Penny lick bowls served up ice cream, with a side of infectious disease

I have to admit, I was kind of relieved when folks changed their handshaking and candle-blowing-out practices when the pandemic hit. The fewer germs we spread around, the better, is my motto. So when I found out about the "penny lick" ice cream phenomenon, I was truly grossed out. Turns out when ice cream began to become popular in England in the late nineteenth century, shopkeepers would sell the dessert in small containers made of thick, cone shaped glass that held a penny's worth of ice cream. A customer would lick the ice cream straight from the glass and then hand it back to the shopkeeper, who would then rinse it or wipe it out and then scoop up the next serving for the next customer. Gastro Obscura explains how this practice spread infectious diseases like tuberculosis:

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. An 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.

Even though many people have now gone back to blowing out candles and otherwise spreading germs (but not me, I've forever abandoned handshaking and candle blowing!), at least we don't share ice cream bowls with strangers anymore. I guess I should count my blessings.

To learn more about the penny lick ice cream era, here's a short video from Leeds Museums.