1839 Australia’s first ice cream sellers

The Lightning Freezer allowed ice cream to be made at home

Ice cream has a long history. The story goes back hundreds or, perhaps, thousands of years before the invention of refrigeration. But before you could have ice cream, you had to have ice. If you were rich and lived somewhere with icy winters, you could preserve ice harvested from the local lakes and rivers in your specially constructed underground ice house. But, if you lived in Australia, you had little or no access to natural ice.

Some of the early colonists certainly knew how to make ice cream. It had been made in England since the 17th century by a laborious method that involved rapidly stirring cream in a pewter bowl, nestled in a surrounding bucket or bowl of ice mixed with salt. In 1839, when a sailing ship, the Tartar, arrived in Sydney carrying a cargo of ice from North American lakes, making the creamy treat in Australia was finally possible.

Theoretically, prior to 1839, someone could have scooped up hailstones or gathered enough ice on a frosty morning in the mountains. But the first time we see ice cream being sold commercially is soon after the arrival of the Tartar. A report in the Hobart Town Courier carried the news from Sydney:

ICE. – Mr. Dunsdon, the confectioner, is said to have purchased the whole of the cargo of ice imported by the Tartar, together with the ice-house and other apparatus belonging thereto. The success of the Tartar’s speculation it is anticipated will induce American traders to this colony to ballast their ships with ice.

NATIVE SIMPLICITY.- One of the native-born went into Mr. Dunsdon’s, a few days since, to taste, for the first time, an ice cream – the unsophisticated youth took rather too large a mouthful, which so operated on his sensitive nerves that he actually fainted!!!

The same year, a second confectioner, Martin Gill, advertised “water ices and ice creams” from his confectionery establishment next door to Sydney’s Victoria Theatre. By the end of the 1840s, ice was being shipped to other Australian colonies.

Advertising from 1954

The trade was short-lived, as manufactured ice soon became available. In 1848, David Dunlop of the Scotch Confectionery Warehouse, Melbourne, advertised the products of his recently purchased “patent freezing machine”. By the mid-1850s ice-making machines such as the system developed in Geelong, Victoria, by James Harrison were producing plentiful supplies of ice. Making ice cream became something of a cottage industry, with many small operators hand-churning it in their homes and shops. Even the home cook could produce it, using devices such as the Lightning Freezer, invented in the USA in the 1880s and soon imported to Australia.

In 1910, the Board of Public Health in Victoria moved to regulate ice cream manufacture, requiring that it take place in a building that was not a dwelling. This discouraged small operators and favoured larger companies, including Sennitt’s and Peters, both of which had begun operations in the preceding decade. In reaction to the proposed regulations, a group of small manufacturers banded together to form Co-operative Ice Cream Ltd., sharing facilities at the Melbourne ice skating rink, the Glaciarium. However, a cooler-than-expected summer led to disappointing sales and the company was wound up the following year.

The first decade of the 20th century saw many ice cream companies formed around the country. Most, including Melbourne’s Snowdrop, Broken Hill’s Electra, Perth’s Bluebell and Newcastle’s Victor have long since vanished. Streets, founded in Wollongong in 1920 is one of the few survivors. And, like its rival Peters, it’s now owned by a multi-national.

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