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Ithaca, NY: Home of the Ice Cream Sundae

Birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae

Documenting Ithaca as the Home of the Ice Cream Sundae

Hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, ice cream cones—Americans have debated the origins of these iconic foods for decades. In most cases, historical records don't exist to prove or disprove the local origins of our favorite treats. One notable exception is the invention of the ice cream sundae.

Ithaca, an area long known as a dining hotspot, has extensive history and documentation supporting the ice cream sundae's creation here in 1892. The information is so specific, the city can almost pinpoint the exact hour the first ice cream "Sunday" was served. While other cities may claim the sundae, none can support its claim with primary evidence. This gives Ithaca title to the first documented ice cream sundae in the United States.

Cherry Sundae ad
The oldest written evidence comes from Ithaca for inventing the ice cream sundae. This "Cherry Sunday" ad from the Ithaca Daily Journal, April 5, 1892, remains the oldest-known record of the sundae's creation.

What Makes an Ice Cream Sundae?

Food historians are quite certain that Americans served ice cream with toppings prior to the 1890s. But the combination only became a sundae when somebody viewed the completed dish as new and unique—distinct enough in preparation, presentation and taste to be worthy of a special name. That's exactly what happened in Ithaca in 1892.

Who Invented the Ice Cream Sundae?

On Sunday afternoon, April 3,1892, after services at the Unitarian Church, Reverend John M. Scott paid his usual visit to the Platt & Colt Pharmacy in downtown Ithaca. Shop proprietor, Chester C. Platt, was church treasurer and he met often with Scott for conversation after services. Seeking refreshment for himself and the reverend, Platt asked his fountain clerk, DeForest Christiance, for two bowls of ice cream. But instead of serving the reverend plain vanilla, Platt took the bowls and topped each with cherry syrup and a candied cherry. The finished dish looked delightful and tasted delicious—so much so that the men felt obliged to name the new creation. After some debate, Scott suggested that it be named for the day it was created. Platt concurred and the first "Cherry Sunday" was born.

Ithaca's Sundae Story: Fact or Fiction?

Local folklore or historic fact? What makes Ithaca's ice cream sundae story unique is the surprising evidence discovered to support the claim. But decide for yourself. Just follow the clues.

Letter from Platt & Colt clerk DeForest Christiance to John G. Brooks, May 25, 1936
Letter from Platt & Colt clerk DeForest Christiance to John G. Brooks, May 25, 1936
In the 1930s, perhaps as a respite from other Depression-era news, numerous newspaper articles appeared debating the origins of the sundae. Former Platt & Colt shop clerk DeForest Christiance weighed in on the national debate with this letter to the city's resident historian, John Brooks. This document, rediscovered in 2007 in the Archives of The History Center in Tompkins County, forms the basis of Ithaca's story. It's a colorful tale, but without corroborating evidence, it's hardly definitive.
Platt & Colt Ledger Books, circa 1890s
Platt & Colt Ledger Books, circa 1890s
Discovered in 2007 in the archives of Cornell University's Kroch Library, these original ledger books from the Platt & Colt pharmacy prove that Chester Platt was indeed selling ice cream in the early 1890s and had the necessary supplies on hand to create the first sundae. The ledgers also confirm DeForest Christiance’s claim that he was an employee of Platt & Colt when the sundae was created.
Letter from Washington, D.C. patent attorney William G. Henderson to Platt & Colt Pharmacy, March 23, 1894
Letter from Washington, D.C. patent attorney William G. Henderson to Platt & Colt Pharmacy, March 23, 1894
Discovered in 2007 in the archives of Cornell University's Kroch Library, this letter confirms that Platt & Colt's ice cream "Sunday" dates to at least 1894 and by that time, had gained enough popularity for its creators to seek trademark protection. The attempt proved fruitless, federal trademark protection didn't extend to domestic commerce at the time. Interesting to note, attorney Henderson didn't indicate any familiarity with the notion of an ice cream sundae. But within 10 years, sundaes would be served at soda fountains nationwide.
Newspaper Ad, Ithaca Daily Journal, May 28, 1892
Newspaper Ad, Ithaca Daily Journal, May 28, 1892
This ad in the Ithaca Daily Journal dates Platt & Colt's "Sunday" back at least to May, 1892. But according to DeForest Christiance's eyewitness account, strawberry was the second sundae flavor made and sold by Platt & Colt. If Christiance's account is accurate, then there must have been a cherry sundae made prior to this date.
Newspaper Article, Ithaca Daily Journal, April 11, 1892
Newspaper Article, Ithaca Daily Journal, April 11, 1892
Jackpot. This brief article not only dates the "Sunday" back to April, 1892, it confirms key details of DeForest Christiance's 1936 account. Date, location, timing and ingredients are all consistent with Christiance's recollection. Interesting to note, the new dish appears to have been an immediate hit—it was literally the talk of the town, at least according to the Ithaca Journal's "Town Talk" section.
Newspaper Ad, Ithaca Daily Journal, April 5, 1892
Newspaper Ad, Ithaca Daily Journal, April 5, 1892
This ad in the Ithaca Daily Journal is the oldest known record of an ice cream sundae. It further corroborates Christiance's 44-year-old recollection and allows historians to pinpoint Sunday, April 3 as the probable date of the sundae's creation. The record suggests that Platt was eager to promote his new creation. This ad, placed April 4 and printed April 5, would have been Platt's earliest opportunity to publicly announce the first ice cream sundae.

Other Cities, Other Claims

Could the ice cream sundae have been created earlier in another city? It's certainly possible, but without historical documentation, such claims are pure conjecture. A half-dozen American cities claim ownership of the sundae, but none has proof. Among the competing cities, Two Rivers, Wisconsin, has the longest-standing counterclaim. It has sparred with Ithaca in a good-natured "Sundae War" for several decades.

Two Rivers' Story

A Wisconsin State Historical Society marker in downtown Two Rivers contends that the first sundae was served there at Ed Berners' soda fountain in 1881. A recreation of Berners' fountain is still in business and Two Rivers celebrates its local story with a "Sundae Thursday" celebration each June. Two Rivers' claim is based on an interview Berners conducted with a local newspaper reporter in 1929. Though the interview does not indicate the date Berners began serving sundaes, the city steadfastly promotes 1881. The claim is unlikely. Wisconsin birth records indicate Berners was 17-years-old in 1881 and unlikely to have been operating a soda fountain business. Furthermore, Berners' obituary in 1939 dates his first sundae to about 1900.

About this Research
About the research
In compiling this information, Ithaca, NY is indebted to the hard work of two Ithaca High School seniors Meredith Buchberg and Laura Willemsen. Working as Corson Fellow interns at The History Center in Tompkins County, the pair spent six months in the winter of 2007 painstakingly combing through online data bases and physical archives to discover the "Sundae Truth." Additional thanks to The History Center in Tompkins County, the Tompkins County Public Library and Cornell University's Kroch Library of Rare Booksand Manuscripts.

Copies of the original documents presented here are on display for public review at the History Center in Tompkins County. Visit TheHistoryCenter.Net for more information.

"Two Rivers, Puh-leeze" — Ithaca's Sundae Love Song to Two Rivers

An oversized historic marker in Two Rivers, Wisc., claims (mistakenly) that Ed Berners created the first sundae there in 1881. The city even sang about it in a sundae fight song delivered to Ithaca in 2006. Ithaca returned the favor in 2007 with a sundae "love song" to Two Rivers, entitled "Two Rivers, Puh-leeze."

"Two Rivers, Puh-leeze"
Two Rivers, why live in denial,
The story you compile, won't play.
Your sign maker, a truth faker,
without sundae proof your claim's melting away.
Ed Berners off to fool the world.
There's such a lot of fools you see.
Though sometimes the truth may offend-
still you can pretend,
my sweet Wisconsin friend,
Two Rivers-puh-leeze.

Special thanks to:
Ithaca recording artists, "Rock Beats Paper"
Arrangement: Robert Dietz
Engineering: James Cannon/Panic Room Studios

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