AS WE inch closer to the summer months, minds all over the city are turning to a Glasgow staple: Italian ice cream.

On those rare sunny days, and on the more common rainy ones, too, many Glaswegians will head to their local ice cream shop for a messy double nougat or a classic pokey hat.

Glasgow Times: Queen’s Café, Victoria Road, 1933

Few will know, however, that these ornately decorated parlours were once seen as “perfect iniquities of hell itself”, responsible for “sapping the moral youth of Scotland.”

This heavy allegation was levelled at ice cream traders by Mr Drummond of the United Free Church of Scotland in 1907, at a meeting addressing the question of “ice cream hells”.

At the time of these comments, the number of Italians in Glasgow had been growing considerably, as people from all over Italy made their way to Scotland to escape poverty and low employment.

If conditions in Scotland were better, they were nonetheless still very tough, with Italians often facing discrimination and low wages in their new hometowns.

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The newly-arrived Italian migrants soon became active participants in the catering and food trade in Scottish cities and towns.

Initially, ice cream traders did business from barrows, which they pushed to the doors of theatres or the gates of public parks to enthusiastic reception.

Glasgow Times: Glasgow Corporation Clothes Market with ‘real ice cream’ cart, Greendyke St, 1916

As ‘hokey pokey’ became a favourite of Glaswegians, many of the vendors moved to more permanent premises.

Gelaterias began appearing all over the city, with the number of Italian cafes in Glasgow trebling between 1901 and 1905.

It’s easy to understand why these new parlours, with their tempting offerings and interiors lined with mirrors and leather banquettes, captured the hearts and stomachs of the inhabitants of an often grey and smoggy Glasgow.

Not everyone was pleased with the arrival of these places of enjoyment and indulgence, however.

While Mr Drummond’s comments on ice cream parlours as “hell itself” may seem overblown to us now, he was by no means alone in this sentiment.

Documents held at Glasgow City Archives show that fears about the pernicious influence of ice cream parlours were shared by Glasgow Corporation, the predecessor of Glasgow City Council.

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In September 1909, the Corporation resolved that action had to be taken to address “the great and increasing evil” being done “to the youth, male and female, of the City and the country through their frequenting ice-cream shops.”

The Corporation’s main objections to ice cream parlours were their hours of operation late into the night and on Sundays, and the illicit practices that shopkeepers allegedly perpetrated or allowed to take place within the premises, principally shebeening (the unlicensed selling of alcohol), gambling, and allowing boys and girls to smoke and engage in horseplay. 

In 1907, the Corporation moved to limit the opening hours of the ice cream parlours through the introduction of a byelaw requiring them to close at ten o’clock.

Glasgow Times: Byelaw Notice, Glasgow Corporation, 1907

The byelaw was strenuously opposed by the Ice Cream Dealers’ Association, headed by Gennaro D’Ambrosio, who argued that “the Bye-Law is an attempt by the local authority for irrelevant and sentimental reasons” to impose “unjust, harsh and inequitable” restrictions on ice cream traders.

D’Ambrosio refuted the allegations that ice cream parlours were full of young boys and girls at night, calling the notion the “bogey man of Glasgow, an imaginary evil”.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice played a large role in heightening the anxieties surrounding the ice cream parlours.

At a 1906 hearing of evidence in relation to the proposed byelaw to regulate ice cream shops, an inspector of the Glasgow Police claimed that “a good sober-minded Scotchman” would not tolerate the same “nonsense” as an Italian.

Now that Italian ice cream shops are fondly accepted as integral parts of Scottish high streets, it is difficult to imagine that they were once seen as a “pestilence” or a “plague spot”, in the words of the Lord Provost of Perth at a Glasgow Corporation conference in 1900.

While I won’t linger too long on thoughts of plague and pestilence the next time I’m enjoying an ice cream from my local parlour, I will have a new appreciation for the long and surprisingly turbulent history of Glasgow’s ice cream shops.