Ice Cream Vending With a Drizzle of Cholera and a Sprinkling of Tuberculosis

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the end of the Napoleonic wars saw many Italians move to Britain. They brought with them their own techniques for making smooth, creamy ice cream – gelato. Gelato vendors would go around the streets with carts selling their wares in what were called penny licks – small, conical cups made from glass, with thick bases to make it look like there was more in them than there actually was. For the price of a penny, customers would lick the glass clean and hand it back to the vendor, who would rinse it and reuse it for the next customer. The conical shape of the penny lick made them hard to properly clean, meaning that the germs from one customer were easily passed on to the next.

Penny lick

During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, when penny licks became popular, germs had not yet been discovered. The orthodox model for understanding disease was based in a belief in miasma. According to this theory, disease was spread by particles of decomposed material, or miasmata, which could be found in foul-smelling air, contaminated water, and unhygienic living conditions. As a result, infection was linked to specific locations rather than people. Germ theory as a contradictory model for understanding the spread of disease did not begin to gain momentum until the 1850s, when John Snow published his research on the 1845 London cholera epidemic in which he traced the disease to the Broad Street water pump. Later that decade Louis Pasteur discovered that living microorganisms were responsible for fermentation, which led him to believe that such bacteria were also responsible for diseases. It was not until the 1870s, however, when Robert Koch discovered the microorganism responsible for Anthrax, that there was undeniable proof that germs caused particular diseases.

These changing attitudes to disease can be seen in the history of the penny lick. An article in 1879 in medical journal the Lancet blamed outbreaks of cholera on the reuse of glassware, saying that ‘For cleaning they are dipped into dirty water which contains the mouth secretions of previous buyers, swabbed with a  small, wet offensive cloth and up-ended on a soiled barrow top’. Robert Koch’s later discovery of the microorganism responsible for tuberculosis in 1882 would eventually lead to a law being passed in London in 1899 which banned penny licks.

The upside of this ban was not only that it helped to hinder the spread of contagious diseases, but it led to the invention of the ice cream cone. In 1888 Agnes B. Marshall included a recipe for an edible cone to hold ice cream in her cookery book, and in 1902 Antonio Valvona, an Italian living in Manchester, patented a machine for making conical biscuits to hold gelato after getting the idea travelling around Belgium.

So next time you’re enjoying your 99 and complaining that it doesn’t cost 99p anymore, be grateful that nineteenth-century health and safety laws mean that you get a flake with it and not an infectious disease.

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