Blog post

The history of ice cream in Sweden

When ice cream travelled north

black and white photograph, three young women, one of whom is eating an ice cream cone
Larissa Borck (opens in new window) (Sörmlands museum)

A summer without ice cream is unimaginable to many. In Europe, the most northern countries are amongst those with the biggest passion for ice-cream; Finland, Sweden and Denmark eat most in Europe.

With a deep dive into the Swedish history of ice-cream, we'll take a look at when Swedes started to perceive ice cream as an everyday product and why a small town in rural Sweden once had the biggest ice cream factory in Scandinavia.

When ice-cream entered the scene

The first time a dessert started to resemble modern ice cream was probably in the first half of the 17th century when Catherine di Medici's sugar bakers froze fruit puree or juice.

The cold dessert quickly became a trend among the French upper class and the first ice cream parlour opened its doors in Paris in the 1660s. It was not until the 19th century that ice cream became available to the general public, although it was still a luxury. In contrast to many other luxurious foods, ice cream was not exclusive because of its ingredients, but because of the complexity of making it.

black and white photograph of two young women eating ice-cream cones

In Sweden, the success of ice cream began in the 18th century. For example, recipes for 'glace' are found in Cajsa Warg's cookbook from 1755 (the French word was usually used at that time, but the Swedish word for ice cream, 'glass', shows its inheritance). She already wrote about ice cream based on milk and cream which became common in the 18th century. Before that, ice cream consisted of ice or snow mixed with, for example, fruit, honey or spices. It was called 'sharbat' in Arabic, which we recognise in the word for sorbet.

Ice cream skills

The Swedish public discovered ice cream in the middle of the 19th century, when immigrants from Italy, Switzerland, Germany or Austria began to open ice cream parlours in Stockholm.

The first street sales began in 1890 which had exactly one flavour: vanilla. Ice cream consisted of milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. There was more variety after World War I, when ice cream cones and other flavours became popular. The ice cream still had a different consistency compared to what we are used to today.

black and white photograph, a man loads large blocks of ice from a small wooden structure onto a horse-drawn sled

Homemade ice cream

The complicated preparation process was what made ice cream a luxury item for a long time - so that only the upper class could afford. First, you needed the ability to refrigerate food, with snow, ice or a coolant with saltpetre, for example. In the picture above, you can see how ice and snow were collected during the winter to chill food until summer.

colour photograph of a cylinder copper tool with a handle on top

Before the invention of the ice-cream maker, people used different forms of tin or copper, which were then placed in ice or snow to freeze the contents. There were ice-cream moulds in two halves which were filled with the mass and frozen to give the ice-cream different shapes.

colour photograph of a dark grey ice-cream mould in shape of a duck

To give ice cream the soft texture we know today, a mechanical process is needed that could break up the developing ice crystals during cooling. An ice cream machine was needed! In 1751, Joseph Gilliers introduced the sorbetière: a freezer box in the middle surrounded by a mixture of ice and salt. The ice cream had to be turned regularly until it was completely frozen.

colour photograph of a tool for ice-cream making consisting of a wooden barrel with stirring apparatus and a cylindrical metallic box

The Husqvarna 'glacemaskin' was an early version of ice cream machines. It consists of different parts: a cylindrical cooling box, with a wooden whisk, placed in a wooden bucket. The whisk is driven by a crank with gears that hook into cogs on the lid.

This led to the development of the ice cream machine, which relies on constant movement to freeze ice cream evenly and quickly. You can see a (still working) Husqvarna model in the picture above. It could take hours to freeze the ice cream, turning the ice cream again and again.

The industrialisation of ice cream production took off after World War II, and from the 1950s onwards glass consumption has increased steadily in Europe.

Scandinavia's largest ice cream factory

Sörmland played a special role in the success of ice cream in Sweden. It was here that a significant part of Swedish ice cream was produced after ice cream production became an industry.

black and white photograph, a man (wearing a white coat and mask) pours ice-cream into containers from a hose-like tool

In the USA, the first ice cream machine was invented in 1927, facilitating industrial ice cream production. Eric Wilhelm Hanner, the son of a director at Mjölkcentralen, now Arla, travelled there to learn about the future of dairy.

He came back from his study trips to Denmark and the USA and was absolutely convinced that ice cream was the future for Mjölkcentralen. But the directors were sceptical. In the end, they hesitantly agreed to his idea of trying to produce ice cream industrially, because they could use their surplus milk fat and butter for it.

Puck was the name of Mjölkcentralen's ice cream company at the time, and the first ice cream with the same name was launched in 1935 - and it was a great success.

black and white photograph of a man carrying a box with text Puck Glass

During World War II, many ice cream ingredients were rationed and competition between the various ice cream manufacturers was fierce. In 1942, Glace-Bolaget, GB, was formed by three of the former competitors, including Puck Glass. Eric W. Hanner became the first director.

After the war, interest grew and larger production facilities were required: in 1957, GB opened Scandinavia's largest ice cream factory in Flen, which still exists and produces ice cream - about 50 million litres a year. In fact, it is still Sweden's largest ice cream factory. There were also ice cream factories in Strängnäs and Nyköping, two other cities in Sörmland county.

black and white photograph, a man posing with two children who are dressed in a costume with the logo GB Glace

Ice cream - a part of everyday life

The 1950s were the year of ice cream: the American teenage culture made ice cream more and more popular, and in the hot summer of 1955 alone, ice cream production increased by 50 percent - and yet Swedish ice cream manufacturers had to import ice cream from Denmark because Swedes couldn't get enough of it.

black and white photograph, two men standing in front of an ice-cream truck

More and more households in Sweden also had a refrigerator with a freezer compartment or even a freezer box. Sometimes they also rented space in a collective freezer compartment, of which there were around 30 000 in Sweden. The ice cream van delivered the ice cream to the door and so it quickly became an everyday commodity.

Since then, many different varieties of ice cream have been developed, in different shapes and with lots of flavours. Over the past twenty years, consumption of ice cream has declined in Sweden, yet Swedes were always among the nations with the greatest appetite for ice cream. However, during the corona pandemic, ice cream sales have increased again, especially ice cream that can be eaten at home or is sold in large packs.