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Industries, Ice Cream & Barrel Organs

The British ice cream industry was born in the many "Little Italies" where Italian immigrants had settled. Originally farmers, they worked long hours making ice cream in the cellars of their little homes.
Whole families worked together and one can imagine the bustle of activity in one of these small cellars. The walls were usually whitewashed, giving it a fresh , clean look. There would be a gas ring, upon which would be placed a huge pan of milk. The milk was boiled, and the makers would add their various ingredients. After boiling, the liquid was allowed to cool in several large metal buckets, each covered with a white cloth, until the following day. The smell of the delicious cooling milk would waft up from the cellar and pervade the living quarters upstairs, sometimes proving too much of a temptation for the children. They would run into the kitchen, take a cup, and go down into the cellar to sample the mouthwatering creation. Every family had their own secret recipe, so they thought. And everybody thought they made the best ice cream!

Order form for imported Italian foodstuffs from my great grandfather Carlo Tiani's shop, circa 1912


The next day the freezing would commence, a particularly strenuous task. The freezing tub would be packed with ice and salt, purchased locally from the Blossom Street Ice Company. The churning was done by hand. The ice cream makers would turn the tub again and again until the product was finally frozen. It was a job which was always undertaken in good spirits, and many would accompany their work with a favourite Neapolitan song.

In those days there were no motor vehicles for the ice cream men. The italian vendors used their imagination and gift of turning their hands to anything, and built their own push and pony carts. They carved figures and scenes of their native Italy, painted them in all colours, and finished them off with their names on the sides. Most vendors had their own rounds or selling pitches.

The popular twist cones and wafers of today were not available then; in those early days 'licking glasses' were used. However they became a health hazard, and the biscuit was invented in 1904 at the St. Louis fair in America. This was to be the salvation of the ice cream industry.

Balance sheet of my great grandfather's. The early Italian immigrants preferred to bank with Italian banks. Circa 1927
Yes ice cream was the most popular of jobs, but there were others. Hawking the barrel organ around the streets, with a small monkey or a dancing bear, was one. Some organ grinders owned their own barrel organs, others would rent them from the Mancini or Marrocca families on Jersey Street. The hire charge for an organ was about one shilling and seven pence per day. According to records the organ grinder earned up to six shillings per day. The invention of the gramaphone and radio saw the eventual demise of the organ grinder.

Italians would also travel the country around the many fairs selling toy birds on sticks, balloons, chestnuts, black beans, and fortune-telling with birds. Then there were the figurine makers, the accordion players, and the itinerant knife grinders who serviced the cutlery of hotels and mansion houses. More skilled jobs were mosaic laying and terrazzo tiling, and the making of musical instruments and barometers.


My great uncle and aunt, Antonio and Paulina Rea (nee Dell Duca) with barrel organ
My great grandfather Carlo Tiani outside his Italian deli, 1913, which sold everything from prosciutto, salami, wines, oils, cheese, biscuits, bread, cakes and terrone to handmade italian shawls
Tobone and Mollicone terrazzo and mosaic flooring workers.
Some of the terrazzo tilers who worked for Quiligotti and Stefanutti.
A pasta order list, showing the various types, from which my great grandfather would import for his shop (above)
Fortune Teller with her birds, circa 1900s

All text and images (unless marked *) Anthony Rea 2010
not to be used without permission. All rights reserved