Some things just go together – like ice cream and Ford trucks. While that may seem puzzling to some folks, it made perfect sense in previous decades, when Good Humor ice cream trucks cruised through American neighborhoods, selling their frozen dairy treats. These trucks were mostly Fords. In the 1950s, when Good Humor trucks reached their peak popularity, Ford even used them in at least two advertisements. Let’s take a look at these refreshing ads.
The story of Good Humor ice cream stretches back to the 1890s, when Youngstown, Ohio confectioner Harry Burt added ice cream to his candy store wares. Burt soon adopted the idea of automobile-based ice cream sales, outfitting a 1902 Oldsmobile chassis with cargo beds filled with ice cream tubs (though it’s not clear whether ice cream was sold from the vehicle, or whether the Olds was used to deliver the product to retailers).
Burt and his son, Harry Burt, Jr. created their business’s major retailing advancement in the early 1920s, when they introduced a chocolate-covered ice cream brick with a candy-sucker stick in one end. The ice cream bar was born, and Burt patented it in 1923. Ice cream suckers proved especially adaptable to selling from vehicles, which the Burts did in Youngstown, and quickly sold franchises in other cities. Most of these early ice cream trucks were Fords – Model T’s and then Model A’s.
Following Mr. Burt’s 1926 death, the company was no longer controlled by the Burt family (though Harry Jr. remained in the business), but the firm’s trajectory remained true, becoming America’s largest purveyor of ice cream bars, mostly sold from trucks.
Good Humor’s truck fleet and drivers became fixtures of American life. Along the way, the company nurtured a reputation for quality and meticulousness – the trucks were always spotless, as were their drivers’ white uniforms (which were laundered daily). In 1950, a slapstick comedy called “The Good Humor Man” featured the main character driving a Good Humor-outfitted Ford F-1 pickup. That film, and the ubiquity of Good Humor trucks, led Ford to promote both in this ad from the summer of 1950.
Ford’s ad highlighted the F-1’s economical operations, as ice cream trucks’ demanding schedule demonstrated a need for thrifty and dependable transportation. Good Humor’s president, Joseph Meehan, is quoted in the ad that “Ford reliability helps keep sales up by cutting lost-time losses.” In an era when most pickups were purchased by commercial or agricultural users, this was valuable praise. (Meehan was more of a financier than a dairy man; he later served as governor of the New York Stock Exchange.)
The 1950s was Good Humor’s golden age – by decade’s end, the company operated 2,000 trucks, most of them Fords. It’s therefore fitting that the decade would be bookended by Ford ads highlighting these mobile refreshment purveyors.
In this 1958 ad, the truck is an F-250 with New York license plates, and the Good Humor official quoted in the ad is Vice President E.J. Otken. Otken was a Middlesex County, New Jersey dairy farmer who also superintended Good Humor’s Brooklyn plant that produced 600,000 ice cream bars during each year’s April-through-October production run.
In the advertising copy, Otken is quoted as saying “In this sort of work, eight years and 80,000 is a long life for a truck… but we have many eleven-year-old Fords still going strong!” Perhaps the F-1 from Ford’s 1950 ad was still in the fleet!
Incidentally, while children are always associated with ice cream trucks, a late 1950s Good Humor survey of its vendors noted that children accounted for just 55% of truck-based sales, teenagers 20% and adults the remaining 25%. But an ad showing an ice cream truck swarmed by office workers or construction workers wouldn’t have quite the same effect as this type of scene.
Good Humor Corporation was sold to Lipton (itself owned by global giant Unilever) in 1961. Mobile sales continued, and Good Humor added stepvans to its fleet as well, though in-store grocery sales gradually increased in importance. Ice cream truck sales tumbled during the 1970s due to increased gas prices, population shifts to more dispersed suburbs, municipal regulations, and the accelerating trend of children not being home on summer afternoons. Finally, in 1976, Good Humor sold its company-owned vehicle fleet. Many of its trucks were purchased by entrepreneurs who continued selling ice cream, though by then ice cream trucks had already faded in prominence.
The past few decades have presented a rocky road for ice cream trucks. While the trucks still work the streets in many locales, these days they are more likely to be owned by individuals or small firms, rather than corporate entities such as Good Humor with a national presence. Maybe someday, corporate fleets of ice cream trucks will re-emerge, but until then, we can savor these tasty ads from the 1950s instead.