Ice Cream During the Depression

QuinzioJeri Quinzio is the author of “Ice Cream: The Ultimate Cold Comfort” and a contributor to the ice cream entry in “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America”. She has written articles on a variety of food history topics for numerous periodicals and newspapers.

Quinzio is also the author of, Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making (UC Press, May 2009). Additionally, you can listen to an interview with the author. For more information on the Jeri Quinzio and some of her favorite recipes, please visit her blog, Behind the Recipe. Due to the nation’s troubling economy, Quinzio writes about how the ice cream industry was affected by the Great Depression, in her blog below.

Ice Cream During the Depression

By: Jeri Quinzio

In 1933, the president of the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers, G. G. Kindervater, spoke words which, with very slight modification, could have been spoken by many during the last few weeks.

He said:

Everything was wonderful while we were riding the crest of the wave.

Then suddenly and without warning something happened – the wave flattened out and we found ourselves gasping for breath and struggling to get our feet on solid ground. And, we are still engaged in that struggle.

If, after reflecting upon the course of events in the past four years, we will make an appraisal we must reach the conclusion that we were not the sound, sagacious business men we pretended to be.

We were carried away with the fantastic notion that because handsome profits were being made in the industry a miracle, for which we were responsible, was being performed.

In the light of our knowledge today we realize fully that these same handsome profits acted as a powerful drug that lulled us to sleep.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, coming as it did on the heels of the repeal of Prohibition, hit the ice cream business particularly hard. During Prohibition, the dime that once went for beer often went for ice cream and the trade prospered. When Prohibition ended, beer competed for that dime once again. During the Depression, beer often won the competition. In 1929, Americans consumed nine quarts of ice cream per person a year. By 1933, consumption had dropped to five quarts.

What did ice cream makers do to cope with the downturn in sales? In addition to business consolidation, increased mechanization, and improving refrigeration, ice cream makers came up with imaginative sales and marketing strategies to rebuild business.

Top your morning cereal with a scoop of ice cream suggested one ad, reminding readers that “IT IS cream, you know.” Another recommended ice cream as protection against the common cold. Still another proposed “Reducing Diet  Sundaes,” consisting of fresh fruit and a small portion of ice cream, to attract the dieting trade.

Another approach was marketing to children. Soda fountains should offer children’s sundaes topped with gumdrops, suggested one business publication. “Catch the child’s fancy and their trade is loyal and profitable,” it reported. Giving children balloons, stamped with the name of the soda fountain or ice cream brand, along with their dish of ice cream was another idea. Providing kid-size tables and chairs was another.

Offering customers a bargain proved to be more successful. The five-cent ice cream cone was not profitable, according to a trade magazine, but it was worth it because it brought in customers. Nickel novelties including chocolate-covered ice milk bars; twin Popsicles, which allowed kids to split a Popsicle if they couldn’t each afford one; and the “Side-Walk Sundae,” called a “syrup-center nickel sensation,” all helped boost sales.

The nickel novelties and, perhaps most important, the passage of time and an improving economy, helped the business come back. By 1937, Americans were again consuming more than nine quarts of ice cream a year. Happy days were here again.