Penny Licks

John Hammond got it right, when faced with his imminent demise in Jurassic Park the entrepreneur played by Richard Attenborough, expecting to be eaten by dinosaurs – due to a power cut unlocking their cages – Hammond picks up a tub of melting ice cream and proceeds to eat the whole gallon tub.

This summertime treat, taken for granted now, was first sold in London at affordable prices by Carlo Gatti. Brought up in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland, after harsh beating at school he walked the 600 mile journey to Paris to join his father running a small business selling chestnuts.

[C]afés flourished in Paris at the time offering coffee and ice cream, but Gatti was ambitious and in 1847 at the age of 30 he arrived at Dover with his wife Marie. He settled into the Italian community in Holborn, the remnants of which can still be found at the western end of Clerkenwell Road.

He started selling chestnuts from a stall but by 1849 went into business with Battisa Bolla opening a café specialising in chocolate and ice cream – a treat previously reserved for the very wealthy. Soon business was booming he would go on to exhibit their chocolate machine at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Hokey-Pokey-Seller The first of five shops was opened in Hungerford Market (about where Charing Cross Station now stands) selling penny licks – a penny’s worth of ice cream served in a shell. This take-away novelty proved so popular in summer, London’s streets were soon echoing to the cry Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O che poco! (“O how little!”), meaning it was cheap rather than insufficient in quantity, and led to the cry hokey-pokey! (“Penny a lump!”).

The term “hokey-pokey” soon became identified with poor-quality ice cream, however, as it was sometimes made of questionable ingredients under very unsanitary conditions, and it was not uncommon for consumers to become ill after eating it. The way it was served didn’t help either. When customers finished eating their ice cream from a penny lick, the glass “penny lickers” were returned to the vendor who simply gave them a brisk wipe with his ever present rag before refilling them for his next customers. It’s no wonder that in London, in 1899, a law was passed to ban the use of penny licks as they were believed to contribute to the spread of tuberculosis.

By 1862 Gatti had become the biggest importer of ice from Norway. He set up a fleet of delivery carts supplying ice to householders. He would go on to open many confectioners, cafés, restaurants and even the world’s largest billiards room. At  the time Gatti died in 1878 (not from eating his products) ice cream vendors peddling their treats from brightly painted carts could be found all over London.

Photo: Penny lick vendor with horse Nancy Oswald.
Photo: Edinburgh Penny lick vendor and more information on Italian entrepreneurs The Quilietti Family

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