A cool history lesson

You might find yourself perusing the ice cream aisle of the supermarket with a new appreciation afte

You might find yourself perusing the ice cream aisle of the supermarket with a new appreciation after taking in the Farmers’ Museum’s exhibition “Ice Cream: Our Cool Obsession,” on view through Oct. 31.

History through the lens of this delectable, frozen treat that Americans consume to the tune of 1 billion gallons annually incorporates lessons in sociology, technology, early American social customs, health, business, and global culture. Not to worry, though, as the lessons are so subtle that they go down just as easily as a cool scoop of ice cream on a hot day.

The immediate visual impact of the exhibition is a great deal of light and color, said guest curator Suzan Friedlander. “Folks who might expect an exhibition of history always in tone of sepia will be pleasantly surprised,” she said.

The idea for the exhibition came about when museum staff members were doing research for a show on the dairy industry in New York state. “We soon discovered that the world history of ice cream could be supported by really beautiful and interesting artifacts,” said Michelle Murdock, curator of exhibitions.

‘Ice Cream: Our Cool Obsession’

WHERE: The Farmers’ Museum, 5775 Route 80, Cooperstown

WHEN: Through Oct. 31. Hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 13; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays from Oct. 14 to 31,

HOW MUCH: $11 for adults, $9.50 for 65 and over, $5 for ages 7-12, and free for 6 and under.

MORE INFO: 888-547-1450 or farmersmuseum.org

All kinds of artifacts

Some of those artifacts include Ben and Jerry’s original freezer, a circa 1978 piece that used to be in the pair’s first shop, a renovated garage in Burlington, Vt. Another is a set of circa 1945 mirrors from a Boston Howard Johnson’s soda fountain. This is Murdock’s favorite artifact. “It reflects the consumer,” she said. “You would have sat at the bar, but you would have been watching yourself eating the ice cream,” she said.

There are also some large vehicles, such as dairy wagons, as well as smaller items including a sorbetiere and other ways for making and serving ice cream.

Giving some local flair to the exhibition is a retro ice cream parlor inspired by the design of a Cooperstown establishment from the 1920s. Visitors will also be able to purchase ice cream to eat in the museum’s main barn if they find themselves with a craving for it by the end of the exhibition.

Locating the close to 100 artifacts for the exhibition was both fun and challenging, Friedlander said. She attended the conference of a group called the “Ice Screamers,” where members responded to her call for ice cream-related artifacts with a great deal of enthusiasm. While all of them were terrific, she said, there were a handful who “bent over backwards to make their collections and images available.”

Other items come from the Strong Museum of Play, Hanford Mills Museum, Daniel P. Witter Agricultural Museum, Stewart’s, Schwan’s, Friendly’s, Carvel/Haagen-Dazs, Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins.

Chronological setup

The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with ice cream’s ancient predecessor, water ices flavored with juices, wine, honey and nectar that Alexander the Great enjoyed in the third century B.C. One of the earliest chilled dairy dishes comes from China in A.D. 618. This was fermented horse, water buffalo, cow or goat milk mixed with camphor and flour and then chilled.

The exhibition traces the history of how ice cream was produced, served and eaten through the centuries. What visitors might find surprising is that up until the last 60 to 70 years, this dessert was reserved largely for the well-to-do. This is largely because before refrigeration, ice cream had to be consumed soon after it was made and close to the place of production. Also a factor was that until the invention of the automobile and refrigerated vehicles, people weren’t able to bring ice cream home to enjoy. It was a treat they enjoyed out, at places like public pleasure gardens in the 1790s, from street vendors in the 1800s and in the past century, at soda fountains.

Available to the masses

It wasn’t until the mass production of ice cream and the installation of coolers in grocery stores that the democratization of ice cream occurred, making it available to all social classes, not just the elite.

The exhibition explores a wide range of ice cream-related topics, including how making it has changed over time, the ice cream cone, fountain treats, the relationship among transportation, refrigeration and ice cream, how it is served, and consumption in places such as in African nations, Mexico, China and Italy. The show also has an interactive space for children where they can test themselves on ice cream trivia and create their flavors, among other activities.

Ice cream trivia is woven throughout the exhibition. For example, George and Martha Washington, who liked to serve it to their guests, reportedly spent $200 (about $4,680 in today’s dollars) on ice cream while they were headquartered in New York City.

Visitors will also find out things like how many cones Americans consume annually, how much they spend on it and the favorite flavor.

“Even though we span thousands of years, the bulk of the exhibition has artifacts and information that just about anybody who has eaten ice cream can relate to,” Murdock said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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