Death by Ice Cream – JSTOR Daily

In Victorian America, ice cream became an increasingly popular dessert. As historian Edward Geist writes, it was also dangerous at times, with semi-regular reports of whole groups of picnickers or fair-goers falling terribly ill with stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea. . Some, usually children, died.

Geist explains that the widespread availability of ice cream in the mid-19th century was due to the boom in the ice cream trade, the abundant production of sugar, and the invention of the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. The favorite custard-based ice creams of the wealthy remained too expensive for most people, but “Philadelphia-style” eggless ice cream or even cheaper flavored ice creams were widely available.

The hygienic practices of the vendors who sold these treats were, to a 21st century observer, horrifying. They often used reusable glass dishes, which were simply wiped down between customers. And some re-frozen melted ice cream, which we now know, provides a perfect opportunity for bacterial growth.

In an early incident in 1854 described by Geist, attendees at a festival in Beverly, Massachusetts fell ill after eating pineapple ice cream. Doctors blamed this and other similar incidents on the flavorings of butyric ether, which was made from a component of rancid butter. Some blamed other poisoning incidents on the colorings used in ice cream, which was frequently contaminated with arsenic.

These additives quickly fell out of favor, but the ice cream poisonings continued. In the 1870s doctors blamed many such occurrences on “vanillin poisoning”, although they struggled to explain why it only happened with ice cream and not with other products using artificial vanilla flavor.

Some have even attributed the eruption of “poisoning” to simple overeating. “All the laws of digestion are violated at the so-called ‘ice cream’ festival,” wrote Dr. JW Kales of Franklinville, New York. “Every boy takes particular pleasure in gorging himself and his ‘best girl’ not only on ice cream, cakes, sweets, etc., but on all sorts of indigestible substances.”

It was only the fact that so many festival-goers had stomach aches at once that produced the mass poisoning reports, Kales suggested.

In the 1880s, some scientists blamed a new villain that was becoming increasingly prominent in the medical literature: ptomaines, compounds created by bacteria during the breakdown of tissue thought to be toxic. At the time, the study of bacteria was still in its infancy and the concept of ptomaine did not last long.

We still don’t know for sure what caused the ice cream poisonings of yesteryear. Geist suggests that the most common culprit was the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, although some may also have been caused by other bacteria or, as many suspected at the time, by dangerous adulteration.

But even if the science behind it wasn’t quite right, the ptomaine hypothesis has led to practical improvements in dairy manufacturing and handling. The last two decades of the century brought a series of national and local regulations regarding industrial sanitation, helping to usher in ice cream that we can eat without fear that it will lead to our demise.


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From: Edward Geist

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 86, no. 3 (autumn 2012), p. 333–360

Johns Hopkins University Press

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