Search the Properties of Matter site Properties of Matter glossary Photos, illustrations and streaming media on the Properties of Matter site Properties of Matter table of contents Properties of Matter home page Link to NSRC home page

Reading Selection, Lesson 18

Ice Cream in the Old Days

Click here for audio and Spanish translation

Historic photograph of two boys eating ice cream in the back of a pickup truck

Delicious! But how was ice cream made without a freezer?

Which came first, ice cream or freezers? Everyone knows that a freezer is needed to store ice cream. To keep ice cream solid, it has to be stored well below the freezing point of water (0 °C). Making ice cream also requires the same low temperatures. People didn’t have freezers in the old days, so were they able to make ice cream?

The answer is yes. Most people used to make their own ice cream at home. They would have ice delivered to their house by an ice-making company, or they would use ice they had collected in winter and stored underground. They would start by making an ice cream mixture. They would combine the mixture in a metal container (one that’s good at conducting heat) and then place the container in a bucket containing crushed ice and a little water.

Historic photograph of a boy squatting down behind a car, cranking the handle of an ice cream freezer

This ice cream machine required the use of ice and salt to lower the temperature of the ice cream mixture to the point where it would freeze.

Next, they added salt to the ice. The ice would immediately start to melt. To melt, ice takes in heat from its surroundings, cooling down the container of the ice cream mixture to below the freezing point of water. They would continually stir the ice cream mixture so it produced small ice crystals, which gives ice cream its creamy texture. Sometimes they would have to use as much as a pound of salt to make the ice cream.

You can make your own ice cream by following Great Grandma's vanilla ice cream recipe. After you make it, you can add your favorite toppings.


Recipe for vanilla ice cream.
Information about the STC/MS curriculum Link to NSRC home page NSRC contact information NSRC copyright and permissions information Smithsonian Institution privacy policy Properties of Matter site map