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culture

Historicist: Don’t Scream for Ice Cream

In the 1960s, Toronto's suburbs declared war on ice cream trucks and other mobile vendors.

A crowd of children gather around a Good Humour salesman selling his treats in a North York driveway. The Don Mills Mirror, July 13, 1966.

The sight and sounds of an ice cream truck are, as Torontoist declared last year, “SUMMER INCARNATE.” While many of us enjoy walking up to the nearest parked truck to sample its dairy/pseudo-dairy delights, there are those who see a darker side to the vehicles. Half a century ago, Toronto’s suburbs engaged in a war against roaming vendors of ice cream and other treats in the name of safety and preserving tranquility.

The main reason cited for banishing ice cream trucks and other mobile food vendors was child safety. Thanks to periodic accidents, politicians and editorial page letter writers maintained that children were so distracted by the lure of dairy delights that they were oblivious to oncoming traffic. Read between the lines of the complaints and you’ll find that the trucks were targeted for their ability to drain the pockets of parents, create noise pollution, and a sense that they brought the class of any upstanding neighbourhood down a notch. In a letter to the Don Mills Mirror published in June 1963, Don Mills resident Bridget Rees found it “quite touching but at the same time hypocritical” that North York officials pushed to remove trucks from township streets. “If children’s safety is the reason for the ban,” Rees wrote, “why are there so few sidewalks in North York.” Rees pointed out that nobody was calling to ban bread or milk delivery trucks, and pointed to one neighbourhood, Glenorchy Gardens, which was fighting sidewalks it believed were “a mark of poverty.”

Following Etobicoke’s decision to implement a mobile vendor ban in 1961, other suburban municipalities within Metro Toronto considered their own restrictive bylaws. When York Township contemplated a ban the following year, the major newspapers attacked it. “It is not possible to bring up children by bylaw,” a Globe and Mail editorial began. “And even if it were possible, it would not be desirable.” The paper felt the real problem was parents, especially mothers, “who lack the strength of mind to forbid twice or thrice-a-day ice cream to their children would like a bylaw to do it for them.” It was pointed out that if truck bells tempted children to run into traffic, why not ban balls that could roll into the street? “The ice cream salesman with his tinkling bell is one of the legitimate joys of childhood,” the paper concluded. “It is ridiculous that the child should be deprived of his joy, or the salesman of his livelihood, because an officious council is endeavoring to take the place of a number of timorous parents who do not have the courage to say: ‘No, Junior, you cannot have another ice cream cone.’” The Star brought up similar points, adding that if the sound of bells was so annoying, “are the same residents up in arms against power mowers?”

While no bans on lawn manicuring aids were forthcoming, removing ice cream trucks became a hot issue at North York Township council during the spring of 1963. Beyond fears surrounding safety, complaints from the public included the ability of ringing bells to wake children from their afternoon nap. The push for a ban came from council’s traffic committee whose chair, Murray Chusid, credited his personal stance against trucks for getting him elected. Traffic co-ordinator Sid Cole insisted that rising motorist speeds meant on-street retailing could not be considered safe. Lawyers representing hard and soft ice cream vendors pointed to polls which suggested that while introducing restrictions like turning off the bells after dark would be appreciated, most questioned were against a total ban. From a modern perspective, at least one claim from the soft ice cream lobby seems dubious: “Many mothers appreciate the fact that with ice cream sales Johnny doesn’t have to cross busy intersections for his daily intake of vitamins via ice cream.” Remember that health tidbit next time you stop at a Mister Softee.

Source: the Toronto Star, July 11, 1966.

Compromise proposals struck some North York councillors as ludicrous. A map presented at a June 1963 council meeting suggested allowing trucks to prowl some roads (marked in green) but not others (marked in red) made reeve Norman Goodhead laugh. “We could paint street signs red or green so people could decide if they wanted to live on an ice cream street or not,” he joked. Council voted in favour of a ban affecting ice cream trucks and mobile vendors of candy, fruit and peanuts that month, but deferred enacting it to provide time to gather more data and avoid harming existing vendors entering the busiest part of the season. Among the evidence considered was a Metro Traffic and Safety Council report stating that in the previous three-and-a-half years there were 45 accidents involving children and ice cream trucks. Of those, 43 were blamed on the children, with only one involving direct contact between truck and victim. In the end, council voted to implement a ban in November 1963.

As North York deliberated, Scarborough Township council voted in favour of its own mobile vendor ban. Besides the reasons outlined elsewhere, reeve Albert Campbell believed operators brought the wrath of the community upon themselves; “They disturb shift workers trying to get some sleep in the daytime and have done nothing to make themselves less of a nuisance.” While vendors were allowed to operate for the rest of the season in Scarborough, the final bylaw passed in January 1964 prohibited mobile sales on all but 46 streets located in industrial parks or areas that hadn’t been built up yet. Violators would be penalized up to $300.

Vendors unsuccessfully fought the Scarborough ban in court but won a minor victory when a case against an ice cream truck was dismissed in July 1964 when it was revealed a police officer ate the evidence. Dundurn Foods was among the first companies to exploit a loophole in all of the suburban bylaws: while ice cream was specifically mentioned, ice milk wasn’t, which led salesmen to claim, as they did in this case, that they were selling not-quite-ice-cream whenever cops approached them. When magistrate James Butler asked the officer what his “Big Gem Banana Split” tasted like, he replied “ice cream.” Since the truck wasn’t patted down and no chemical analysis to determine if the treat really was ice milk was conducted before the officer downed the dish, charges were dropped. Reports didn’t indicate if the officer enjoyed his banana split.

Source: the Toronto Star, August 28, 1965.

Fervour seemed to die down for a time, but a fatal accident brought the issue back to the forefront for suburban governments. On August 27, 1965, three-year-old Karen Davies when killed when she was run over by an ice cream truck on Peacham Crescent in North York. She had pedalled her tricycle into the seven foot blind spot in front of the stopped truck. When driver Mike Giambattista pulled out, he heard a bump. A coroner’s inquest two months later found both parties responsible for the accident, though coroner Eli Cass warned that the truck’s bells had a “Pied Piper” effect on children. The jury recommended that drivers have a helper to determine if the way was clear before pulling out, that products should not be sold to anyone under the age of 10 unless accompanied by an adult, and that North York should rewrite its bylaw to cover all types of confectioneries. The incident caused the Globe and Mail to change its tune—having long mocked all attempts to restrict ice cream sales, an October 1965 editorial admitted that young children were impulsive and “probably no amount of traffic safety instruction by their parents will entirely overcome their tendency to run toward any sight or sound that interests them.”

Following the advice of the coroner’s jury, North York rewrote its bylaw, which was also passed as a private member’s bill at Queen’s Park in May 1966. The key new word was “foodstuffs,” which was felt to cover all the bases. But the ever-crafty minds at one of the largest ice cream vendors, Good Humor, found another loophole to exploit. While the new bylaw banned selling food from a truck, there wasn’t any specific wording restricting drivers from temporarily parking their truck, getting out, then walking with a plaid-covered insulated basket filled with treats that could be sold door-to-door or along driveways and sidewalks. Good Humor vice-president J.L. Jackson promoted his new distribution method as a safe one that would prevent kids from tackling numerous dangerous street crossings to grab a treat at a shopping plaza—“We think we reduce accidents rather than cause them.” To prove their dedication to safety, trucks now carried warning signs like “Wait on the Curb, I’ll Come to You,” while drivers made thorough checks around their vehicles for any lingering kids before driving off. The company pointed to recent statistics from the Metro Accident Bureau, which showed that out of 4,261 children injured in traffic accidents since 1963, only 33 were due to ice cream trucks.

Good Humor’s actions irked North York politicians, who continued to raise the spectre of fatalities based on residential fears. The company was hauled into court several times through the early summer of 1966, one of whom was Mike Gambattista, who claimed to be unaware of the new bylaw (and whom the court didn’t realize was involved in the Karen Davies fatality). After several convictions for selling ice cream from a truck parked on a roadway, Good Humor stopped looking for further loopholes and ceased operating in North York in late August 1966. When Etobicoke’s ban was being beefed up and considered by Queen’s Park in early 1967, a North York MPP noted that residents in his riding had quickly tired of youngsters on their lawns and the garbage left behind when the ice cream salesmen departed.

Ake Alexopoulos' Dairy Belle truck, sometimes located just west of Roy Thomson Hall. Photo by Harry Choi/Torontoist.

The bans remained in effect for decades to come. North York’s remained among the tightest, though it did allow for some vending along Yonge Street north of Highway 401. While offering to support downtown Toronto street vendors facing harassment over where they could operate in the mid-1980s, North York mayor Mel Lastman defended his municipality’s ban by stating there weren’t enough crowds on the streets to justify overturning it. Eventually, the bans faded into history as the amalgamated city adopted its own regulations [PDF] regarding ice cream trucks. While nearby cities continue to fight against vehicles roaming for customers desiring frozen treats, Toronto has embraced a phone-app which allows on-demand ice cream truck service, which may be a sign these icons of summer will remain in our midst for years to come.

Additional material from the May 29, 1963, June 5, 1963, and November 13, 1963 editions of the Don Mills Mirror; the July 18, 1962, July 3, 1963, October 21, 1965, October 22, 1965, and August 3, 1966 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 25, 1962, January 14, 1964, July 16, 1964, August 28, 1965, May 19, 1966, July 11, 1966, February 16, 1967, and May 23, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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