took about half an hour to prepare a container. The lids helped maintain a cool temperature inside the appliance, decreasing prep time. Consistent stirring and perforations in the paddles helped ensure a smoother consistency of the ice cream.
Johnson successfully commercialized her invention, but soon sold her patent to William G. Young. He tweaked her design, filed his own patent in 1848, and successfully marketed a machine that made it even easier and faster to whip up a batch of ice cream. Young wasn’t the only one inspired by Johnson. Reports vary, but roughly 90 patents for ice cream machines were filed in the 25 years after Johnson filed hers. Commercially available ice cream makers, along with innovations related to harvesting and transporting ice, made what was once a rare treat for the elite more accessible.
Agnes Bertha Marshall
If you can imagine a combination of Julia Child and Martha Stewart, that would be Agnes Bertha Marshall. Born in the outskirts of London, she studied under chefs in Paris and Vienna early in life, and then married and became a young mother of four. In 1883, she and her husband took over a fledgling culinary school in London that she transformed. Marshall and guest instructors taught English and French cuisine, increasing the student body in two years from 40 to nearly 2,000.
Marshall targeted middle- and upper-class households in which the woman of the house aspired to offer family and guests a more elegant dining experience. To that end, the entrepreneurial couple soon expanded operations, creating a registry for trained cooks, an employment agency for domestics, a shop featuring not only dishes prepared by students but also kitchen equipment and pantry items branded as “Marshall’s.” She wrote cookbooks and published a weekly food and lifestyle magazine. She gave lectures and cooking demonstrations to admiring audiences of as many as 600.
To Marshall, perhaps nothing epitomized fine dining more than ice cream and sorbet. Of her four cookbooks, two were devoted to “ices.” (It’s no wonder she was dubbed the “queen of ices.”) Marshall not only conceived new recipes, but also gave considerable thought to how her recipes for chilled desserts could be prepared more quickly and easily.
Under her husband’s name, she was issued US Patent 320,572 in 1885 for a “Machine for Freezing Cream, & c.” Unlike other designs, which tended to be tall and narrow, Marshall’s ice cream maker was shallow and broad, with the ice and salt at the bottom rather than the sides of the outer tub. The increased surface contact between the ice cream mixture and the cold bottom dropped the time needed to freeze the ingredients to just a few minutes. To store iced desserts prior to serving, Marshall also patented an “Ice Cave,” (US Patent 322,117), again under her husband’s name, which was an insulated cabinet akin to a modern-day cooler.
While today’s cutting edge chefs and bartenders concoct a wide array of dishes and drinks by applying the scientific approach to cuisine known as molecular gastronomy, Marshall suggested employing a chemical technique in vogue today, that of using liquid nitrogen to create a memorable dessert experience. In a 1901 issue of her magazine, The Table, she proposes that “Each guest at a dinner party may make his or her ice cream at the table by simply stirring with a spoon the ingredients of ice cream to which a few drops of liquid air has been added by the servant; one drop in a glass will more successfully freeze champagne than two or three lumps of ice.”
Marshall is best known as the inventor of the ice cream cone. Prior to Marshall, sweet wafers often accompanied the cold dessert. However, Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Cookery Book, published in 1888, contains the first published recipe for an ice cream cone. Her “Cornets with Cream” features a baked cone-shaped wafer made primarily from ground almonds and flour. Marshall suggests ice cream or sorbet in her recipe as alternative fillings to whipped cream.
Marshall’s 1894 cookbook, Fancy Ices, contains two recipes specifically for ice cream served in an edible cone. Marshall, however, did not popularize the ice cream cone. Thanks to food vendors at the 1904 World’s Fair, we no longer had to risk our health to satisfy our sweet tooth by buying ice cream served in reused and notoriously unwashed stemmed glass cones known as a “penny licks.”
For those who are vegan or lactose-intolerant, Almeda Lambert’s invention of dairy-free ice cream is a blessing. Lambert’s husband, Joseph, was an employee at the renowned Battle Creek Sanitarium, a 19th century health retreat overseen by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. The key to good health, Kellogg believed, was regular exercise, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, and a vegetarian diet. It is thought that Joseph Lambert was involved in producing nut butters as meat substitutes for the sanitorium. He eventually started his own business selling a nut grinder he had patented US Patent 625,400) and a variety of nut-based foods.
Based on her connection to Dr. Kellogg and his perspective on healthy eating, Almeda Lambert, like her husband, was a big proponent of nuts. In 1899, she published the Guide for Nut Cookery, which contains the first published recipes for vegetarian ice creams, which substituted cow’s milk and cream with nut milks and butters.
The “queens of ices” profiled here would no doubt be astonished by today’s supermarket frozen dessert aisle—lined with oversize freezers holding a wide variety of cold treats both simple and gourmet, dairy-based delectables as well as those boasting main ingredients made of nuts, soy, coconut, oat, and plant blends. I am, however, amazed at these women inventors and the impact their innovations have had on the history of ice cream.
______. “Victorian Ice Cream & The Queen of Ices.” YouTube, uploaded by Tasting History with Max Miller, 3 May 2022, https://youtu.be/0Uot4uVKrVk.
Rian Farisa, “How It Was Started: Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream.” The Gastronomy Aficionado, 1 September 2014, https://gastronomy-aficionado.com/2014/09/01/liquid-nitrogen-ice-cream/.
Anne Cooper Funderburg, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995.
Robert Moss, “The Complete History of Ice Cream Cones.” Serious Eats. 13 May 2020, https://www.seriouseats.com/ice-cream-cone-history.
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Jeri Quinzio, Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, History of Soy Ice Cream and Other Non-dairy Frozen Desserts (1899-2013). Lafayette, CA: Soyinfo Center, 2013, https://www.soyinfocenter.com/pdf/167/Ice.pdf
John S. Deith, “Agnes B. Marshall (1855-1905),” and Robin Weir, “Mrs. A.B. Marshall: Ice-creammonger Extraordinary.” In Harlan Walker, ed., Cooks & Other People: Proceedings on the Oxford Symposium on Cookery 1995. Totnes, England: Prospect Books, 1996.
Marcus Wareing and Polly Russell, “Food Season: Mrs. Marshall’s Fancy Ices.” SoundCloud, uploaded by the British Library, 2018, https://soundcloud.com/the-british-library/food-season-mrs-marshalls-fancy-ices.