Ice Cream Saloons: A Place For Unchaperoned Women.

Ice cream parlor of L. C. Fish, Merced, Calif.

Ice cream parlor of L. C. Fish, Merced, Calif. Source.

…Throughout the 19th century, restaurants catered to a predominately male clientele. Much like taverns and gentlemen’s clubs, they were places where men went to socialize, discuss business, and otherwise escape the responsibilities of work and home. It was considered inappropriate for women to dine alone, and those who did were assumed to be prostitutes. Given this association, unescorted women were banned from most high-end restaurants and generally did not patronize taverns, chophouses, and other masculine haunts.

As American cities continued to expand, it became increasingly inconvenient for women to return home for midday meals. The growing demand for ladies’ lunch spots inspired the creation of an entirely new restaurant: the ice-cream saloon. At a time when respectable women were excluded from much of public life, these decadent eateries allowed women to dine alone without putting their bodies or reputations at risk.


The first ice cream saloons were humble cafes that served little more than ice cream, pastries, and oysters. As women became more comfortable eating out, they expanded into opulent, full-service restaurants with sophisticated menus that rivaled those at most other elite establishments. In 1850, a journalist described one ice cream saloon as offering “an extensive bill of fare … ice cream — oysters, stewed, fried and broiled; —broiled chickens, omelettes, sandwiches; boiled and poached eggs; broiled ham; beef-steak, coffee, chocolate, toast and butter.” According to the historian Paul Freeman, the 1862 menu of an ice cream saloon in New York ran a whopping 57 pages and featured mother of pearl detailing.


Although ice cream parlors had an air of dainty domesticity, they also developed more sultry reputations. At the time, they were one of the few places where both men and women could go unchaperoned. As a result, they became popular destinations for dates and other illicit rendezvous. “Did a young lady wish to enjoy the society of the lover whom ‘Papa’ had forbidden the house?” the New York Times wrote in 1866. “A meeting at Taylor’s was arranged, where soft words and loving looks served to atone for parental harshness, and aided the digestion of pickled oysters.”

Innocent young couples weren’t the only pairs tucked together in the velvet booths. During a trip to Taylor’s, one writer observed “a middle-aged man and woman in deep and earnest conversation. They are evidently man and wife—though not each others!” Moralists were also outraged by the presence of pimps, prostitutes, and women “who were not over particular with the company they kept.” These scandalous scenes prompted rumors of ice cream “drugged with passion-exciting Vanilla” that seduced virtuous women into taking “the first step…which leads to infamy.”

These charges did little to dissuade respectable women from patronizing ice cream saloons. In fact, their reputation as “a trysting ground for all sorts of lovers” may have made the saloons all the more enticing. According to the Times, Taylor’s “always maintained its popularity, in spite of (or perhaps because of) rumors that it afforded most elegant opportunities for meetings not entirely correct.”

Oh my, passion-exciting Vanilla! I have vanilla ice cream in my freezer, and I had no idea of the evil I was hosting. I’ll enjoy it all the more for that. You can read much more about the history of Ice Cream Saloons at Atlas Obscura.


  1. ridana says

    Ice cream and oysters? That’s mentioned so many times I have to wonder if the ladies were pearl diving in these “trysting ground(s) for all sorts of lovers…” Sorry, got carried away by the vanilla.

  2. kestrel says

    When my family moved to Utah way back when, it was one of the things my parents remarked on: all the ice cream parlors. Bars were hard to come by but there was seemingly an ice cream parlor everywhere you looked. The idea that in the 1800s ice cream parlors became scandalous places of dalliance is therefore really hilarious to me. If only the Mormons knew! They would shut down those filthy dens of iniquity immediately!

    Also, vanilla is a gate-way drug?! That’s even funnier. Especially if a Mormon ever said it.

  3. rq says

    And they say vanilla is borin. Pfft. Though I have to say my favourite by far is plain old plombīrs, basically no-flavour (= cream!!!) ice cream. Like eating frozen whipped cream (kind of like the ice cream part of ice cream sandwiches but better, and not at all like Cool Whip). It is Teh Best.
    After that, I like cheesecake flavours, and maple-walnut, and black cherry. What a harlot am I! Does enjoying it from a cone as opposed to in a bowl make me especially lascivious? The curious mind would like to know exactly how promiscuously I should be thinking next time I’m enjoying my dessert.

  4. says

    During a trip to Taylor’s, one writer observed “a middle-aged man and woman in deep and earnest conversation. They are evidently man and wife—though not each others!”

    I don’t see any indication of how this writer could know that.

    Anyway, we had some guests from California a few years ago, and they were surprised to hear about maple walnut ice cream. I thought they had everything in California.

  5. anat says

    ridana, my mind went to Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg, who says that the Carrot and Oyster Pie is a good, all-around aphrodisiac.

    “Carrot’s so’s you can see in the dark, and oysters so’s you have something to look at.”

  6. jazzlet says

    In the UK tea rooms provided the place respectable women could eat and meet each other. I’m not aware of them ever becoming places of rendezvous with men!

  7. johnson catman says

    57-page menu!!!!!!!!!! You would need an hour just to peruse that, and then have to make a choice. Leisurely lunch or dinner for sure. I don’t know if the link you provided shows the menu as it is behind a pay-wall, but maybe it was one item per page.

  8. Ice Swimmer says

    57-page menu? I think it’s entirely possible that no restaurant in Finland has ever had a 57-page menu.

    Here they didn’t let unchaperoned women into dance/night club style bars/restaurants until 1970s. This was allegedly to keep the reputation of the restaurant “clean” (no prostitutes), maybe in fear that an establishment with a bad reputation might get its alcohol permits revoked or downgraded. I don’t know how it was with regular dining places or cafés, apart from the info that women could dine unchaperoned in 1960s.

    I eat vanilla or strawberry ice cream (made of oats and vegetable fats, not milk) at home and rum-and-raisin/rum croquant or licorice ice cream away from home. I do add raspberry jam to vanilla ice cream at home.

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