The Debated Origin Of The Banana Split

Though the true origin of the banana split is unclear, one thing is for sure: The dessert was popularized by drug store soda fountains at the start of the 20th century.

Pharmacy Times explains that drug store soda fountains first got their start in the 1850s. At the time, pharmacists mixed cures for headaches and indigestion into flavored sodas and sold them to customers. When prohibition outlawed alcohol, soda fountains, staffed by "soda jerks," became a popular place to socialize in lieu of bars. According to Atlas Obscura, being a soda jerk was more than just "jerking" a lever and pouring out a glass of delicious, carbonated elixir; in addition to dispensing pharmaceuticals, the job required the ability to blend syrups, crack eggs, and even juggle utensils for customers' enjoyment, all at a whirlwind pace. Through the 1930s and 1940s, half a million soda jerks were employed nationwide, earning their place in American popular culture.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the soda jerk, though, was the way they mixed flavors and ingredients to invent entirely new combinations. While soda fountains are now seen as a symbol of a bygone era, many of the treats first sold at these establishments live on. According to Food 52, ice cream sundaes were likely invented in Ithaca, New York, by druggist Chester Platt. His cherry-topped creation soon became a hit nationwide hit, and led the way for another iconic soda fountain creation: the banana split.

Two towns dispute the banana split's origin

According to NPR, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Ohio, both lay claim to the banana split. Wilmington claims that local restaurateur E.R. Hazard invented the banana split in 1907. Reportedly, Hazard created the dessert to attract students from the nearby Wilmington College to his establishment. Latrobe citizens, meanwhile, attest that the dessert was invented in 1904 by apprentice pharmacist David Strickler — and most historians agree. According to Penn State University, Strickler spit a banana in two and topped it with ice cream and sauces when challenged to produce something "different." 

Strickler's invention soon became a hit: According to local legend, Strickler commissioned a glass factory to make long, banana-shaped ice cream bowls in 1905. At one point there was even a receipt, allegedly — but this crucial piece of evidence has been lost to history.

Both Wilmington and Latrobe host local festivals to celebrate the split: Latrobe celebrates with music, games, and beauty pageants, though Wilmington's festival was put on hiatus in 2022 due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the classic banana split is still a popular way to enjoy ice cream — along with modern variations like grilled banana splits. Wherever the dessert was first invented, one thing is certain: It'll remain a favorite with ice cream fans for decades to come.