Do you like your ice cream in a cone or a cup? If you were living in England in the 1880’s, your answer could be life-altering. Why?

Ice cream was a popular summertime treat in England in the 1800s and was usually sold in a  “penny lick”, a short thick glass cup. Shallow enough you could lick your ice cream out without a spoon, penny lick cups were re-used and rarely washed. Or perhaps they were rinsed out between users, but the vendors used the same rinse water all day. Are you horrified yet? Not if you lived in Victorian England you weren’t, because the Germ Theory didn’t exist yet, and the idea that invisible animals caused disease would have been laughable.

Let’s think about what was going on in the mid-1800s.

  • It was well understood at the time that diseases were punishment from God, or were caused by foul air, called miasma, such as stinky air from slums or swamps.
  • Then the terrible world-wide cholera epidemic killed thousands of people in London in the 1830-50s. John Snow, a physician, drew a map of London, marking the location of every cholera death. Noticing a cluster in Soho, he traced the epicenter of the deaths to a contaminated water pump on Broad Street. The cholera in that area ceased when the handle to the water pump was removed.
  • It was not long after that, in 1855, that Louis Pasteur did his pioneering work on fermentation, realizing that microscopic organisms caused fermentation.
  • And a couple of decades after that, Robert Koch’s seminal work led to the discovery of the germ causing Anthrax.
  • Thus, the concept that there was a specific germ for each disease, the Germ Theory, was born.

But I digress, back to the penny lick. In 1879, an article in the respected medical journal The Lancet, blamed cholera outbreaks on penny lick cups. In 1882, Robert Koch, still busy, discovered the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, the scourge of the Victorian era. Penny licks began to fall out of favor. Finally, in 1899, a law was passed in England banning penny licks, such was the fear of cholera, tuberculosis, and the newly discovered germs.

But never fear, ice cream still had a future and a great new delivery system. The entrepreneurial Gladys Watson, living in Manchester, England, had been busy churning out recipes and cookbooks. She and her husband always had their eyes open for new businesses. In 1888, she wrote The Book of Ices, an entire book of recipes for ices and ice creams, no doubt as a means to increase sales of her recently patented ice cream makers and tiny ice cream coolers. Included was a recipe for cornets, crisp waffles curved into a cornucopia shape, perfect for filling with ice cream. The ice cream cone soared in popularity.

So, ice cream cones were not really invented because they taste great. They came about in response to the fear of contagion, especially the fear of tuberculosis and cholera, and the growing understanding that germs could spread from one person to another.

So, I ask, what’ll it be? Cup or cone?