How Blue Laws Led To The Creation Of The Ice Cream Sundae

Swirled with syrupy sauce, topped with a bouffant of whipped cream, and crowned with a cherry — the ice cream sundae might not be humanity's most practical invention, but it's arguably its most delightful. If you're lucky, a good sundae will carry you off on a candied boat to a carnival land of sugared whimsy, where all is well and good for a while. And from that first bite of the cherry to the last spoonful of gloopy ice cream, finishing one is both satisfying and poignant.

Everyone seems to have their favorite, whether it's a classic hot fudge or a jaunty banana split. Plus let's not forget the Knickerbocker Glory — a fanciful, early 1900s concoction that Atlas Obscura suggests was probably invented in New York, yet is somehow seen as being British. Even Harry Potter loves it.

And over the years, the classic sundae has branched off in endless directions. For instance, we've had the Crispy Sundae from Japanese teahouse Tsujiri in London — a combo of rice wafer, matcha ice cream, red bean paste, chestnut, and rice krispies (via The Londonist). And in 2022, McDonald's in China launched its controversial Coriander Sundae — basically vanilla soft serve, coriander crumbs, and a lurid green lemon & coriander sauce (per The Independent).

Did 'sinful' ice cream floats lead to the sundae?

Or got $1000 bucks to spare? Then put in a special order to New York City's Serendipity 3 for its Golden Opulence Sundae. Your wad of filthy dollars will buy you a sugar-crafted orchid that takes 8 hours to create, 24-carat gold leaves; Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla ice cream; fancy Chuao chocolate, chocolate truffles, candied fruit, and Armagnac-sweetened caviar. No wonder it was once the Guinness Book of World Records' Most Expensive Sundae (via Delish). But what was the actual original sundae, and what's with the bizarro spelling? 

Here's what we know. According to The Dairy Alliance, the sundae was probably the result of the Blue Laws in the U.S., a prohibition on selling alcohol on a Sunday. In the late 1800s, drinking soda was also seen as shocking and depraved in some states, meaning this was banned too. As a result, pharmacies with soda fountains saw a dip in business on that day, as they couldn't serve ice cream floats for fear of the law.

The solution? Ice cream without the soda, maybe with some chocolate syrup and a cherry on top to liven it up. Voila — the ice cream sundae was born. But here's where it gets murky, because it's not exactly clear who came up with this idea first. In fact, various U.S. towns claim to be the home of the sundae — and the rivalry is fierce.

The ongoing fight over the first sundae

For instance, Two Rivers, Wisconsin maintains that in 1881, pharmacist Edward Berners made the first ever sundae — supposedly, when a customer ordered ice cream with chocolate soda syrup on top.

Yet according to Culture Trip, Ithaca, New York has its own origin story — that on one fateful Sunday in 1892, a minister strolled into his friend Chester C. Platt's drugstore for an ice cream. To treat him, Platt added the flourish of a candied cherry and cherry syrup. The reverend was so delighted that they dubbed it a Cherry Sunday.

So far, so plausible — but as The Dairy Alliance points out, Plainfield, Illinois has also thrown its hat into the ring. This town claims that pharmacist Charles Sonntag invented the dessert, naming it after himself (Sonntag means Sunday in German).

With all of that said, Ithaca might have the most evidence, including an 1894 trademark request from Platt for the sundae concept. Whatever the exact origins, the bizarre spelling of sundae was probably a hint to customers that they could enjoy the ice cream treats any day of the week, Blue Laws or not. As Culture Trip suggests, the slight word change might also have been to avoid offending censorious church members in local communities.

Then again, maybe it was just a perky misspelling designed to draw attention, similar to Chick-fil-A or Cheez-It. Whatever the real answer, the much more pertinent question is — nuts or rainbow sprinkles?