A sundae is an ice cream dessert that typically consists of one or more scoops of ice cream topped with sauce or syrup and in some cases other toppings such as: sprinkles, whipped cream, marshmallows, peanuts, maraschino cherries, or other fruits (e.g. bananas and pineapple in a banana split).
Among the many stories about the invention of the sundae, a frequent theme is that the ice cream sundae was a variation of the popular ice cream soda. The ice cream soda was invented by Robert McCay Green in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1874 during the Franklin Institute’s semicentennial celebration. The traditional story is that, on a particularly hot day, Green ran out of ice for the flavored drinks he was selling and used vanilla ice cream from a neighboring vendor, inventing a new drink.
Several cities claim to be the birthplace of the sundae, among them New Orleans, New York, Buffalo, Cleveland and Plainfield. But the strongest claims fall to three much smaller locales—including two that have been at each other’s throats for years over the matter.
The earliest claim belongs to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, located 40 miles southeast of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. On a summer Sunday in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners, at the request of a vacationing customer, reportedly poured chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
After savoring the chocolate-laden concoction, he began serving it every Sunday thereafter for a nickel. He also mixed in other ingredients, like bananas, nuts, raspberry sauce, and puffed rice, cooking up creations
with colorful names like the Jennie Flip and the Flora Dora. Because of the significance of the last day of the week, Berners called his chocolate and ice cream treat a “Sunday,” later changing the name to “sundae” at the suggestion of a customer.
Residents of Two Rivers have contested the claims of other cities to the right to claim the title “birthplace of the ice cream sundae”. When Ithaca, New York, mayor Carolyn K. Peterson proclaimed a day to celebrate her city as the birthplace of the sundae, she received postcards from Two Rivers’ citizens reiterating that town’s claim.
Buffalo’s Stoddart Bros. Drug Store advertised serving up ice cream sodas garnished with fruit syrup and whipped cream in the pages of The Buffalo Evening News and the Buffalo Courier as early as 1889.
In the Midwestern parts of United States, laws were once passed that prohibited the selling of soda water on a Sunday. The town of Evanston, Illinois was one of the first towns to pass such a law around the year 1890. As an alternative on Sundays, local soda fountains started selling ice cream sodas minus the soda, which left only the ice cream and syrup. That may have become the recipe today’s ice cream sundae.
Chester Platt (Ithaca, New York), the owner of the Platt & Colt’s drugstore, also claims to have created the ice cream sundae. On a Sunday afternoon in 1892, Reverend John M. Scott of a local church came to the pharmacy after service for a refreshment. A friend of Reverend Scott, Platt asked his fountain clerk for two bowls of ice cream, adding cherry syrup and a candied cherry before giving it to the Reverend. The two men loved the dish so much that they decided to come up with a name – and so, the ‘Cherry Sunday’ was born, named after the day it was created.
Ithaca is the first city in the United States to have documented evidence of the ice cream sundae. Discovered by two Ithaca high school students, evidence shows an advertisement for Platt’s sundae in the Ithaca Daily Journal of October 5, 1892 – original ledgers confirming the name of the clerk working that day; that Platt was indeed selling ice cream in the early 1890s; a letter from the Platt clerk to historian John Brooks describing his account of the ‘Cherry Sunday’; a letter from Platt to a patent attorney on March 23, 1894, detailing the request for a trademark on the sundae.
Plainfield, Illinois has also claimed to be the home of the very first ice cream sundae. A local belief is that a Plainfield druggist named Mr. Sonntag created the dish “after the urgings of patrons to serve something different.” He named it the “sonntag” after himself, and since Sonntag means Sunday in German, the name was translated to Sunday, and later was spelled sundae. Charles Sonntag established himself as a pharmacist after graduating from pharmacy school in 1890. He worked for several years under the employ of two local druggists, Dr. David W. Jump and F. R. Tobias. Sonntag established his own pharmacy (as early as 1893 and no later than 1895) in a building constructed in the months following a December 1891 fire that devastated one side of the town’s business district. His store advertised “Sonntag’s Famous Soda” and was, likely, the first soda fountain in the Village of Plainfield.
By the early 1900s the sundae was an inevitable weekend treat in soda fountains. Fancy variations sprang up, thanks to inventive fountain owners and enterprising jerks.
Maybe we’ll ever know exactly who first drizzled chocolate sauce over ice cream and called it a sundae, many of the facts are similar from story to story. No matter where this dessert came from, its popularity and the unique takes on it definitely aren’t going anywhere.
The largest ice cream sundae was one weighing 24.91 tonnes (54,917 lb) made by Palm Dairies Ltd under the supervision of Mike Rogiani in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on 24 July 1988.