Everything Evanston: The scoop on Evanston’s history with the ice cream sundae

Mika Ellison and Lindsey Byman



Evanston claims to be the birthplace of the famous ice cream sundae – but so do several other cities! The Daily spoke to Evanston historians and ice-cream lovers to get the scoop.

A vanilla ice cream sundae with the word Evanston on a pink background.
Illustration by Alicia Tang.

MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison. This is Everything Evanston, a podcast about the people, businesses and goings-on in Evanston, Illinois.

LINDSEY BYMAN: And I’m Lindsey Byman. Today, to celebrate Evanston’s 160th birthday, we’ll be diving into the debate over the origins of the ice cream sundae. Evanston is one of multiple towns claiming credit for the sundae, and while we may never know who first decided to douse ice cream with syrup and toppings, let’s discuss the matter with historians and the owner of a local ice cream shop.


MIKA ELLISON: To get the full picture, we started at the beginning. Here’s Evanston Historian Kris Hartzell with the backstory of how ice cream sundaes evolved from ice cream sodas.

KRIS HARTZELL: In the 1800s, what sort of evolved is commercially-produced soda water. These get served as a treat in soda fountains. So they started putting in all kinds of fun, fruity flavors or whatever, and they would put ice shavings in it. And then somebody decided to put ice cream in it. Ice cream sodas became a really popular treat and then they were served in drugstores.

MIKA ELLISON: While ice cream sodas were increasing in popularity, so was the temperance movement, which promoted Christian values and limited alcohol consumption.

KRIS HARTZELL: You can’t do anything fun or sinful or temptation from the straight and narrow. And somehow, soda water got lumped in with things you shouldn’t do on Sundays, because it’s too fun. And so, the story is that the sundae was invented, the Evanston story, by a druggist, an owner of a drugstore in Evanston, who wanted to be able to have a trade on Sunday. So he just left the soda water out and then kicked up the toppings a notch since he isn’t putting colored flavored soda water in. So, now he’s putting syrup straight on the ice cream. And his drugstore was called Garwoods’. That was his last name. And it was right on Fountain Square.

MIKA ELLISON: In 1972, Evanston stopped being a dry city and began selling alcohol. Marcia Hartigan, (Weinberg ’84) the owner of Hartigan’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Evanston, said she remembers Northwestern still being relatively dry when she was an undergraduate there in the early 1980s.

MARCIA HARTIGAN: That is why, to my understanding, that Evanston feels very strongly that they created the ice cream sundae or that they created the name of the ice cream sundae, because the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was so prominent in Evanston compared to other places.

LINDSEY BYMAN: However, not everyone buys this story. At least six other towns in the U.S. claim to be the birthplace of the sundae, one of which is Two Rivers, Wisconsin, according to Roadside America. Here’s Hartigan’s take:

MARCIA HARTIGAN: I’ve always thought that it’s probable that both places created the idea of putting chocolate syrup over ice cream and leaving the seltzer water out. Is it funny to say that I just think it’s a nice story that we both share? It’s not really important to me that we win the story. I just think that the story around the story is what’s interesting.

LINDSEY BYMAN: Hartigan pointed out that Two Rivers has a large plaque boasting its city created the sundae. Evanston resident Rachelle Pierre-Lott said she would support erecting a similar plaque in Evanston.

RACHELLE PIERRE-LOTT: Well, that sounds like a legit story. And Evanston is not one to make up stories, so I definitely believe we’re the ones who have made up the sundae. If it is indeed true, which I’m saying it probably is, let’s put a plaque up. Sounds great.

MIKA ELLISON: Northwestern Sociology Prof. and food historian Miri Eliyahu said the debate reflects a broader aspect of American society.

MIRI ELIYAHU: The U.S., it’s kind of different because we live in a very affluent society, there is a history of immigration. So this is kind of like a melting pot or a hodgepodge of a lot of different cultures and a lot of different foods, not all of them become popular, some of them disappear. Some of them transform and change through a process that’s called food diversity.

MIKA ELLISON: Since the U.S. is made up of many different cultures and doesn’t have a singular deep-seated tradition with food, Americans have long experimented with what they eat. Hartzell says the story we tell about the sundae is also rooted in a love of stories, but the reality may be more complicated.

KRIS HARTZELL: It’s kind of human nature. We want there to be this catalytic moment when this happened, and sometimes they just sort of evolved. If it’s a cultural reaction, it might evolve simultaneously in more than one place. It might be the logical place to go when confronted with a certain set of circumstances. So was there one place in which this happened? Maybe, maybe not. But again, like I say, given the nature of Evanston at that time and what was happening confectionery wise and just in the food cultures at that time, I’m quite sure that we would have been a prime candidate, a leader in that movement to go to create a sundae.

MIKA ELLISON: Eliyahu says she agrees. She says the story of the ice cream sundae may tell us more about American culture than who was the first to think up the idea.

MIRI ELIYAHU: When we emphasize what we are eating, we’re trying to tell the story of what we are. And I’m assuming in this case, it’s kind of like, “We are innovative,” because we invented this to make up for some sort of need, right? And I’m assuming that’s why they’re so proud of inventing the sundae even though there was no copyright on it. But I’m assuming for them, it’s a source of pride because now they’re a part of the collective history.

LINDSEY BYMAN: Though we may never get an answer to the sundae debate, it depicts the evolution of both food and social movements in America. And no matter who was the first to leave the soda out of an ice cream soda, we still get to enjoy the creation today.

MARCIA HARTIGAN: I think it’s kind of cool that Evanston feels that they did it and Two Rivers feels that they did it, and both have very probable stories and maybe both created it unknowing that it was happening another state away. And all in all, the ice cream sundae was a great invention, mo matter who did it. I kind of wanna know who then decided, leave out the soda water, put the ice cream in, put the chocolate syrup in and add milk instead of soda water for a milkshake. That’s even more important.


MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison.

LINDSEY BYMAN: And I’m Lindsey Byman. Thanks for listening to another episode of Everything Evanston. This episode was reported and produced by me and Mika Ellison. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Mika Ellison, the digital managing editors are Ava Mandoli and Erica Schmitt, and the editor-in-chief is Alex Perry. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @lindseybyman

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MikaEllison23

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