The Bay Area’s love affair with ice cream has a long history. In 1928, an enterprising soul invented the It’s It ice cream sandwich and sold it at San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach, and it soon became a Bay Area icon. Swensen’s and Mitchell’s ice cream parlors have battled it out for ice cream parlor dominance since the 1950’s, with each attracting a loyal following. And now, there’s ice cream of every style and flavor available, whether you’re craving a simple scoop of ube, or a creamy cup of salted caramel created with liquid nitrogen.
The Bay Area also happens to be the birthplace of another frozen treat: the Popsicle. In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed some sugary soda powder with water and left the mixture out overnight. (Epperson’s location is debated: some sources, include his Associated Press obituary say he grew up in San Francisco, but others say he lived in Oakland). It was a cold night, and the mixture froze. In the morning, Epperson devoured the icy concoction, licking it off the wooden stirrer. He declared it an Epsicle, a portmanteau of icicle and his name, and started selling the treat around his neighborhood.
In 1923, Epperson decided to expand sales beyond his neighborhood. He started selling the treat at Neptune Beach, an amusement park on the coast of Alameda. Dubbed a “West Coast Coney Island,” the park featured roller coasters, baseball, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Neptune flourished in the pre-Depression days, and consumers eagerly consumed epsicles and snow cones (which also made their debut at Neptune).
Buoyed by this success, Epperson applied for a patent for his “frozen confection of attractive appearance, which can be conveniently consumed without contamination by contact with the hand and without the need for a plate, spoon, fork or other implement” at the Oakland courthouse in 1924. The patent illustrates the requirements for a perfect ice pop, including recommendations on the best wood for the stick: wood-bass, birch, and poplar. Eventually, Epperson’s children urged him to change the ice pop’s name to what they called it: a Pop’s ‘Sicle, or popsicle.
Epperson’s charming yet unverifiable origin story has since become a quaint urban legend, but it didn’t have a happy ending for the inventor. A broke Epperson sold the rights to his creation to the Joe Lowe Company in 1929, much to his regret: “I was flat and had to liquidate all my assets,” he later said. “I haven’t been the same since.”
The Lowe Company went on to catapult Epperson’s invention to national success. During the Great Depression, the company debuted the two stick popsicle to help consumers stretch their dollar, selling the duo for five cents. The company also faced competition from Good Humor–who had recently debuted its chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick–and were sued for copyright infringement. The court’s compromise? Popsicle could sell water-based treats, and Good Humor could sell ice cream pops. Popsicle tested the limits of the agreement, selling a “Milk Popsicle,” and the two companies tussled in court about the definitions of sherbert and ice cream over the years through a series of lawsuits.
The giant food corporation Unilever bought the Popsicle brand in 1989 and further expanded by introducing more options than the original fruit flavors. They also bought Good Humor, ending the feud between the two companies. Over the years, Epperson’s childhood invention achieved icon status, entry into the pantheon of American consumerism where a certain brand’s product become the default term for the item, a la Xerox or Kleenex. Also over the years, Unilever has worked to keep the name Popsicle theirs and theirs alone: in 2010, they threatened legal action against artisan Brooklyn ice pop makers People’s Pops for using the word “popsicle” on their blog.
Things have changed since Epperson debuted his invention almost a century ago. Today, Neptune Beach is nothing more than a mural in a shopping center. There are a dizzying amount of Popsicle choices on the market: Mystery Middle popsicles, Slow Melt Mighty Mini popsicles, and Frozen popsicles (“Pretend your pop is a microphone and belt, ‘Let it gooo!'”).
But despite the changes, his unhappy exit from the company and his death in 1983, Epperson’s invention–and his apocryphal origin story–continues to charm. He’s buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, where he’s featured on a tour celebrating food luminaries along with chocolate mogul Domingo Ghirardelli and mai tai inventor Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron. His story has been repeated everywhere, from the official Popsicle website–where it’s illustrated in comic form–to an inspirational Christian self-help book about trusting in God’s grand plan for your life. His childhood invention, born randomly on a freezing night, has also proved to be even more successful than he could have imagined: today, the company sells two billion Popsicles every year.