The Accidental Invention the Popsicle

Photo: © Arthur Neaman / EyeEm / Getty Images

Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be playing video games, making fart jokes and visiting old graves of Civil War soldiers (okay, maybe that was just me). Eleven-year-olds are not supposed to be revolutionizing our summer snacking. Frank Epperson however, wasn't a typical kid. In 1905 he accidentally invented everyone's favorite frozen summer treat, the Popsicle.

Iced treats are nothing new. A millennium ago, Cleopatra supposedly served Mark Antony a semi-frozen slushy and Nero dispatched slaves to get snow from nearby mountains simply to make a sorbet-like dessert. Along with silk, Marco Polo brought back recipes for frozen desserts from the Far East. George Washington purchased a "cream machine for ice" he kept at his Mount Vernon home and Dolley Madison often served ice cream at presidential dinners. Epperson though did something that, at least in recorded history, no one had thought of before him — he put a stick in it.

While the supposed origin tale of the Popsicle may be apocryphal, it's a fairly simple one. In 1905, eleven-year-old Frank Epperson of Oakland, California was messing around outside with a wooden stir stick, a glass filled with water and powdered soda mix. Later that day, he was called in for dinner, but accidentally left the liquid-filled glass outside for the evening. Fortunately for him, and the rest of us Popsicle lovers, it got atypically cold that evening (according to Collectors Weekly, the temperature only dipped below freezing three times in 1905 in Oakland). When Epperson returned to the glass in the morning, he found the mixture frozen and the wooden stick stuck inside. Licking his way through the delicious treat, even at a young age, Epperson knew what he had just done. He had made frozen refreshment portable.

While this comic on the brand Popsicle's website depicts a smiling cartoon boy excited about his invention, it doesn't explain the full story about what happened in the years after, which ends rather sadly for Epperson.

Originally naming it "Epsicle" after himself, he sold it around the neighborhood - perhaps introducing it at a firemen's ball - and, then, at Neptune Beach. Once known as the "Coney Island of the West," the waterfront amusement park near Oakland welcomed tens of thousands of visitors every summer and was a perfect place to debut a the Epsicle. In fact, the snow cone also made its premiere there.

Moderate success emboldened Epperson to patent his new frozen product. Filing the patent on June 11, 1924, Epperson explains in the document that the point of his invention was to create a frozen treat that was of "attractive appearance" that could be "conveniently consumed without contamination by contact with the hand... in thoroughly sanitary manner." Describing how to make a Popsicle in over 2000 words, Epperson explains that a wood stick that is porous, sapless and tasteless is preferable with "bass, birch and poplar being most suitable." Being wholly unimaginative, he called his tasty invention a "frozen confectionery." Sometime after the patent, Epperson's kids convinced him that both "frozen confectionery" and "Epsicle" were not good names. Since they called them "Pop's 'sicles," Epperson decided to go with that. Ever since, Epperson's invention has been known as a "Popsicle."

Less than two years later, Epperson sold the patent to the Joe Lowe Corporation. As the "largest purveyor of ingredient supplies to the Ice Cream Industry in this country" at the time, Joe Lowe thought it had the right infrastructure in place to make Popsicle huge. Plus, Epperson was out of money. As he would later say sadly, "I was flat and had to liquidate all my assets. I haven't been the same since.'' Frank Epperson died in 1983, never financially reaping the rewards of the discovery he made over seven decades earlier.

As for his invention, Joe Lowe turned the Popsicle into a frozen empire. The company upped production and began pumping out Popsicles, changing their name to the Popsicle Corporation. More importantly, however, was the immediate legal action the Popsicle Corporation took against competitors by suing them for patent infringement. Many of these companies were producing flavored ice pops with sticks despite not owning Epperson's 1924 patent. While Popsicle won (or settled in their favor) nearly all of the legal cases, the lone hold-out was Good Humor. Good Humor argued that since they produced ice cream treats, not flavored ice, they were not infringing on the patent. In 1925, the Popsicle Corporation reached a licensing agreement with Good Humor that allowed Good Humor to focus on ice cream and Popsicle to get the flavored ice market. As luck would have it, today both companies are part of Unilever.

To this day the Popsicles continue to hold their place as one of the country's most popular summer snacks. So next time, you're scarfing one down before it can melt all over your shorts, go ahead and thank a forgetful eleven-year-old for inventing the treat.

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