What invokes happy memories of summer better than the popsicle? The cool, refreshing delight of a juicy frozen treat on a hot day can seem like manna from heaven. The next time you enjoy this iconic taste of summer happiness, take a moment and express gratitude to the 11-year-old boy who invented it.
The young entrepreneur who concocted the tasty treat was Frank Epperson. Frank had spent part of the day mixing up some sugary soda powder and water, hoping to come up with a refreshing beverage. He accidentally left his concoction outside that night. Thanks to the chilly weather in Oakland, California at that time of the year, Frank woke up to find his sugary mixture frozen around the wooden stirrer.
Frank picked up the stirrer and tentatively gave the frozen mass a lick. He immediately knew he had hit on something big. He set to work creating replicas of his accidental snack and began selling them around his neighborhood. He called the morsel an “Epsicle.”
Frank was eleven years old when he created the Epsicle. His invention was well received in his neighborhood, earning him some welcome spending money. For the next 18 years, he continued to sell the treat throughout his neighborhood. In 1923, at the age of 29, Frank took his business to the nearby amusement park, Neptune Beach. Visitors eagerly gobbled up the Epsicle.
Frank finally decided the Epsicle had value well beyond its current status as a local novelty. In 1924 he applied for this patent for his “frozen confection of attractive appearance, which can be conveniently consumed without contamination by contact with the hand and without the need for a plate, spoon, fork or other implement.” The patent illustrates the requirements for a perfect ice pop, including recommendations on the best wood for the stick: wood-bass, birch, and poplar.
The Epsicle continued to grow in popularity. It was at the request of Frank’s children that he changed the name. They always referred to the treat as being their father’s sicle. Actually, the didn’t call him “father.” They called him “Pop.” His invention, therefore, went by the name “Pop’s sicle.” Eventually, the two words blended together into the name by which we know it today: “popsicle.”
Sadly, this is where the happy part of the story comes to an end. Frank had been marketing the popsicle as a frozen drink on a stick. The Good Humor company simultaneously produced similar products, using frozen milk and sherbet. Good Humor sued the Popsicle Corporation in 1925. The parties ended up settling out of court, leaving Popsicle with the rights to sell water-based snacks, while Good Humor retained all rights toward ice-cream-based goodies. Even with this settlement, the financial impact on Frank and his business was devastating. In 1925 he was forced to sell the rights to the popsicle to the Joe Lowe Co. Frank explained his decision, saying, “I was flat and had to liquidate all my assets. I haven’t been the same since.”
With Frank out of the way, the Lowe Co. took the popsicle nationwide. Even as the country descended into the Great Depression, sales of popsicles were brisk. The company created the two-stick version and sold it for five cents, marketing it as a way for customers to stretch their dollars.
In 1989 — 84 years after Frank’s accidental creation of the popsicle and 64 years after the tussle with Good Humor — Unilever corporation purchased the Joe Lowe Co., as well as the Good Humor company, finally settling the feud between the dueling snack manufacturers.
Unilever continues to own the rights to the popsicle, and it vigorously defends its rights to the name. Contrary to what you might expect, a popsicle is not just any frozen treat on a stick. It is a brand name (Popsicle®) with a registered trademark. In an effort to make sure the trademark does not lapse and fall into public domain, Unilever routinely sends cease and desist letters and even brings trademark infringement lawsuits against anyone who does not respect its ownership to the popsicle.
While he did not achieve lasting financial security for his invention, Frank Epperson lived long enough to see the
Epsicle Pop’s Sicle popsicle Popsicle® become an international sensation. He passed away in 1983 and is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. You can visit his grave, along with those of other contributors to the world of food, such as chocolate mogul Domingo Ghirardelli.
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