Flashback: Good Humor delighted generations with its curbside delivery of ice cream bars — and not even the mob could stop it

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For Chicagoans of a certain age, the sound of bells on a hot summer evening is a hallowed childhood memory. It called a timeout to schoolyard softball games. Ball players would scramble to line up at one of the Good Humor trucks or three-wheelers, 150 in all, that roamed city and suburban streets in the 1960s.

Their ting-a-ling-a-ling may have woken up older folks dozing on front porches, but their arrival solved a dilemma for kids with a few coins to spend on a treat.

At a drugstore, youngsters would have to decide between candy and ice cream. But the Good Humor man didn’t ask customers to choose. He offered a wondrous hybrid: a bar of ice cream encased in chocolate. It had a handle — a wooden stick reminiscent of a doctor’s tongue depressor — so a spoon or plate wasn’t needed.

“A generation ago, each Good Humor man was assigned a specific area to avoid running into someone else’s selling territories, so we had the same guy for many summers,” Bob Sirott, a Chicago newscaster, recalled in a 2001 Tribune commentary. “Of course, we knew his name. I remember it to this day, Jim Saunders.”

That joyful familiarity made the Good Humor man an American icon. He inevitably cropped up in the culture at large: in the 1950 movie “The Good Humor Man” and as the subject of a children’s book, where the good-natured character found a lost puppy along his route.

The Good Humor man was a vision of pristineness: The company required each vendor to wear white trousers, shirt, jacket and cap (with a dark-colored bill), plus black shoes. Struggling to explain the sport of cricket to Chicago readers in 1955, a Tribune sportswriter noted that the players “dressed more like a Good Humor man than an athlete.”

Newcomers to the Chicago area soon learned about this neighborhood institution. In 1975, Tran Huu Loi, who had been an American interpreter in Vietnam, and his family arrived in Chicago. Within a week, he proudly told the Tribune, they were already acquainted with the cultural markers of their new home: supermarkets, traffic jams and the Good Humor man.

In addition to its feel-good chapters, though, the story of Good Humor ice cream touches on the vagaries of human experience in an unexpected way. Its arrival in Chicago was marked by a boom. Two booms, to be exact.

On May 23, 1929, two bombs exploded alongside the factory at 4649 W. Armitage Ave. that produced Good Humor bars for the Chicago area. The blasts smashed the building’s windows and destroyed two company trucks.

“The police were investigating theories of business rivalry and labor trouble,” the Tribune reported.

The company’s website offers this explanation: “The mob demanded $5,000 in protection money (that would be almost $70,000 today), which was refused, so they destroyed part of the Chicago fleet.”

The ultimate origins of the Good Humor ice cream bar go back to Onawa, Iowa, where Christian Nelson, a high school teacher, ran a candy and ice cream shop on the side. One day, a boy asked for a candy bar, then changed his mind and ordered an ice cream sandwich, but then decided he wanted a marshmallow nut bar. That inspired Nelson to think up a treat that would satisfy children torn between candy and ice cream.

For months he tried, but warm chocolate refused to stick to cold ice cream. Then a passing salesman told Nelson that candy manufacturers used cocoa butter to improve chocolate’s adhesiveness. That worked like a charm. In 1922, Nelson got a patent on what came to be called an Eskimo Pie, and he and his partner Russell Stover began licensing ice cream manufacturers to make the wildly successful product. Quickly, 1 million Eskimo Pies were being sold a day.

That inspired Harry Burt Sr., a small-time maker of ice cream in Youngstown, Ohio, to develop his own process for coating ice cream with chocolate. Given a taste, Burt’s daughter liked it but complained that it left her with smeared hands. So he added a wooden stick, and thus the Good Humor bar was born.

In 1938, the Federal Trade Commission charged Good Humor with taking the stick shtick too far. “The complaint said an occasional handle is marked ‘lucky stick’ and entitles the holders to free ice cream,” the Tribune reported. The feds reasoned that, as customers paid for the chance of getting a freebie, Good Humor was operating an illegal lottery and had to scrap the promotional campaign.

By then, Good Humor was a household name. Burt had painted his refrigerated trucks white and equipped them with bells — the first borrowed from the family’s bobsled. The gimmick attracted not just human customers, noted Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of “Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream.”

“Indulgent pet owners happily bought treats for dogs who perked up their ears, wagged their tails, and sprinted down the street whenever they heard the familiar bells — shades of Pavlov!” Funderberg wrote.

Funderberg was referring to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist who observed that dogs that were fed while a bell rang would salivate at the bell’s sound, even before food was presented. He published his theory of conditioned reflexes in 1927, which was two years before the Good Humor’s Chicago factory and fleet were bombed.

With that dirty deed, the Chicago mob inadvertently did Good Humor a favor. Newspapers picked up the story of a company refusing to bow down to gangsters, which solidified its reputation as a reputable enterprise. When Wall Street crashed later that year, Good Humor’s stock didn’t go down the tubes, like many others.

Indeed, the Great Depression that followed was boom times for Good Humor. At 10 cents a bar, it was an affordable luxury in the 1930s, when the unemployment rate reached 25 percent. And with jobs scarce, the company had no trouble recruiting drivers or subjecting them to a quasi-military discipline. They were all men until 1967.

The regulations to which they were held were specified in a manual, “Making Good with Good Humor.” “It told you to wear white socks, make sure your fingernails are clean, shine your shoes every day,” Al Reynolds, who went from Good Humor driver to manager, told the New York Daily News in 1995. “They even told you in the evening when you get home to soak your feet in warm water with bicarbonate of soda.”

As that last prescription suggests, drivers worked long hours and were paid on commission.

They underwent two days of training at the beginning of the season, which generally stretched from April to September. They were expected to smartly salute customers and announce the product as “Ice Cream Good Humor.” Saying it the other way around — “Good Humor Ice Cream” — could get them fined.

Still, a Good Humor man could make $100 a week, enough to keep many of them driving the same route for years, Reynolds said. They were known by their name badges bearing the moniker of their choice — like Uncle Jack or Uncle Al.

Wally Hill joined Good Humor in 1945 just as World War II was ending. When he retired in 1984, he was driving a route in Berwyn. “When he went on vacation for two weeks this year, we counted the days until Wally returned,” Nona Robinson, mother of young customers, told the Tribune.

During his tour of duty, Good Humor got rid of its trucks to concentrate on sales to grocers. Hill leased one from Harvey Durocher, the company’s former manager in Chicago, who acquired the fleet in 1979.

“I just wanted to keep Good Humor products in Chicago — after all, that was my life,” Durocher told the Tribune.

An ice cream truck’s bell wasn’t always a welcome sound in communities. A court in 1965 upheld Mundelein’s ban on ice cream trucks. “Some people are against cars and shoes,” a Good Humor spokesman protested, according to a 1966 Tribune story. “That doesn’t mean we should abolish them.”

Though the company’s trucks no longer roam neighborhood streets and send kids running with change, Good Humor is still available in supermarket freezers. But will the clerk who scans the purchase ever know the way drivers like Hill were worshipped?

“Yeah, some of the daddies get a little mad because the kids learn the ice cream man’s name before they learn daddy’s,” Hill told the Tribune in 1982. “You get sort of a thrill when you see the little roughneck who used to rough up your truck turn out to be policeman. … Then they come out and say, ‘I bought from the ice cream man when I was a kid.’ They tell that to their own kids now.”

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