Didn’t Dolley Madison invent ice cream? Or was she just the first to serve it at the White House? And wasn’t oyster ice cream her favorite?

The short answer: No, no, and no.

For the long answer to our ice cream questions, we’ll need to dip into a little more historical research, and see how far we can track the elusive ice cream paper trail.

Dolley Madison may not have invented ice cream, but her name is closely associated with it, as illustrated on this vintage restaurant sign. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Off to a Chilly Start

No one knows who invented ice cream. Icy treats go back as far as the flavored chipped ice enjoyed in ancient Rome, and the frozen dairy confections developed in China by at least the 1300s. Italian cooks had learned to freeze (not just chill) their cream using ice and salt by the late 1600s. The earliest English cookbook with a recipe for ice cream was Mrs Mary Eales Receipts in 1718 – published 50 years before Dolley Madison was born.1Mary Miley Theobold, “Some Cold, Hard Historical Facts About Good Old Ice Cream,” CW Journal, Winter 2010, accessed July 8, 2019. Dolley was 28 years old and married to Philadelphia lawyer John Todd when the first ice cream recipe was published in an American cookbook, The New Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs. It was published in 1792 – coincidentally, in Philadelphia.2Ice Cream,” The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, accessed July 8, 2019. (Check out Some Cold, Hard Historical Facts about ice cream history here.)

James Peale painted this miniature of Dolley, likely around the time of her 1797 marriage to James. Had she read the first American ice cream recipe, published in 1792? Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Ice Cream at the President’s House

Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson both got the scoop on Dolley when it came to serving ice cream in the President’s official residence. Abigail Adams wrote that at Martha Washington’s Friday drawing rooms, “She gives Tea, Coffe, Cake, Lemonade & Ice Creams in summer.”3Abigail Adams to “my dear Sister,” July 27, 1790, quoted in Stewart Mitchell (editor) and Abigail Smith Adams, New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 23192. Martha was serving her ice creams in New York, still the capital of the United States when Abigail wrote in July 1790.

Jefferson also served ice cream at the President’s House, by then located in the new capital of Washington, DC. Jefferson is credited as the first American to write down an ice cream recipe, which survives in the Library of Congress. Jefferson likely obtained the directions from his French butler, Adrien Petit, whose name appears on a similar recipe written down by one of Jefferson’s granddaughters.4Ice Cream,” The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, accessed July 8, 2019

With presentation being everything, the ice cream sometimes made a splashy appearance on Jefferson’s table in a warm pastry crust. Catherine Mitchell, a Senator’s wife, wrote in 1806, “When the desert appear’d the baked ice cream attracted my attention. … It is ice cream inclosed in a cover of warm paste, which gives the appearance of having been just taken from the oven.”5Catherine Mitchill to Margaret Miller, April 8, 1806, Catherine Akerly Cock Mitchill family papers, MS 34819, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 23589. (That’s what fans of The Great British Baking Show would call a showstopper!)

Catherine Mitchill encountered ice cream again at the President’s House during Jefferson’s last New Year’s Day reception in 1809. In this instance, servers moved through the crowd with “refreshments [which] consisted of Cake, Wine, Punch and Ice cream. These were handed round very liberally, & those who did not get supplied to their liking could go to the side board and help themselves…”6Catherine Mitchill to Margaret Miller, January 11, 1809, Catherine Akerly Cock Mitchill family papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 23591.

 

Dolley Dishes It Up

Like her predecessors, Dolley served ice cream at the President’s House at both sit-down dinners and stand-up receptions. In November 1812, prominent Washingtonian Sarah Gales Seaton described how ice cream had replaced pastry at the Madison dinner table during “the dessert, at which by the way, no pastry is countenanced. Ice-creams, maccaroons, preserves and various cakes are placed on the table, which are removed for almonds, raisins, pecan-nuts, apples, pears, etc.”7Sarah Gales Seaton, diary entry for November 12, 1812, Unlocated, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 28297.

Ice cream figured prominently among the refreshments at Dolley’s signature social event, her Wednesday evening drawing room. Held nearly every week that Congress was in session, these events were often crowded enough to be called a “squeeze.” Scottish visitor Alexander Dick attended one of the early drawing rooms in June 1809 and reported that “tea Coffee, Ice Creams Cakes & refreshments were handed round which was all the entertainment.”8Alexander Dick, Journal Entry, 7 June 1809, Alexander Dick Journal, 1806-1809, MS 4528, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 23275.

Ice cream also appeared at the traditional New Year’s Day receptions during the Madison administration. Catherine Mitchell commented in January 1811, “When the Ice cream and other dainties were brought in those who wish’d to get a taste were obliged to keep a sharp look out. In such a crowd, it was almost impossible for the Servants to get near every one, and if they attempted it, the good things would all slip away before they succeeded.”9Catherine Mitchill to Margaret Miller, January 2, 1811, Catherine Akerly Cock Mitchill family papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 23593. Sarah Gales Seaton attended the 1814 New Year’s reception and noted “partaking of some ice-creams and a glass of Madeira, shaking hands with the President and tendering our good wishes.”10Sarah Gales Seaton, diary entry for January 2, 1814, Unlocated, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 28296.

 

A Fork in the Paper Trail

While it might not be surprising that visitors to the President’s House would leave written mentions of ice cream in their letters and diaries, the ice cream paper trail also takes an unexpected turn through an obscure category of government documents. The Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts include invoices from merchants and craftsmen who were paid from taxpayer funds for everything the President’s House required: from elegant sofas and draperies, to necessary repairs for drains and clocks. And in some instances these suppliers were providing utensils for making and serving ice cream.11Ellen Donald, The Madison Presidency Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts: How Can They Enhance the Interpretation of Montpelier?, July 2011, Montpelier Research Files, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 40946.

From the Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, we learn that the Madison’s chef and butler Michel Kromenacker spent $8.00 in June 1810 for “3 Ice cream Moulds and ladles and repairing.”12Michel Kromenacker, February 8, 1810 – July 1810 (unbound packet 1:13), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27469. In 1812 George Kellenburger submitted invoices for $4.00 for four ice cream baskets or buckets13George Kellenburger, January 1, 1812 (packet [A]: 9), RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 32773.(Kellenburger’s handwriting leaves something to be desired), and for $5.00 for four ice cream tubs.14George Kellenberger, December 27, 1812 (packet [A]: 3), RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 32778.

Detail of Michel Kromenacher’s household expenditures from February to July 1810. Courtesy of National Archives.

After the burning of the President’s House on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, the Madisons relocated first to the Octagon House, then to the Seven Buildings. This meant that they had to re-equip new presidential residences. The Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts show the purchase of an ice cream spoon for $2.00 in November 1814,15Johan Achman, October 22, 1814 – March 4, 1815 (packet 1:3), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27563. two ice cream buckets for $3.00 in January 1815,16John Leatch, January 30, 1815 (packet 3:7), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27541. and two ice cream molds for $1.25 in January 1816,17Henry Ault & Co., January 15, 1816 (packet 2:30), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27512. as well as the mending of an ice cream mold for 40 cents in February 1816.18Jacob Hines, February 28, 1816 (packet 3:29), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27530.

These references to ice cream in the everyday reality of household accounting help to ground the near-mythical depictions of Dolley Madison graciously dispensing ice cream and hospitality. Each dinner or drawing room reception was realized with the hard work of the kitchen staff (both paid and enslaved) and those utilitarian buckets, molds, and spoons.

In addition to the items purchased for use at the Seven Buildings, the Madisons probably brought their own French porcelain dinner service, which included two dessert coolers, from Montpelier to their new residence. James had ordered the set in 1806 while Secretary of State. As a widow, Dolley still had the “2 ice-cream vases” at her house on Lafayette Square in Washington, according to an 1842 inventory. 19“Inventory of Mrs. D. P. Madison’s furniture in House in Washington,” November 15, 1842, box 1, folder 1840–1842, Papers of Dolley Madison, MS 18940, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 142.

 

Oyster Ice Cream: Anybody’s Favorite?

Dolley never expressed a preference for any flavor of ice cream in writing, nor are there any surviving accounts where friends noted what she liked best. It’s impossible to say how the story started that oyster ice cream was her favorite. We do know, however, that a recipe for oyster ice cream made its way to Montpelier, via Mary Randolph’s cookbook The Virginia House-Wife.

Mary Randolph was a friend of James and Dolley Madison and visited Montpelier on more than one occasion. She sent James Madison the second edition of her cookbook in 1825 (explaining that she had not sent the first edition because it was “exceedingly defective”).20Mary Randolph to James Madison, March 17, 1825, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 17557. Admitting that he knew less about cooking than eating, James employed his trademark wry wit in a thank-you note for the cookbook: “Of the value of its precepts on paper I cannot undertake to judge: when reduced to practice on the table, the question will be less beyond my pretentions.”21James Madison to Mary Randolph, March 26, 1825, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 8, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 17565.

Mary Randolph’s cookbook offered 14 different ice cream recipes, including vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, coconut, chocolate, peach, coffee, lemon – and oyster. Her oyster ice cream was not sweet. It was just a rich oyster soup with the oysters strained out, then frozen. Think of it being more in the family of cold savory soups like vichyssoise (leek and potato soup) or cold cucumber soup — just a lot colder.

Did Dolley ever experiment with oyster ice cream? How would James judge the recipe “when reduced to practice on the table”? At this point the ice cream paper trail grows very, very cold.

 

Ice Cream and Dolley: Frozen Together

If Dolley didn’t invent ice cream, and wasn’t the first to serve it at the President’s House, why is her name so inextricably linked to ice cream?

Perhaps it wasn’t the ice cream itself, but the style with which it was served. Guests might have been handed an ice cream at Martha Washington’s formal levee, but they probably didn’t have as much fun as at one of Dolley Madison’s Wednesday night drawing rooms, squeezing through the Washington glitterati and watching Dolley charm the crowd of political friends and foes.

With the passage of time, the memory of Dolley’s hospitality loomed ever larger. Later generations linked her image with the idealization of True Womanhood, and enterprising businesses tied her name to all sorts of products identified with home and hospitality (while inexplicably dropping the “e” from that storied name).

And of all the products peddled under her name, none says “Dolley Madison” (or rather, “Dolly Madison”), quite like ice cream: that sweet, captivating, elegant dish that brings everyone to the table.

A “Dolly Madison” branded electric ice cream freezer for the home, along with packaging for commercially-made Dolly Madison Ice Cream. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail, especially if there’s ice cream at the end of it.

2 Comments

  • I was hoping you’d add where Dolly Madison ice cream originated. I grew up in Orange but lived in Greensboro,NC for a couple of years. I believe it’s along Route 220 where I’d see signs for Dolly Madison Ice Cream. I was told or maybe assumed that it was named that since Dolley lived in Greensboro when she was growing up. Interesting that we lived in two of the same towns. And not only was I aware of Dolley because she had lived at Montpelier, but also because she is one of my ancestors on the Payne side.

    • I would love to know more about the Dolly Madison ice cream company! I’ve only found a few references online, like this article about the closing of Dolly Madison ice cream stores in Denver: https://extras.denverpost.com/business/biz0222a.htm. I’m sure there was more to the company than that, especially since you remember seeing it in Greensboro NC. If anyone knows more about the company, please let us know!

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