(Photo: Paul Lowry)
When did ice cream trucks begin serenading us with their siren song of relief from the summer heat? Dave Shumka writes that the music long predates actual ice cream trucks:
So how did the chime box become the go-to music device? According to ethnomusicologist Daniel Tannehill Neely, 19th century ice cream parlours had music boxes, mechanical cylinders with pins sticking out to pluck the tines of a steel comb as they rotated. Early foot-powered ice cream carts used racks of bells and shouting salesmen to attract customers, but when trucks came along, vendors needed something louder to be heard over the engine. Inspired by their nostalgia for the old ice cream parlours, they went back to the familiar music box technology.
In 1927, the first known chime box was custom built, and it played a traditional Polish song called “Stodola Pumpa.” It became its vendor’s trademark. Ice cream trucks didn’t become ubiquitous until after the Second World War, and that’s when the Nelson Company began manufacturing chime boxes, though they weren’t terribly energy-efficient. In 1957, Nichols Electronics improved the electronics of the design, and introduced the digital version in 1985.
All that to say, when you hear an ice cream truck playing “Little Brown Jug,” you’re hearing an updated version of a 30-year-old digital unit that replicated the sound of a 55-year-old electronic unit, based on a 65-year-old mechanical unit, which was based on the music box, which was invented more than 200 years ago. And they’ve been using the same song for 70 years, and that song was written 75 years before that. A lot of technology went into making it sound so archaic, like the sonic equivalent of Instagram.