Mystery Object – Penny Licks

Glass is malleable and can be fashioned and shaped into objects that are useful and ergonomic to suit a contemporary use, when that use is no longer needed, the object becomes obsolete, forgotten, and with time recognition diminishes leaving us with ‘mystery objects’, like these ‘Penny Licks”.

In the 1850’s the wealthy upper classes served cold desserts such as custards syllabubs and ice cream. At this time there was an influx of rural Italian economic migrants who made ice cream and sold it to earn a living. Thus, ice cream also became available for the street children.

Ice was imported from Norway and stored in ice-caves, used to keep foods fresh in food markets and hotels; some upper class houses had their own ice caves. During the winter months London’s poor collected ice and sold it for pennies to supplement their income

The Italian immigrants made good ice cream and flavoured it with berries, fruits, and chocolate; they made it in their own kitchens and sold it from hand carts. There were some vendors that cheated customers and sold ice cream made using sugar water and thickening agents such as cornflour and gelatin, adding flavourings and bulking agents such as crushed swede or turnips.

We all recognise the distinctive sounds of the ice cream van arriving in our streets, and in the late 1800’s, the children responded to the cries of the Hokey Pokey, man. The vendors would call in their native Italian ‘O che poco’ meaning oh how little it costs, or what good value and this was anglicised to become the ‘Hokey Pokey’ man.

Initially children found it uncomfortable to eat, due to their decaying, broken and sensitive teeth, they had to be shown how to lick the ice cream and not to bite it.

The ice cream was served in reusable glass containers which became known as ‘penny-licks’. Pressed or moulded glass formed a thick heavy stemmed glass with a foot, the shallow bowl, and the optical quality of glass gave the illusion of a much larger volume of ice cream. They were available in 3 sizes, 1/2d, 1d, 2d, and customers were convinced they were getting generous portions.

When the ice-cream had been consumed, the glass was licked clean, possibly wiped with fingers, and handed back to the Hokey Pokey man and it was rinsed in a pail of water and dried on a ‘hessian cloth ready to be refilled for the next customer.

By 1900, hygiene and health became a major issue. Scientists from the Royal College of Medicine analysed samples of the ‘washing’ water; it was found to be evil smelling, thickish slimy water, full of sediments, saliva, & harmful colonies of bacteria. The sediments contained human hair, animal hair, coal dust, bed straw and fleas. Xenophobic post cards were published, causing an outcry about the ice-cream vendors spreading sickness and disease and their sales plummeted.

As a result, food manufacturers were regulated, it should be made in clean conditions not in living rooms, outhouses near drains or lavatories and there were hefty fines levied of 40/or £2 for anyone not obeying the new regulations.

By 1920 the problem was solved, and the glass penny licks were replaced with edible cones and wafers. The glass penny licks disappeared and were forgotten.

The tradition of the Hokey Pokey man, however, continues today with motorised street vendors playing their familiar tunes.

The Hokey Pokey Man

go to Glass Bits – Mystery Objects – Penny Licks

Published by Kate Round

My name is Dr Kate Round; I am an outreach presenter and tour guide for Dudley Museum Service In my previous life, I was a research chemist so understand the chemistry of glass having worked on the synthesis of ‘zeolites’ (silica based materials) with my work published in International Journals. I have always lived in the Black Country and have a strong industrial family heritage.

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