Everyone loves a good sundae, but its name will leave you scratching your head. The traditional sundae consists of vanilla ice cream topped with syrup, whipped cream, and a cherry served in a tulip-shaped glass or bowl. It’s delicious and a favorite ice cream option for those stopping by an old-time ice cream shop, but the history of the ice cream sundae is unknown. However, most stories can agree on two main points: why the sundae was created and why the spelling is not the same as the day of the week.
According to the origin stories, ice cream sundaes are the result of Blue Laws. You may blame Blue Laws for why you must watch mid-Sunday football games without a cold one, but the law that led to sundaes doesn’t involve alcohol. In the late 1800s, there was another Blue Law on the books in some states that made it illegal to sell soda on Sunday. Why this was considered sinful is anyone’s guess.
This ban was a big problem for anyone that enjoyed ice cream floats. Pharmacies had to find another way to convince people to buy ice cream on Sundays, and so they replaced the soda with chocolate sauce.
As for why the ice cream is called “sundae” instead of “Sunday” in honor of its origins, it was either to make it more obvious that you could buy the ice cream on any day of the week or so it would be less offensive to devout people pharmacists were trying to appeal to. To add even more confusion, the sundae may even get its name from ice cream left over from Sunday that was sold on another day!
Though several cities claim to be the proud originators of the ice cream sundae, we can’t say who is the real home of the sundae. So who are the contenders for the creation of the sundae? Here are the three likely creators:
Two Rivers, Wisconsin, claims that on a Sunday in 1881, pharmacist Edward Berners replaced the soda on an order for an ice cream soda to be compliant with the Blue Law. (He relied on a technicality and added chocolate soda syrup, not the final soda product, on the order.) He was quickly met with requests from customers for this ice cream and syrup treat. If this story is true, the sundae gets its name from Berners originally only selling the option on Sundays before adding it to the permanent menu.
Ithaca, New York, has a similar story. On a spring Sunday in 1892, a minister asked Chester C. Platt for vanilla ice cream. Platt topped the ice cream with cherries and cherry syrup. The minister was a fan of the additions and suggested that the ice cream should be named for the day that it was created. Platt agreed, later changing the spelling so it didn’t offend anyone. It’s unclear if he was being proactive or had offended leaders of a local church with the name. Regardless, he expanded his syrup offerings as the treat became a local hit.
And then there’s the sundae origin story of Plainfield, Illinois, which also claims to be the home of the ice cream sundae. A pharmacist named Charles Sonntag created the treat, naming it the “sonntag” after himself. Sonntag means Sunday in German, and so the name was translated to Sunday, and later spelled as “sundae”.
Though we can’t pinpoint where the first sundae was made, the creation is still popular over a century after fans first tasted the ice cream combination. The next time you sit down to cool off with the treat, share some sundae tidbits between each spoonful.