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Bubblegum Pop

The American Dreamsicle

There’s nothing quite as uniquely American as a cheap frozen treat and summertime sticky fingers.

HERE’S A FUN STATISTIC I found in a recent issue of Dairy Foods magazine: Frozen novelties—a sector largely controlled by two companies, Nestlé USA and Unilever—bring in almost $5 billion in sales a year.

One can only wonder what Frank Epperson would think. In 1905, the 11-year-old Oakland, California, native mixed up a sugary drink powder and water with a wooden stick, then left it outside to freeze. (Cultural and legal scholars consider this the prototype for the first Popsicle, even researching how often temperatures in Oakland dipped below freezing in 1905 to bolster the claim.)

Originally called Epsicles, Epperson began selling his frozen drinks on sticks at Bay Area events and amusement parks in 1923. His children insisted he call them Pop’s Sicles, so he changed the name and, on June 11, 1924, Epperson filed for a patent on the process for making Popsicles. (Unilever now owns the trademark on the entire family of frozen pops ending in “sicle.”)

Bomb Pop.
Ice-cream sandwich.
Drumstick.
Banana Fudge Bomb Pop.
Spiderman Popsicle.

Aided by advancements in freezing technology, the 1920s turned out to be a heyday for frozen treats ... and legal skirmishes about them. In the mid-’20s, the Popsicle Corporation and Harry B. Burt, the inventor of the Good Humor bar, went to court over patents and eventually settled on an uneasy truce, wherein Good Humor bars would keep their square shape and ice-cream base, while Popsicles would have exclusive rights to the method that produced their more tubular form and would freeze only syrup, water, or sherbet on a stick.

Then came the Creamsicle and, soon after, the Fudgicle, which would change its name to Fudgsicle in later years. The Depression saw the arrival of the two-stick Popsicle, which gave the impression of providing two treats instead of one. In the 1950s, Americans were introduced to the messy Push-Up. The icy frozen Snow Cone came much earlier (for the original version, think 1850s!) and the Screwball, with its bubblegum balls at the bottom, arrived in the 1970s.

Fudge bar.
Orange Dream Bar.
Spongebob Popsicle.

What you craved as a kid says a lot about your childhood. Kids looking for a high quantity-to-cost ratio would reach for the Bomb Pop, which was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1955. Even the weird banana-fudge version seemed a hefty bargain.

Some kids wanted stickless Eskimo Pies (invented in Iowa in 1922), which were precursors to the traditional Good Humor bars, with the flavored centers that were dipped in a crumbly mash-up of cake so that the whole thing tasted like a chocolate éclair or strawberry shortcake. Others argued for the superiority of the Creamsicle, with its real ice-cream center, over the Dreamsicle, which had ice milk inside. Then there were those who were loyal to the now-almost-extinct Nutty Buddy. (Its first cousin, the chocolate-covered, nut-encrusted Drumstick, has never been the same since Nestlé took over production in the early 1990s.)

Cross-branding in the latter half of the 20th century forced treats into the shapes of cartoon characters, comingled with popular candy bars and, more recently, manufactured to look like tacos. On another extreme is Eleven Madison Park, one of the best restaurants in the world, which serves chocolate-covered banana-crème fraîche ice-cream bars as part of its $295 tasting menu. But for all the artisan paletas and ice-cream sandwiches made with toasted-sourdough ice cream shoved between ginger cookies, the old-school frozen bar abides.

Strawberry Shortcake Bar.

6/24/17: An earlier version incorrectly identified when the Screwball and the Snow Cone came into being. We regret the error.