Ice Cream Trucks, Then and Now

For more than 130 years, we've enjoyed our ice cream on the go. How's that going?

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Modern updated Good Humor truck with chest freezers and TV screens
Image: Good Humor

As summer draws to a close, the sound I’ll miss the most is the ice cream truck jingle. Recently, I heard the familiar tune nearby and decided to test my luck. When I finally made it to the vehicle, two grown men were in line before me, so excited at the prospect of Drumsticks and Chaco Tacos (RIP) that they had neglected to put on shoes.

Running after ice cream trucks on hot summer days might be a distant memory for most of us, but some companies (and members of the Wu-Tang Clan) have tried to keep the institution feeling fresh, making advances to these OG food trucks that help them better fit into the modern era.

A brief history of ice cream trucks

Before the truck came the cart. In the late 1800s, ice cream vendors peddled their sugary wares from wooden push carts. The invention of electrical refrigeration at the turn of the 20th century paved the way for Harry Burt, founder of Good Humor (now owned by Unilever), to create the first truck dedicated to selling ice cream on the go.

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In the early 1920s, Burt outfitted a dozen pickup trucks with freezers, and the fleet took to the streets to bring his new Good Humor ice cream bars to the masses. By the 1950s, there were over 2,000 Good Humor trucks operating across the United States.

Good Humor reigned supreme until 1956, when brothers William and James Conway founded Mister Softee and created some fierce competition. The Conways invented a soft serve machine that could be installed directly into ice cream trucks. They also innovated by selling their soft serve from step vans, meaning the driver could go directly from the cab to the freezer area and sell from a side window, whereas Good Humor drivers had to exit their trucks to distribute their wares. Good Humor sold its fleet of ice cream trucks in 1976 in order to “focus on selling in grocery stores,” per its website. Some of the vehicles sold to individuals and other vendors continued to operate as independent ice cream trucks.

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Ice cream trucks of the future

In 2019, Nissan introduced the first zero-emissions ice cream truck to help offset the emissions from exhaust pipes on older trucks and the electricity wasted from older models of refrigerators. The automotive company even used recycled Nissan batteries to create a portable power pack for the onboard freezer equipment.

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Even the humble ice cream cart has received a sustainable upgrade. In 2014, Unilever introduced solar-powered ice cream carts throughout Central Park in New York City. While the solar carts are no longer installed in the park, there are more industry-wide initiatives underway to make the business of selling ice cream greener.

In May, Unilever announced a partnership with Robomart to create a hailable ice cream truck called The Ice Cream Shop, an extension of its online storefront of the same name. The rollout began in Los Angeles, where users can order a mobile mini mart to arrive at their front door and shop the truck’s selection of Unilever ice creams. (Despite the name Robomart, these trucks are operated by a human.)

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Self-driving ice cream trucks are a possibility, but there are lots of logistics to work out before you’ll have to worry about dodging sentient trucks blaring a hip ice cream jingle (more on that later). And in some parts of the country, customers can even live out their Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs fantasies by placing an order for flying ice cream. As a further extension of The Ice Cream Shop, Unilever has partnered with the company Flytrex in a few test markets, and now customers in select areas of North Carolina and Texas can get ice cream delivered via drone in under three minutes.

That old, familiar tune

The original ice cream trucks didn’t play jingles; they announced their presence with bells. Harry Burt first outfitted his trucks with bells he designed based on his son’s bobsled bell, in order to invoke nostalgia for late 19th-century ice cream parlors. In 1929, a Good Humor franchise owner in California named Paul Hawkins put a mechanical music box under the hood of his truck and played the Czech folk song “Stodola Pumpa” to announce his arrival. In time, composers started creating songs specifically for ice cream trucks.

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Hate to break it to you, but the most recognizable ice cream truck song is, well, racist. The actual melody of “Turkey in the Straw” dates back to the early 19th century and chronicles the immigrant experience along the Appalachian Trail. But in 1916, actor Harry C. Browne rewrote the lyrics for traveling minstrel shows, and in turn, ice cream parlors played the popular minstrel tunes of the time. That’s how you get ice cream trucks, even in the 21st century, playing a song with what NPR calls “the most racist song title in America.”

A next-generation ice cream truck jingle

Recently, ice cream and hip hop joined forces to usher in a new era of ice cream trucks. RZA of the Wu Tang Clan partnered with Good Humor to create a new ice cream truck jingle to replace “Turkey in the Straw.” A representative from Good Humor told me that the brand “[continues its] efforts to help as many ice cream truck drivers access the new jingle” as possible by making it available on the Good Humor website. It’s a mashup of traditional ice cream truck melodies infused with jazz and hip hop—honestly, it’s a bop.

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Before we enter the increasingly confusing pumpkin spice season, try to chase down one last ice cream truck before summer ends. After all, who knows what ice cream trucks will look like next summer? Hopefully they never go fully extinct, but rather continue to evolve, keeping up with the times and finding new ways to appeal to ice cream lovers. There may come a time when the only ice cream truck kids encounter is the one in the Smithsonian, but we hope that’s not for another century at least.