The Murky, Delicious History of the Ice Cream Cone

By Alyson Foster

Content & Collections Specialist, National Geographic Library

A girl feeds her dog an ice cream cone, 1954. Humans aren't the only ones who enjoy this classic summer treat. Photograph by David Boyer, National Geographic.

A girl feeds her dog an ice cream cone, 1954. Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy this classic summer treat. Photograph by David Boyer, National Geographic.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ice cream cones? Vanilla or mint chocolate chip? Sugar versus waffle?

You may enjoy the flavors of this tasty treat, but chances are you’ve never paused to appreciate its clever design. Tasty and portable, the ice cream cone allows us to snack while we stroll through fairgrounds, sit by the pool, or watch a Little League game. All (if you eat fast enough!) without spilling a drop.

Who do we have to thank for this summer junk-food staple? It depends on who you ask. Some people give the credit to an Italian-American immigrant named Italo Marchiony. On this week in September, more than 110 years ago, Marchiony filed for what may have been the first ice-cream-cone-related patent. His proposal was for a contraption that would produce edible containers made of dough, which could be filled with ice cream and then eaten once the ice cream had been polished off.

Strictly speaking though, these containers weren’t the cones we know today. They were shaped more like cups with small handles.

Illustration of Italo Marchiony's ice cream cup mold. United States Patent & Trademark Office.

Italo Marchiony’s ice cream container mold was shaped more like a cup than a cone. Illustration by United States Patent & Trademark Office.

An alternative, and perhaps more interesting, origin story attributes the ice cream cone to a moment of inspiration by a man named Ernest Hamwi. Hamwi was working as a concessionaire at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair selling waffles when an ice cream vendor in a nearby booth ran out of serving dishes. According to the story, Hamwi produced the perfect solution. He rolled up one of his waffles into a cone shape, let it cool and—voila!—the perfect ice cream serving dish was born. Dishes and spoons were no longer required.

Hamwi called his new invention a “cornucopia” and went into the ice cream business, founding the Missouri Cone Company. It seems he had more success than Marchiony, who became embroiled in unsuccessful legal wrangling while trying to protect his patent when the popularity of ice cream cones began to take off.

Hamwi and Marchiony weren’t the only individuals who have received credit for the ice cream cone. Additional versions of the tale have credited a pair of concessionaires from Ohio and at least one other 1904 World Fair vendor.

A man sells ice cream to children from a cart during the summer of 1918. Photograph by Paul Thompson, National Geographic.

A man sells ice cream to children from a cart during the summer of 1918. Photograph by Paul Thompson, National Geographic.

Other people have pointed out that the ice cream cone wasn’t an American invention at all—that ice cream concessionaires in France and Germany were serving their dessert in cones made of paper, metal, and various edible materials well before the turn of the century. In this way, the ice cream cone is following the tradition of many beloved American foods, which have been adopted and adapted from countries around the world. (Take, for example, the cuisine of New Orleans.)

In the end, we’ll never know exactly whom to thank for inventing the ice cream cone. Whenever we chow down on the final, sweet and crunchy pieces of a cone, we can just be grateful someone did.

3 responses to “The Murky, Delicious History of the Ice Cream Cone

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