How Ice Cream Was Stored Before Modern Refrigeration

It's almost unthinkable in today's world to store ice cream any other way than by placing it in the freezer. But considering the dessert can be traced all the way back to the second century B.C.E. and the first gas freezer didn't come about until 1857, previous generations of ice cream eaters had to find some way to make it work. As it turns out, it was completely possible to store this frozen treat before the appliances we use today were invented, but it's also true that it required much more effort than it does nowadays.

Essentially, you needed to have a good amount of ice around all the time, or at least until you were done with your ice cream, in order to keep the treat cold before modern refrigeration. Accounts of the dessert's storage in the mid-1800s indicate that it had to be placed in a container with ice and salt, then be submerged in ice. When it was time to eat, you'd need to rinse the container in cold water to get rid of the salt. Unsurprisingly, the only households that could afford to have massive amounts of ice nearby (typically kept in ice house pits or cellars) were royals or the wealthy. If you didn't fall in those categories, you'd need to down your ice cream within a few hours.

Ice pits were insulated with straw and wood

So where did citizens in the 1800s get all this ice to stock their pits and cellars? From rivers and ponds in the colder months, and primarily from Norway, Canada, and the U.S. The ice could then be transported across land and sea, and once it arrived at various shops and households, it was kept cold in cellars layered with straw, reeds, and other types of wood. It wasn't just ice cream that was stored in these underground pits, as they were also used for meat and other foods that could spoil in the heat. In fact, ice harvesting was a booming industry that ramped up in the beginning of the 19th century.

By the early 1900s, refrigeration was becoming a little more advanced. The invention of the electric refrigerator in 1913 meant that food could be kept cold without hauling in big buckets of ice, and new cookbooks came out featuring recipes for ice cream that used the device. Not only did this make it easier for home cooks to whip up the dessert, it also allowed ice cream to take off in shops and restaurants around the country.