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The first cold war: Popsicle vs. Good Humor

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As a warning, it may be important to note that reading this column may have the same effect it had on the woman writing it. (I must have a Popsicle or Good Humor right now!)

But it wasn’t always as easy as screaming (and going to the freezer, or deli). These things had to be invented, and I think we owe those stone-cold geniuses a salute.

The Popsicle

If it weren’t for Frank Epperson, we wouldn’t have the Popsicle. And if it weren’t for his kids, we’d be licking Epsicles, which sounds almost obscene. Here’s the story.

One night in 1905, when Frank was 11, he left a glass filled with water, Kool-Aid (or its 1905 equivalent), and the stick he was stirring them with out on his porch. This was in Oakland, the Brooklyn of San Francisco.

You know how they say it’s always beautiful weather in California? Ha. The cup of sweetened water froze solid. Frank pulled it out by the stick and — well, I think you can tell where this is going.

He made these stick treats for his friends and, years later, he made them for his kids, too, calling them “Epsicles” — a mashup of his name plus icicles. But his kids called them Pop’s Icles, because they were made by their pop, and they convinced their dad to change the name.

Epperson started selling the Popsicles at Neptune Beach, Oakland’s Coney Island. So novel were they that they had to be described to the public as a “frozen lollipop,” or a “drink on a stick.”

They took off. By May of 1923, a single stand at the real Coney Island (in the real Brooklyn) sold 8,000 in a day.

That same year, Epperson got a patent on his frozen treat. But, debt pressing down, he quickly sold the patent to a guy named Joe Lowe — a decision Epperson later recognized as so epically awful that he is quoted as saying, “I haven’t been the same since.”

For his part, Lowe expanded the business and, when The Great Depression hit, made the brilliant move of selling a two-stick Popsicle for the same price — five cents — so two kids could (with some persuading, perhaps) break them in half and share them. In 1986, the Popsicle company finally stopped selling doubles, supposedly swayed by moms who complained they were too messy.

One has to wonder if that was truly the case, or if 50 years after the Depression someone on staff pointed out: Why are we still selling two for one?

Anyway, now Popsicle is owned by Unilever, and Epperson is buried in the same California cemetery as another food genius: Trader Vic, inventor of the Mai Tai.

The Good Humor Bar

And what of the yin to the Popsicle’s yang: The Good Humor Bar? Well, it’s complicated — and parallel.

In 1922, an Iowa school teacher patented the Eskimo Pie, a square of vanilla ice cream enrobed in a chocolate shell (I love every word describing that pie).

At approximately the same time, in Youngstown, Ohio, Harry Burt invented a chocolate coating that also enrobed a slab of vanilla ice cream. But when his daughter said it was too messy (kids seem essential to the confection invention process), he inserted a stick. He called it the Good Humor Bar and started selling them from a fleet of 12 trucks outfitted, originally, with the bells from his son’s bobsled.

Burt applied for a patent, but the officials in D.C. demurred, concerned his invention was too similar to the Eskimo Pie. Frustrated, Burt took a bucket of Good Humor bars to D.C. and passed them around the patent office to demonstrate the difference: His had a stick. Thus satisfied (or bribed, or just plain happy), the authorities gave him his patent.

Guess what happened next? Burt sued Lowe — the guy who bought the Popsicle company — for copyright infringement. How dare Lowe sell something else frozen on a stick?

By 1925, the suit was settled out of court and the deal was basically this: Popsicle could sell ice on a stick and Good Humor could sell ice cream.

And sell they did.

By the 1950s, there were 2,000 Good Humor trucks plying the streets of suburbia. The Good Humor men (no women until 1967) were required to take a two-day class in ice cream etiquette, like, “Always tip your hat.” But by the ’70s, with gas prices, insurance, and competition (yes, I’m talking to you, Mister Softee) all going up, the company’s profits melted. Good Humor didn’t become profitable again till the ’80s, and by then, the bars were sold in stores, not streets.

Today, Good Humor is owned by Unilever, too. The bars are still delicious, but like Frank Epperson’s invention, they are no longer a mom- and (wait for it!) Popsicle business.

If you want that, cool off with some shaved ice from a cart.

Skenazy is founder of Free-Range Kids, a contributor to Reason.com, and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”

Posted 12:00 am, July 13, 2017
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