Penny licks were England’s most nefarious ice cream paraphernalia. As the name suggests, a few licks of ice cream cost just a penny. Contracting tuberculosis was free.
Ice cream began to achieve widespread popularity in England in the mid 1800s. Before the invention of the cone, ice cream vendors, or Jacks, served scoops in cups called penny licks. They hawked ice cream in ha’penny (half penny) and tu’penny (two penny) licks, too. But the standard penny lick was most popular.
These small glasses were designed especially for ice cream. Their bottom-heavy build kept them stable as Jacks paddled peaks of frozen cream on top, and their conical shape and the thick glass obscured the magnitude of their contents. Even the tiniest dollop of ice cream appeared bountiful.
During the penny lick’s day, Englishmen had little conception of germs. After finishing their ice cream, customers handed back their well-licked penny lick, and the next customer ate from the same cup. Because of the conical openings, Jacks couldn’t keep the narrow point clean if they tried. Penny licks became the perfect vessel for transmitting disease.
As tuberculosis swept the nation, the medical community pointed at ice cream vendors. A 1879 English medical report blamed a cholera outbreak on the reuse of glassware, and fear of tuberculosis led the city of London to ban penny licks in 1899. Some undeterred ice cream vendors used the unsanitary serving cups until they were more widely banned in the 1920s and 1930s. By that time, a new ice cream vessel reigned supreme. Waffle cones nudged the penny lick from the public’s hands, and they remain a safe, single-use crowd pleaser to this day.
Next time you’re enjoying a cone on the street, remember: That melting scoop of frozen cream didn’t always come free of infectious disease.