The Good Humor Man, a tale of hot summers long ago.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. To get into the mood of this article, I recommend searching any search engine to find one old summer song that retains its toe-tapping zest. It’s Mungo Jerry’s 1970 hit “In The Summertime.” So timeless is this infectious little number that Hershey’s, the chocolatiers, is using it in a current (June, 2011) ad campaign. As  Mungo says in the song, “Sing along with us.” My prediction is that you won’t be able to help yourself… it’s ok, when summer comes we’re all young again… and just plain happy to be alive.

Two things that could not be denied inspired this article… first the oppressive record-setting heat wave here in New England, a phenomenon which turned all of us in the city from folks assiduously avoiding each other into sweltering fellow travelers, anxious to hear the latest news about possible relief… and having no hesitation or shyness about reaching out for news and the agreeable opportunity to be resoundingly banal, “Hot enough for you?”

The second thing that caught my attention was the trill of bells which sounded at first hearing just the way the bells sounded from the Good Humor truck as it traversed the neighborhood, proving beyond a doubt that all us Illinois kids had absolutely no hearing problems; we could hear those bells across Guinness-Book-Of-Records distances… and nothing, but nothing, was going to get in the way of that truck and all of us making an absolutely certain rendezvous. It was clearly written in the Book of Kid Rights and Privileges, that it was our irrevocable and bounden duty to hear its bells, stop the wagon, and look long and hard for what a dime could get you. Personally, I was always seduced by the orange creamsicles. I haven’t seen, much less enjoyed one for decades… but as I write, I am falling helplessly into the insistent consumer mode which marked all my encounters with the mobile ice-cream emporium. The truck arrived; my  money departed.

You need to be very clear about our relationship to Good Humor and its cascade of ice-cream novelties. Kids we ceased to be when we saw the truck and reviewed our resources. We were practised buyers, omniscient as to what was on that truck and what we fancied and would have, negotiators with proven skills, discerning, our “due diligence” certain, exhaustive, no doubt frustrating to the college kid home for the summer who wore the company’s uniform and drove the company’s vehicle… Long-suffering, so young himself and barely out of the juvenile consumer throng before him, he saw his profits melting as his  pint-sized customers looked, looked again, made a decision, changed their mind, then looked some more…

It was a ritual, and no matter how many times you stopped the wagon, you performed it, loyally and with care. It was, after all,  part of the experience… and, besides, you knew, none better, that the customer (even the most dilatory) was always right. It was something your father told you that you never forgot.

Some facts about Good Humor.

As a card-carrying kid and loyal Good Humor customer I knew absolutely nothing about the company whose success hinged on the wishes and buying power of kids like me. The only thing I cared about was whether they had orange creamsicles (they always did)… and what new novelties they had, putting them prominently at the front, the better to seduce me from my unending favorite; I have to admit I was always willing to try the new offerings, particularly if they came with the lure of that magic word: “deal” and a handful of discount coupons, which soon expired but could be seen months later under refrigerator magnets.

So ignorant then about my favorite company, I felt obliged for this article to rectify the matter… and so I have. Originally, Good Humors were a product, chocolate coated ice cream bars on a stick; I loved these too and regarded it as my particular job to ensure Grammie always had a good supply; since she loved them, too, my job was never onerous.  Grammie and Grampa had great power and influence on Good Humor drivers. One never-to-be-forgotten day, Grampa who (I now know) had a talent for the right  gesture at the right time, peremptorily stopped the wagon when the supply of ice-cream had run low at a birthday party Grammie was hosting for one of my young cousins. With a practised gesture I can see to this day, he ordered the wagon to stop… and invited all the guests young and old to take their pick of the inventory. When the impressed and jubilant driver had done his work, Grampa tipped him liberally, it may even have been $20, a fortune. Grampa was a dark horse in such gestures; he didn’t make them often (for he was a good penny-pinching, investing Hanoverian) but when he did… people noticed, winked, and said “Good Old Walt,” with just the right amount of admiration. They knew, and in due course all the grandchildren knew, that under his gruffness, an art form, there was a man who knew just when to be lavish with ice-cream… or whatever was called for.

Good Humor, having found success with Good Humor bars, did what all successful businesses do: it added new products, always using America’s kiddoes as ground zero for testing and launching new products. Good Humor started in Youngstown, Ohio in the ‘twenties; by the mid-‘thirties it covered most of the nation. Catering to the national sweet tooth and a love-affair with ice-cream that still seems inexhaustible, Good Humor flourished, until at its peak in the 1950s, the company operated 2,000 “sales cars”.

But the tribal ways of Good Humor, which I knew to my fingertips, were under threat; baby boomers like me grew up and put aside Good Humor along with the baseball glove and “Mad” magazine.. There were labor issues, costs increased, gasoline and insurance soared. And profits declined.

In 1961, Good Humor was acquired by Thomas J. Lipton, the US subsidiary of the international Unilever conglomerate. Sad but true, in 1978 the company sold its fleet, and an era truly came to an end. Distribution was then handled by grocery stores and independent street vendors. By 1984, Good Humor was profitable again… and (from 1989) growing. Gold Bond Ice Cream, that included the Popsicle brand, was acquired… and in due course Isaly Klondike and the Brewers Ice Cream Company. Nine plants nationwide work hard keeping up with the demand. (I confess I love Brewers chocolate ice-cream whose taste rivals more expensive brands.) I am glad that they prosper, for having lost creamsicles, I can ill afford to lose any more flavors… or a single memory.

Having completed this article, I shall allow myself the luxury (though it is very early on a Sunday) to reward myself with an ice-cream flavor I did not previously know, peach cobbler. It’s by Ben & Jerry,whose flavors I cherish, though their politics are intrusive and unappealing.

I am glad the store is handy… I am glad I won’t have to wait for the ice-cream truck to come, always late, increasing my impatience.

And I am glad I have shared this story with you. For while there have been many vicissitudes at Good Humor… the only thing that really matters, the ice-cream itself, abides, perfect for a hot summer’s day like the one just dawning. And that is good to know and to share with a friend.

Publisher Note: I’d like to add a footnote to this article for those UK readers like myself. This article brings back the same sort of memories to me but for Mr Whippy Ice Cream. The jingle of ‘Greensleaves’ would have all the kids in our street running in the house to get some money for a cornette or a lolly. So I’m sure my UK readers will be able to relate to this article if they just think about Mr Whippy and his lovely smooth ice cream.

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc.,  providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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