When Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1920, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, the law nearly decimated the alcohol industry. But it helped give the nascent ice cream business a sweet boost.

Between 1919 and 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits plummeted from $365 million to less than $13 million, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The few breweries that survived to the end of Prohibition in 1933 did so by pivoting—producing everything from ceramics and farm equipment to American cheese, candy and malt syrup. Iconic breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling turned, in part, to ice cream production.

“As men sought alternatives to having a drink at the local saloon, many ate ice cream more often,” wrote Anne Cooper Funderburg, the author of Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream, driving an estimated 40 percent growth in consumption between 1920 and 1929. A song from a Pacific Ice Cream Manufacturers Convention in 1920 declared, “Gone are the days when Father was a souse,” and that now, instead of beer, he brings home a brick of ice cream.

The Anti-Saloon League, the most powerful lobby for Prohibition, eagerly supported the dairy industry, trying to take credit for the growth of the ice cream market. “It is believed that this large increase in ice cream consumption was due in a large degree to the fact that men with a craving for stimulants turned readily to this refreshing and palatable food,” reported the organization’s yearbook in 1921. “The more ice cream that is used, the better it is for the consumers and the producers of milk.” 

Other factors driving the ice cream boom included the expansion of soda fountains, improved methods of refrigeration and innovations in ice cream production. The latter two, in particular, helped bring frozen desserts to a national market, with competitive development of new single-serve products like the chocolate-covered ice cream bar, the Popsicle and the ice cream-filled Dixie Cup.

Soda Fountains

Soda Fountain, c. 1920
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A barman serving a soda to costumers, c. 1920.

As sugary drinks became America’s favorite alcohol replacement in the 1920s, companies like Coca-Cola grew into behemoths and soda fountains replaced saloons as the place where people gathered to socialize in public. In 1922, The New York Times estimated the U.S. had more than 100,000 soda fountains—most of which were situated in drugstores—with $1 billion in sales. But ice cream played a key role in soda, as fountain mixologists, not unlike saloon bartenders, concocted drinks that mixed the two—like the Coke float. Some got more creative: Proprietors of a soda fountain in Aspen, Colorado made the Aspen Crud, a cocktail of ice cream laced with bourbon, taking advantage of laws that enabled drugstores to sell alcohol for medicinal purposes.

A song from a Pacific Ice Cream Manufacturers Convention in 1920 declared, 'Gone are the days when Father was a souse'—and that now, instead of beer, he brings home a brick of ice cream.

Mass Producing Ice Cream

Ice Cream during Prohibition
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A man selling frozen treats from a street stall, c. 1922.

The surge in ice cream’s popularity during Prohibition coincided with the development of more efficient means of refrigeration both at soda fountains and private homes, as well as less labor-intensive methods to make ice cream. Countertop freezers allowed busy soda fountain operators to store large quantities of ice cream, but the process of making it using a manual crank could be an arduous task. In 1926, Clarence Vogt, an inventor from Louisville, Kentucky, made it possible to mass produce ice cream on an industrial scale when he created the first commercially successful continuous process freezer. Vogt’s machine, which allowed the ingredients to be poured in at one end of the machine and ice cream to come out the other end, led to “true mass marketing” of ice cream and the proliferation of the boom that started with the onset of Prohibition, according to Diana Rosen, the author of The Ice Cream Lover’s Companion.

Put a Stick in It

Through the 1920s, several entrepreneurs were developing their own innovations to help make standardized frozen treats that were less messy and more portable, allowing them to be sold at volume in amusement parks, boardwalks and other large public venues. In January 1922, an Iowa schoolteacher named Christian Nelson patented the Eskimo Pie, a single-serve bar of vanilla ice cream covered in a thin chocolate shell. Harry Burt, a Chicago-based confectioner, became the first to put a stick in such chocolate-covered ice cream treats with the Good Humor bar, patenting his process and machinery in 1923. Burt revolutionized the industry by launching a fleet of refrigerated trucks driven by snappily white-clad “Good Humor men” dispensing bars, cones and cups directly to neighborhoods around the country.

In 1923, Dixie Cups hit the market, offering a 2.5-ounce serving of two ice cream flavors in disposable paper cups. That year, the A&P grocery store chain put ice cream cabinets in 1,500 of its stores, making it possible for consumers to buy their favorite frozen treat at the food market.

And in 1924, Frank Epperson’s Popsicle Corporation filed for a patent on the process to create flavored ice treats on a stick, something Epperson had famously invented almost two decades earlier as a young man after leaving a syrupy drink out in the cold overnight with a stirring stick in it. In 1924, his burgeoning Popsicle Corporation reported sales of 6.5 million units. Ultimately, frozen treats on a stick became the subject of numerous contentious copyright-infringement lawsuits. After Epperson’s majority investor made a deal with Good Humor, the Popsicle inventor divested himself of his company, sold his patent and left the frozen treat business.

The Ice Cream Boom Fades

By the late 1920s and early ’30s, the ice cream industry was hit by a double whammy: the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition. After that, “World War II, with its quotas on milk and sugar, further dampened ice cream enthusiasm,” wrote Gail Damerow, the author of Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop. The industry surged again after the war, yet it was the spark of Prohibition and the temporary dismantling of one industry that helped elevate another to unprecedented heights—an impact that forever changed the U.S. ice cream business.