The Accidental Origin Of The Waffle Cone

Ice cream has a surprisingly long history: Food Unfolded explains that the first iced dairy confections were likely developed in China around 4,000 years ago, but it wasn't until the 12th century it began to appear in Europe. These iced milk mixtures called "milk ice" became a hit among Italian nobles. The recipes were tightly kept secrets, but over centuries, Italian chefs adapted the recipes, swapping milk for cream and developing new techniques, like chilling it with salt.

Eventually, ice cream began to spread throughout Europe and later to America. Once exclusively eaten by the upper class, the frozen treat became a widely available street food. By 1870, London was full of vendors selling ice cream — often Italian immigrants who brought the recipe from Italy.

However, ice cream wasn't always sold in cones. According to the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum, 19th-century ice cream vendors sold their wares in small, conical glasses called "penny licks." Penny licks were made of thick glass, which made it seem like the cup contained more than it really did. The thick glass also helped keep the cups from breaking, since they were re-used from customer to customer, typically without being washed. After a report blamed penny licks for a cholera epidemic, London banned them in 1899.

The ban may have temporarily put a hold on the ice cream industry in England, but a clever innovation soon changed the way that ice cream was sold.

Vendors at the St. Louis World's Fair helped popularize the waffle cone

As per the International Dairy Foods Association, an Italian immigrant named Italo Marchiony produced the first modern ice cream cone in 1896 and patented his invention in 1903. However, legend states that waffle cones were independently invented in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair by Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian baker. Hamwi was selling pastries next to an ice cream vendor when his neighbor ran out of dishes. Hamwi grabbed a zalabi — a waffle-like Syrian pastry — and rolled it into a cone. It was a hit, and the waffle cone was born.

Soon, copycat bakers around America were producing ice cream cones and developing new techniques to produce them. Hamwi himself founded the Missouri Cone Company in 1910.

However, like much of history, the story is up for debate. Throughout the early 20th century, several different inventors laid claim to the invention, resulting in hotly contested lawsuits. Serious Eats finds that the story of a spur-of-the-moment invention is suspect, but acknowledges that the World's Fair helped popularize ice cream cones.

Either way, the modern ice cream cone required creativity and invitation and changed the way we eat ice cream. Today, the innovation continues, with ice cream delivery drones and unique flavors like Grey Poupon. As for whether or not these inventions will stand the test of time like the ice cream cone, only time will tell.