Ice cream is wonderful stuff. Recipes are sought-after items, and innovations can lead to cultural phenomena, from the musical ice cream saloons of the 1840s to the drug stores and department store 'fountains' of the 1890s to the tinkle of the ice cream truck bell that makes up so many childhood memories. Innovations in ice cream making and serving can also provide business opportunities. In 1897, Alfred L Cralle (1866-1919), an African American inventor, spotted one in Pittsburgh.
Why the Ice Cream Scoop Was a Great Invention
Alfred Cralle was definitely underemployed as a porter for the St Charles Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. He also worked for the Markell Brothers drugstore. Cralle had a carpentry background and a trained mechanical mind. But there weren't many openings for African Americans in jobs that didn't involve physical labour. Not in 1890s Pittsburgh. Porters were kept busy and worked long hours. Still, he must have noticed the problem with the ice cream, even before the patent attorney put up the advert.
Drugstores and hotels in the 1890s often had ice cream 'saloons' or 'parlors' which served meals, but also specialised in ice cream. There was a reason: as late as the early 1900s, unaccompanied women were often refused service in restaurants. One woman, Rebecca Israel, was refused service in New York City in 1900. She lost the lawsuit.
Even where they were permitted in restaurants alone, women often felt uncomfortable there. The ice cream saloon cultivated a women-friendly atmosphere for downtown shoppers who needed lunch. The ice cream orders kept the staff busy.
The main problem with dishing up ice cream: it stuck to the spoon. Try this at home: you have to push the tasty stuff off with your fingers. This not only slowed service down, but also presented a potential hygiene hazard. Women notice things like this, unlike the men over in the other saloon, who were busy eating pickled eggs and grabbing sandwiches from a common plate while drinking beer – all with one foot balanced on a brass rail in front of the bar, to prove they weren't too drunk to be out in public. Ladies wanted nice surroundings and clean food. Somebody needed to do something about the ice cream 'disher'.
In 1897, Alfred Cralle patented a really cool invention. He called it the 'Ice Cream Mold and Disher', but we call it an ice cream scoop. It received US Patent #576,395. With it, servers could scoop up the ice cream and then eject it into the dish, all without touching the frozen confection.
The Pittsburgh Press was enthusiastic.
For a long time the colored man has been coming to the front in the political, education, business and industrial world, and on not a few occasions has the scientific world been benefited by the brain of the colored man. Hundreds of patents have been obtained from ideas introduced by the ingenuity and originality of the negro...
The invention patented by Mr. Cralle was advertised for by H.C. Evert, a well-known patent attorney in this city, last April, and immediately Mr. Cralle set his ingenious mind to work... The mold or disher will fill and dish out from 40 to 50 dishes of ice cream in a minute, and will operate either closed or open, just as fast as it can possibly be worked. It also does away with the soiling of the hands.
Mr. Carlle has received many letters from firms...offering large inducements to him should he wish to sell the patent outright or on a royalty. He is to be congratulated on the success of his achievement.
– Pittsburgh Press, Sunday, 14 February, 1897, p 10
The ice cream scoops of today are the descendants of Alfred Cralle's invention. Soda jerks ever since have owed this man a debt of gratitude. So have all the people who didn't get sick from ice cream with dirty fingers in.
More About Alfred Cralle
Alfred Cralle (pronounced CRAH-ley) was born in Virginia the year after the Civil War ended. His father, a carpenter, taught his son in his shop. Later, Alfred attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC, a school for African Americans set up by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. After graduation, he went to work in Pittsburgh.
We don't know how much money Cralle made from his invention. We do know that he was named assistant manager of the newly-formed Afro-American Financial, Accumulating, Merchandise and Business Association in Pittsburgh. This organisation only lasted a few years. But the basic mechanism of Cralle's ice cream scoop is still in use a century later.
Later census reports describe Alfred Cralle as a Pullman porter. Being a Pullman porter was considered a good, steady job for African American men in the early 1900s. Cralle died in 1919. His wife and two of his children had died the year before, but his sole surviving daughter, Anna, who worked for the Veterans' Administration in Tuskegee, Alabama, lived to be 98.
Technology progress is often measured in increments of small inventions like these. The world we live in is a tapestry woven by the many lives that came before us. The next time you watch the clerk scoop out your Rocky Road and pop it expertly onto that waffle cone, spare a thought for Alfred Cralle.