After Hours

Geek Trivia: Sweetness and lies

What famous American intellectual invented a false origin for the ice cream sundae?


There is perhaps no mystery so difficult for a Trivia Geek to unravel than the origins of a pop cultural icon—especially when both product marketing and civic pride are involved—and there's no better example of this quandary than the ice cream sundae.

While several American communities declare themselves to be the birthplace of this iconic confection, none have been able to indisputably substantiate a claim of "inventing" the ice cream sundae.

Like all such claims, it begins with the definition of an ice cream sundae. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a sundae as "ice cream served with topping (as crushed fruit, syrup, nuts, or whipped cream)."

According to historical accounts, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed vanilla ice cream topped with maple syrup, suggesting that sundae-like desserts date at least to the 18th century. What's at stake here is the oddly spelled name for these dishes—sundaes—and who came up with it first.

One of the most oft-cited origin stories for the term "ice cream sundae" names Evanston, IL, as the hometown of this famous dessert. Circa 1890, this socially conservative suburb of Chicago instituted a range of "blue laws" that forbade the sale of carbonated soda water on Sundays, a rule that hit soda fountain proprietors directly in the pocketbook.

In response, soda jerks began a Sundays-only practice of serving scoops of ice cream topped with soda syrup—basically, an ice cream soda without the banned soda. Thus, economic necessity gave birth to the ice cream sundae.

While this origin is plausible enough—and the legal record offers a specific time frame for these blue laws—there's little in the way of definitive proof that Evanston served up the first ice cream treat called a sundae.

Further clouding the issue is the fact that a famous American intellectual publicized a highly dubious "origin" for the ice cream sundae, which still hasn't been fully debunked.

WHAT FAMOUS AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL INVENTED A FALSE ORIGIN FOR THE ICE CREAM SUNDAE?

What famous American intellectual invented a false origin for the ice cream sundae, a ruse so well received that some sources still cite it as a possible etymological source for the word "sundae"?

The guilty party is famed social critic, newspaper columnist, political commentator, essayist, and linguistic scholar H. L. Mencken, whose studies of the American language as a unique form of English are still highly regarded. Mencken lent his voice and notable newspaper and magazine presence to the story of a pair of soda fountain owners in the Wisconsin towns of Two Rivers and Manitowoc, whose rivalry purportedly gave birth to the ice cream sundae.

According to Mencken's account, Two Rivers ice cream parlor proprietor Edward C. Berners honored the unlikely request of a customer to pour soda syrup onto a dish of ice cream, and this combination found popularity as a Sunday-only special.

When a subsequent customer, a 10-year-old-girl, ordered the special on another day of the week, Berners agreed to "pretend it was Sunday." And so the misspelled but always available "sundae" was born.

To further embellish the tale, Mencken created a rival to Berners in the nearby town of Manitowoc: George Giffy. Giffy sold dishes of vanilla ice cream at five cents apiece, but he eventually received requests to top these treats with chocolate syrup.

To ensure a profit, he charged an extra nickel, a late-19th-century expense that limited these dishes to once-a-week luxuries. Giffy marketed the popular topped ice cream desserts to his Sunday after-church crowds and renamed the concoction to the more polite "sundae."

Mencken claimed both Wisconsin sundae origins predated all others, but he later admitted each was a hoax. Mencken's name and the plausibility of the stories have kept them alive—and still believed—to this day.

In any case, we may never really know the true etymology of "sundae." But here's what we do know: The earliest advertisement for an ice cream sundae ran in the Ithaca, NY, Daily Journal newspaper on April 6, 1892. And we've been enjoying these tasty confections—and the associated trivia—ever since.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

My latest pitfalls came to pass in the March 31 edition of Geek Trivia, "A lighter moment," when I failed to be clear about the thrust of Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, A Modest Proposal. Reader Dave42 offers the details of my slipup below:

"In your article, you stated: 'In a possible reference to Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay A Modest Proposal, wherein the author of Gulliver's Travels caustically suggests that the impoverished and underfed Irish people resort to cannibalism...'

"[Here's a] quote from A Modest Proposal: 'I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children' (source: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html).

"It seems that Jonathan Swift was suggesting that the rich buy the poor children as food, so it would be the rich indulging in cannibalism, and the poor uplifting themselves with the money that the sales brought in. The poor themselves were not to resort to cannibalism."

Sorry if I misrepresented Swift's ideas to all you nonliterary geeks out there, and a special thanks to Dave42, who has finally proven to all my college English professors that I never did the assigned reading.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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