The Birthplace of Ice Cream Sundaes

History, On the Road, Traditions
on July 8, 2007

To savor a sundae in the city where the ice cream treat originated, head to Ithaca, N.Y., or Two Rivers, Wis. Both claim to be the birthplace of the cool confection and aren’t above taking a few licks at each other—all in good taste, of course.

While the recipe for the sundae is as sweet and uncomplicated as a summer breeze—a scoop of ice cream smothered with strawberry preserves, melted chocolate, or another favorite sauce or syrup, and topped with whipped cream and a cherry—its precise history is dubious.

Exactly who first poured syrup over ice cream and coined it a “sundae” is an ongoing debate between officials in Ithaca and Two Rivers. But, actually, people have been adding toppings to ice cream for centuries.

“Thomas Jefferson poured maple syrup on his ice cream, but he didn’t invent the sundae,” says Michael Turback, author of A Month of Sundaes and More Than a Month of Sundaes. “The genius is in calling it a sundae and putting the cherry on top.”

In Two Rivers, a large historical marker in downtown Central Park proclaims that the ice cream sundae was invented in 1881 at Edward Berners’ soda fountain. Customer George Hallauer spied a bottle of chocolate syrup used for ice cream sodas and asked Berners to add some to his ice cream. “Berners said, ‘It’ll spoil the ice cream,’” says Walter Vogl, 83, president of the Two Rivers Historical Society. Berners, nonetheless, obliged and the chocolate-covered ice cream became a popular treat in Two Rivers (pop. 12,639).

“Berners was a jovial guy and wanted people to be happy,” Vogl says. “He followed up and made more concoctions.” He sprinkled and splashed plain vanilla ice cream with chopped nuts, bananas, raspberry juice and puffed rice, and gave his creations fanciful names, such as Flora Dora and Jennie Flip. An extra-large serving of ice cream drenched in fruit juices was called a Two Rivers. The fancy nickel desserts were sold only on Sundays, possibly because Berners was losing money on them and didn’t want to increase his price, Vogl says. At any rate, it was tradition to serve them as Sunday specials.

The “sundae” label came about after a 10-year-old girl asked for ice cream “with that stuff on top,” saying they could “pretend it was Sunday.” When a glassware salesman placed an order for canoe-shaped dishes for serving the fancy dessert, he called them “sundae” dishes.

“They didn’t want to make fun of a religious day so they spelled it ‘sundae,’” Vogl says. A replica of Berners’ ice cream parlor operates year-round inside the Washington House, an 1850s hotel and saloon, where Vogl and volunteer Delores Carron, 86, dish up ice cream and a sundae history lesson when requested.

“We saw the sign out front—World Famous Sundae—and had to stop,” says Rod True, 53, of Libertyville, Ill. (pop. 20,742), as he digs into a hot fudge and caramel sundae. “Unbelievable. The best I’ve ever had.”

True’s wife, Patty, 52, licks her fingers between bites of a strawberry-spangled sundae. “The strawberries are so good,” she says. “It’s wonderful. I’m getting my daily fruit.”

In Ithaca (pop. 29,287), Joel Abrams relaxes at a picnic table under a black-and-white striped awning at Purity Ice Cream and enjoys a cherry sundae. The dessert is dear to the hearts and lips of local residents because the “Cherry Sunday” was invented in Ithaca in 1892 by Chester Platt at Platt and Colt Pharmacy.

“We’ve got a couple of claims to fame in Ithaca, but this is the sweetest,” says Abrams, 74, from nearby Trumansburg, N.Y. (pop. 1,581).

In the spring of 1892, the Rev. John Scott headed to the drugstore after church services and visited with Platt. The two decided to eat some ice cream at the soda fountain. Ithaca’s gift to mankind happened when Platt topped their scoops of plain vanilla ice cream with cherry syrup and candied cherries. The delighted pastor suggested that they name the attractive and delectable dessert a Cherry Sunday, after the day it was created.

Platt placed advertisements for the 10-cent treat in the Ithaca Daily Journal in the spring of 1892. Soon, Platt offered other flavors, including chocolate, pineapple and strawberry. Students attending Cornell University in Ithaca helped popularize the dessert nationally as they returned home and ordered it at their hometown soda fountains.

While Two Rivers’ claim predates Ithaca’s by 11 years, Turback says the only city with indisputable evidence of creating the ice cream sundae is Ithaca. “I’m delighted that we’re finally capturing or retaking our history,” the Ithaca resident says.

Last summer, Ithaca officials teamed with Purity Ice Cream to give away sundaes for the company’s 70th anniversary. As part of the celebration, tourism manager Bruce Stoff launched a campaign proclaiming Ithaca as “the birthplace of the ice cream sundae.”

When Greg Buckley, Two Rivers’ city manager, heard about the promotion, a friendly dispute ensued. Buckley sent a “cease and desist” order to Ithaca, suggesting that the city back off its bogus claim and focus on “more appropriate pursuits, like cheering on the athletic teams at Cornell University and celebrating the beauty of the Finger Lakes Region.”

Ithaca officials responded with an advertisement in the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, which serves Two Rivers. The ad included a copy of Platt’s 1892 “Cherry Sunday” ad, along with the message: “Dear Two Rivers, Got proof? We do. Love, Ithaca.”

Two Rivers officials countered with a coupon in the Ithaca Journal for a free sundae to be redeemed only in Two Rivers, “the true birthplace of the sundae,” and also blitzed Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson with postcards asserting their claim. One card was signed by “the ghost of Ed Berners,” the “father” of the sundae in Two Rivers.

And the good-humored feud may not be over. “We’ve thought about hiring a skywriter, but it would blow our budget,” Stoff says.

He adds about Two Rivers: “It’s so rooted in their psyche. I say, ‘Show me a sign, a menu, a dirty napkin with ice cream sauce and I’ll back off.’”

Meanwhile, back in Two Rivers, Buckley is diplomatic. “We’re willing to concede to them that they’re the home of the first newspaper ad for a sundae,” he says, “but we have a very strong oral tradition here.”

He adds, “It’s a wonderful small-town icon to have invented, and we’re not about to give up that crown.”