Shakes, Cones, and Salvation: Mister Softee's Role in Civil Defense
Imagine that its summer, 1959 in a major U.S. city. Let's call it Anytown, USA. Its a sweltering 96 degrees and the asphalt feels like its sticking to your shoes. Mom won't let you back in the house because "its summer, and you need to go out and play with the other kids". You're tired of playing Wiffle Ball. You're sunburned and sweat is running down your neck like a faucet. You just can't bear another second of this awful heat wave...and then echoing off of the buildings you hear the familiar jingle of the Mister Softee ice cream truck.
Like every other kid, you quickly run home to BEG your Mother for a few cents for the ice cream man and quickly chase after him before his truck turns the corner and heads to the next block. Once you flag him down, you get your vanilla soft serve cone with sprinkles...and all is right with the world. Wiffle Ball can resume in 5 minutes. Batter up!
The ice cream truck has offered a sweet summer escape for millions of kids of all ages around the world for over 80 years. It doesn't matter what era you live in or what your age is, frozen desserts are a popular commodity and probably always will be. Here in the U.S. the three big names include Good Humor, Jack N' Jill, and of course Mister Softee. The Mister Softee company traces its roots back to West Philly and 1954. Two brothers named William and James Conway started the company with a Chevrolet panel van, a generator, and a soft serve machine. They sold shakes, cones, and sundaes all over Philadelphia and quickly made a name for themselves. Within two years the Conways branched out, ordered a fleet of trucks and spread across the East Coast. By 1958, franchises grew across the states. A British vehicle fleet manager visited the U.S. in 1957 and liked what he saw in Mister Softee, so he worked out a franchise deal and by 1959 the Mister Softee trucks became a familiar sight in West London and Kent, England. Even today, the company manages to turn a tidy profit by supplying a hungry public with the sweets they crave curbside from Chicago to China!
During their heyday in 1959, Mister Softee ordered 800 ice cream trucks from the Boyertown Body Works in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. This company was located some 56 miles from the birthplace of Mister Softee himself, and was known for their long-standing tradition of quality workmanship dating back to 1872. The demands of the fleet business required a vehicle that was sturdy and dependable, but easy on the pocket book. A Ford truck would certainly meet those demands.
|Boyertown Body Works Factory, 1956. Photo Credit: Coachbuilt.com|
|Boyertown Body Brochure Cover, 1959|
|Boyertown Truck Bodies Brochure, 1959|
|From the Southern Missourian, August 6th, 1961.|
You can spot the Civil Defense logo affixed to the side of the Mister Softee truck in this collection of vintage television advertisements. It appears at :48 into this clip.
Why the heck am I yammering on about all of this stuff? Sarah and I came across a very unrestored example of a Boyertown-built 1958 Ford commercial truck in its original Mister Softee color scheme this summer at the McClean County Antique Automobile Club car show. Besides the fact that we dig old cars and trucks, this thing spoke volumes about the time period it came from. The artwork, the remains of a Civil Defense logo, the simple saying on the back warning motorists to "watch for our children", not just anyone's kids, but "ours". Here's a few shots of this time capsule as it appears today.
|The Civil Defense logo appears on both sides of the truck.|
|The Civil Defense Logo as it Originally Appeared.|
The current owner plans to restore it to functional condition and serve frozen goodies at car shows in central Illinois near old Route 66. Not a bad second life for an old workhorse, eh?
That's the strange tale of the American Mister Softee truck in the Cold War era. Being a Gen-X'er, I admire this relic from a time of neighborly responsibility and civic duty. The past seems like a time when people took things seriously, even selling ice cream. It was deeper than just frozen food...it was a sense of community. Could you imagine a business owner willing to lend his or her equipment, time and fuel to the government today to help the public stay alive during an emergency? Maybe. Maybe not.
Is all of this worth writing a book about? Not really. Is it worthy of a blog post? Perhaps. All this talk about ice cream and the end of the world makes me want a hot fudge sundae. I think I even hear the ice cream jingle outside. Who's got any change?
Learn more about Where Cars & Atomic Weapons Intersect
Learn more about Boyertown Body Works
Learn more about Mister Softee
Learn more about Civil Defense Supplies