The Frozen Mistake That Made a Fortune

The Frozen Mistake That Made a Fortune
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Why you should care

Because sometimes klutziness — not necessity — is the mother of invention. 

The history of the Popsicle is clumsy in more ways than one. The details are certainly muddled — appropriate, perhaps, for a creation almost totally bungled by its own inventor. The popular origin story for this frozen treat goes as follows: In 1905 in San Francisco, 11-year-old Frank Epperson accidentally left a wooden stirrer in a glass of soda powder and water on his porch one freezing night. The next morning, Epperson woke up to discover he had invented the Popsicle — something he initially named the Epsicle, a combination of his own name and “icicle.” Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1923 that it dawned on him that this could be a money-spinner, and he changed the name to Popsicle, reflecting that it was essentially frozen soda pop (early adverts billed it “a drink on a stick”). Fortunately, no one had a similar brain wave in the almost 20 years Epperson sat on it. But, despite patenting the Popsicle in 1924, he couldn’t quite break even and sold his idea to the Joe Lowe Corporation — which went on to make a fortune from the frozen treat.

Frank Epperson

Popsicle inventor Frank Epperson, 78, and granddaughter Nancy Epperson, 5, celebrate the 50th anniversary of his invention with a Popsicle!

Source Bettmann/Getty Images

The story was convincing enough for The San Francisco Chronicle to claim in 1971 that Epperson’s accidental “Eureka!” moment occurred “the night that Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park froze over.” Other reports raise a tricky point, however, insisting temperatures in San Francisco didn’t dip below freezing in 1905. They did across the bay in Oakland though, where Frank lived and worked as a lemonade salesman. Other versions of the tale claim Epperson’s kids came up with the name Popsicle — meaning “pop’s icicle.” But the most problematic challenge to the narrative comes from food historian Andrew Smith, who tells us: “Frozen fruit on sticks has been around in the United States since the 1870s.”

If nothing else, Frank Epperson invented the moniker that to this day is attributed to the chilly confection. In fact, it was only after he christened it that the product really took off. It also helped that supermarkets with large freezer compartments became commonplace around this time, not to mention Joe Lowe’s experience with advertising and promotion.

“By 1928, you had 60 million Popsicles being sold annually — a huge increase in a very short period of time,” Smith notes. Today, it’s estimated 2 billion Popsicles are sold every year.

Frank could also be credited with introducing a theme of ham-handedness to the popsicle’s bumbling journey toward world domination. According to that same San Francisco Chronicle report, the Popsicle evolved to feature thin-bladed sticks after “the original round sticks were judged dangerous — pedestrians slipped on them.”

Another sticky step in the popsicle’s checkered past was the creation of the two-stick Popsicle, which hit the market during the Great Depression, allowing two people to share a treat for the bargain price of 5 cents. It was discontinued in 1986, however, because — The New York Times reported — “mothers had found the twin ice pop messy and were tired of cleaning up. Small children couldn’t lick fast enough in alternating sequence to keep one or the other stick from dripping.” Ruinous, sticky stains are perhaps the most persistent part of the Popsicle’s legacy. If only parents back then had access to Clorox Splash-Less bleach (a true boon to klutzes) the two-stick Popsicle might still be around today.

Dig deeper into the Popsicle story and it’s likely many prominent historical figures also struggled with the dreaded “Popsicle drip.” According to academic journals, the Romans ground blocks of ice they carried down from mountains with fruit and syrup to take the heat off sweltering summers. The court of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan is said to have served frozen ices to Marco Polo in the 13th century. No doubt many an innocent would have been saved from the wrath of a disgruntled barbarian had there been adequate access to stain remover.

Today, the Popsicle is trademarked, and though a wave of gourmet Popsicle shops have opened in recent years, these bespoke retreats would face legal action were they use the P word to refer to their frozen treats.

It’s a simple idea, but a really good one.

Stephen DiMare, The Hyppo

“It’s unfortunate we can’t say ‘Popsicle,’ as it has such a nice ring,” admits Stephen DiMare, founder of Florida’s wildly successful gourmet ice pop franchise The Hyppo. “It’s the perfect word for what it is.” That snag hasn’t affected business though; after opening in 2010, DiMare has expanded to 11 flagship stores — selling flavors like avocado coconut and pineapple cilantro — and gone from making 400 to 30,000 ice pops a week.

Despite a wobbly trajectory, then, an idea popularized by a forgetful 11-year-old continues to endure and evolve. Like DiMare says: “It’s a simple idea, but a really good one.”