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What the Ice Cream Truck Teaches Us About America

Western civilization will survive so long as our neighborhoods still have these mobile delights.
ice cream truck

The ice cream truck—like the neon sign, the diner, and the roadside motel—is a piece of quintessential Americana. It’s the kind of thing that makes my skepticism of suburbia recede in a little wave of nostalgia. (The ice cream truck does exist in other countries, but it seems to have an iconic status mostly in the Anglosphere.)

It’s a funny thing that even though I grew up in exurban-rural central New Jersey, a place with no ice cream trucks and not much mid-century roadside clutter either, I still feel that nostalgia when I hear them drive by. Not to get too Jungian, but it’s the sort of thing that makes up an American collective unconscious, one little piece of an admittedly thin, but still distinct and unique, American culture.

Reston, Virginia, where I live now, is built more densely than a lot of suburban places, and it still has ice cream trucks. There’s an extensive 55-mile trail system that runs throughout the town, winding in and out of housing developments. While walking along the trails, I can occasionally hear their earworm tunes, part music box and part obsolete synthesizer. It’s reminiscent of a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith briefly catches the scent of real coffee—a forbidden luxury—while walking down a street. An old world is gone, but never quite snuffed out. (In one Internet thread on ice cream trucks, someone mentioned that his neighborhood still has a knife-sharpening truck. My father saw these growing up on Long Island in the post-war years, and I had no idea they still existed.)

The ice cream truck traces its history mostly back to New York City, where immigrants developed and hawked all sorts of frozen confections, transforming ice cream from an upper-class luxury to a street food. As refrigeration technology improved and the suburbs were built, the ice cream truck as we still know it was born. Fascinatingly, Prohibition also helped explode the market for ice cream, as frozen and sugary replaced boozy as the vice of choice. The ice cream truck’s basic design has been tweaked in the years since midcentury, but it remains more or less the same, a living fossil in a whirlwind of a commercial culture.

More than the mediocre ice cream, it’s probably the music that helped imprint these trucks in the broad American culture. My dad once said that one thing you’ll never forget in old age is the handful of top radio hits when you were a teenager. The same is true of ice cream truck tunes, along with childhood advertising jingles. If you want to take a deep dive or find a tune from your own childhood, there’s even a YouTube playlist of 43 ice cream truck jingles.

The technology inside the trucks’ song boxes is a bit more modern than in decades past—they used to be actual music boxes, and are mostly digital today—but not much has changed there either. In fact, a company founded in the 1950s still makes the music boxes for most ice cream trucks.

It’s a reminder of how fragile and fleeting popular and commercial culture can be. What if that single company goes out of business? Will anyone build a brand new ice cream truck music box factory in 2018?

It’s a similar situation to that of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Lake George, New York—the last one in the nation, in a chain that used to boast 1,000 locations. The restaurant retains the classic menu but tweaked it because all the old suppliers—including, fittingly, the plant that produced the famous 28 ice cream flavors—are gone.

It is interesting that the afterlives of things like this are longer than their actual lives. Like cassette tapes, they are still chugging along here and there decades after their relatively short heyday, often kept alive by only one or two factories anywhere on earth.

The history of the ice cream truck also reveals something about the American economy: America in its midcentury heyday was actually closer to a developing country than we think. The Good Humor bar, the ice cream sandwich, the soft-serve machine, the refrigerated truck itself, were all still recent innovations. There was an entrepreneurial rough-and-tumble in those days. The America that produced the ice cream truck was the America in which a mailroom staffer could become a CEO, or in which a friendly eccentric hawking fried chicken door to door could become a fast food magnate. It was also, at least within recent memory, the America in which Coca-Cola was a drug-spiked “medicine,” and the America that could still remember the publication of The Jungle and How the Other Half Lives.   

But more cheerfully, the endurance of the ice cream truck should give us hope for the future of civilization. Northern Virginia is ground zero for the double-income-no-kids demographic death spiral that social conservatives love to bemoan, yet here are ice cream trucks driving all over the streets. (I am fairly certain that the customers are in fact children and not man-child Millennials; after all, they’re not brunch trucks.)

There has been some decline; a Quora thread gives some insights. Kids spend more time indoors; soft-serve ice cream, plus coffee, milkshakes, and smoothies, are available in far more places than in the 1950s and ’60s; licensing and other regulatory concerns make operating a truck more expensive. And yes, there probably are fewer kids.

Some of the trucks, also, have been transmogrified into something else: the urban food truck, a piece of trendy culture that has nothing to do with lazy childhood afternoons in the 1950s or dirt-poor immigrants selling ice cream to scrape together a living. Some of these mobile businesses retain the egalitarian truck but sell the sort of “artisanal” ice cream you see in Whole Foods for $8 a pint (it wasn’t that long ago that ice cream came in half-gallons). It’s like the recent rebirth of the roadside motel as a luxury accommodation.

But plenty of those classic old ice cream trucks still exist, roaming cul-de-sacs and winding streets, advertising a fantastic array of multicolor superhero popsicles they probably don’t really have in stock, perking up ears with those electro-mechanical jingles. One article notes that “there are more than 400 Mister Softee franchises employing more than 700 trucks across 15 states,” and Mister Softee isn’t even the only ice cream truck brand. Where those trucks survive, there are children, families, and everyday people living normal lives.

Call it the “ice cream truck test”: you shouldn’t worry about the death of Western civilization so long as the average suburban American neighborhood still has ice cream trucks. And maybe you should get ice cream too.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.