The song was catchy as it streamed off our suburban Philadelphia living-room CD player. It was a cheery tune, among many about famous Americans in a not well-known children’s book, The Hero in You, that my boys had gotten as a gift.
Strawberry, chocolate, vanilla ice cream / Old Augustus Jackson’s got an ice cream machine / He puts in a little flavor, sugar and ice / Then he mixes it with salt and cream / It tastes real nice
Ellis Paul was singing the ditty he’d written for the book-CD combo. But I had mostly zoned out — until the next stanza struck like a lightning bolt:
Augustus Jackson was a free black man / A chef at the White House for the Madisons / He came to Philadelphia when they set him free / He started making ice cream on Goodwater Street / And the people came / Calling out his flavors by name
Augustus who? I leaned over the boys and looked at the bright, hardbound pages on their lap.
“He is known as the ‘father of ice cream,' " it said. “He did not invent ice cream but invented a way to make it last long enough to be shipped and sold.”
An African American in Philly had done for ice cream what Henry Ford had done for cars — and a veteran journalist in this town would hear about it only from a semi-obscure book written by a guy from Boston now living in Charlottesville, Va.?
You don’t want to make a journalist wonder. It leads to obsessions.
On Google, I found only the flimsiest of references to Jackson: former White House cook who figured out how to make ice cream frozen enough (add salt!) so that the high-class delicacy could be sold and enjoyed across Pennsylvania from what today is St. James Place between Third and Fourth Streets in Center City. He invented flavors. Hawked his tins for a dollar.
Inquirer news clips only further fueled the mystery: Just four scant references to him over the last four decades of Inquirer and Daily News archives. And, of course, for such a cool innovation, there’s no historical marker along St. James, the street near historic Washington Square Park.
Jackson was either a nobody, or an entrepreneurial genius who got the historical shaft. It wouldn’t be the first time. The story of 19th-century civil rights activist Octavius Catto shows how African Americans of extraordinary achievement have fallen through the cracks of history — until someone decided to pull them out.
“One of the reasons I chose the people that I did," the lyricist and composer said, “if they had a cool-sounding name, that was a good start.”
There wasn’t much out there about Jackson, despite the spectacularly cool buzz. “He was the Ben and Jerry of his time,” Paul said. But “he was the person that had the least information that I could find of all of the people that I have done songs about. He intrigues me the most."
Up next: the Library Company of Philadelphia.
“I have answered this call before,” chief of reference Cornelia King said. I’m not the first to wonder about Augustus, in other words.
“I have looked again at our ice cream resources and the obvious places to look for names, and I have come up empty,” she said.
I begged for more. And bingo — King sent along an email a short time later with a golden nugget.
She found excerpts from a 1949 Cornell University master’s thesis. It cited Augustus Jackson as a White House cook under James Madison (president from 1809-1817).
I called Cornell. Research librarian Fred Muratori found the darn thing. It mentioned Jackson only as someone who had learned the recipe for ice cream in the White House, opened his own confectionery, and died a wealthy man. This was sourced to a 1909 story in The Ice Cream Trade Journal, but the journal itself was a dead end.
“Not much additional information there, I’m afraid,” Muratori said.
I then called noted African American historian Charles Blockson. He knew of Jackson, but urged me to call the Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University for details. Librarian Aslaku Berhanu found a Pittsburgh Courier story from 1928.
“Augustus Jackson, a Philadelphia Negro, was the first to make America’s favorite frozen confection — ice cream — according to records in the possession of citizens living in the City of Brotherly Love,” the story said. “In 1832 there were five Negro confectioners in Philadelphia. One of them was Jackson, known in his day and time as ‘the man who invented ice cream.’ He was also a caterer.”
Next: the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
There is nothing about Jackson there. And while programming vice president Ivan Henderson had heard about Jackson, very little is known about him.
“Born in Philly in 1808 and dies in 1852, suspected that he dies in a train wreck on January 11, 1852, ... 43 years old at the time,” Henderson said, adding that none of this was certain.
In Inquirer archives dating to 1860, I found nothing older than a few stories in the early 1900s that spoke of Jackson.
One last hit: Cornell’s ice cream archives, since the school is in New York’s dairy country, mention that Nancy Johnson holds a patent for inventing the first ice cream freezer (either 1843 or 1845), which made homemade ice cream more ubiquitous in the United States, and Jacob Fussell as the first ice cream wholesaler (1851), said library reference assistant Ryan Tolnay.