21 December 2023

Italo Marchioni - ice cream maker

Italian-American inventor of the waffle cone

Italo Marchioni hailed from mountainous northern Veneto
Italo Marchioni hailed from
mountainous northern Veneto
Italo Marchioni, the ice cream manufacturer credited by many as the inventor of the ice cream cone, was born in the tiny mountain hamlet of Peaio in northern Veneto on this day in 1868.

Marchioni learned his skills in Italy, where gelato was well established as a popular treat, but in common with so many Italians during what were tough economic times in the late 19th century he took the bold step of emigrating to the United States in 1890.

Records suggest his first American home was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and that it was there that he married Elvira De Lorenzo in 1893.

Marchioni - by then known by his Americanised name of Marchiony - later settled in Hoboken, a city in New Jersey with a strong pull for Italian immigrants that retains an Italian flavour to this day, with almost a quarter of the area’s population thought to have Italian roots. 

As he had done at home, Marchiony made and sold ice cream, starting out by selling lemon ice from a single cart, crossing the Hudson River every day to wheel his cart around the Wall Street financial district, where the traders were good customers.

His invention of what we now know as the ice cream cone came about after he found that his profits were being impacted by the frequent loss of the small glass dishes or glasses that he used to serve his ice creams.

The designs that accompanied Marchioni's patent application
The designs that accompanied
Marchioni's patent application
He would ask his customers to return the dish when they had finished and while many did, others forgot. Combined with the inevitable breakages, this meant that Marchiony had to spend a sizeable proportion of his takings on restocking with dishes.

By then, Marchiony was spending the evenings in the kitchen at the family home making waffles to accompany his ice cream. He found that if he folded a freshly made waffle before it had fully cooled, he could shape it into a cup.

Now he had a container for his ice cream that was edible. They quickly became known as “toots” according to some accounts, perhaps because Marchiony told his customers they could eat all of it, the container as well as the ice cream - “tutti”.

Ice cream vendors themselves were often called “hokey-pokey men”, thought to have derived from Marchiony’s habit of offering a taste of his ice cream with the words “ecco un poco” - “here’s a little”.

Marchiony’s cones became hugely popular. He soon took on his first employee, followed by many more, in time operating a “fleet” of 45 or 50  ice cream carts on the streets of Manhattan.

Keeping up with demand by making his waffle cups by hand became impossible, so the ever-enterprising Marchiony adapted the design of a waffle iron to build a device which could mass produce ice cream cups. He filed for a patent on the device in 1902, which was awarded the following year, rented a garage and set the machine up there.

In 1904, he acquired a factory in Grand Street, Hoboken, to manufacture cones as well as rectangular wafers that were either flat or moulded into shapes that resembled clams or bananas. Horse-drawn wagons carrying the Marchiony name supplies retailers all over the New York area. At its peak, the factory reputedly could turn out 150,000 cones in 24 hours.

An ice cream cart similar to that operated by Marchioni in late 19th century New York
An ice cream cart similar to that operated
by Marchioni in late 19th century New York
Although Marchiony’s descendants - records show he was married twice and had seven children - hail him as the inventor of the ice cream cone, the story has at times been disputed.

One popular alternative story is that the ice cream cone was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri.  Ernest Hamwi, an immigrant from Syria, had a stall making zalabia, a wafer dessert, next to one selling ice cream. The two stallholders chatted and Hamwi suggested that the two things might be sold in combination. Hamwi eventually opened the Missouri Cone Company.

In 1913, Marchiony was accused of patent infringement by his cousin, Frank, another immigrant from Italy who also had a cart selling ice creams in New York City. By the time the accusation was made, Frank was in business with Antonio Valvona, an Italian migrant who had originally settled in Manchester, England, where he was one of dozens of Italian ice cream makers. He had patented a machine to produce edible cup-shaped biscuits in 1901.

Italo admitted his association with Frank and the judge found in the latter’s favour, ruling that the device Italo patented was too similar not to have been a copy of Valvona’s. Despite the judgement, Italo continued in business as before.

He retired just before the outbreak of World War Two at the age of 70, selling the business to the Schrafft Candy Company, and he died in 1954 at the age of 86.

Peaio is a hamlet in the beautiful Cadore Valley in the north of Italy's Veneto region
Peaio is a hamlet in the beautiful Cadore Valley
in the north of Italy's Veneto region
Travel tip:

Italo Marchioni’s home village of Peaio today has a population of just 138 residents. Situated on the SS51 highway in the Cadore Valley in the northern part of the Veneto region, it is about 50km (31 miles) north of Belluno, the provincial capital, and approximately 140km (87 miles) from Venice.  Once an undeveloped and poor district, the Cadore Valley now has a thriving economy, which is based largely on tourism, the area being popular for trekking in the summer months and skiing in the winter, with the ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo situated in the upper part of the valley, near the border with Austria.  The painter Titian was born in the town of Pieve di Cadore, just 12km (7.5 miles) from Peaio.

Picturesque Piazza del Duomo is one of the many charms of the town of Belluno in the Dolomites
Picturesque Piazza del Duomo is one of the many
charms of the town of Belluno in the Dolomites
Travel tip:

Belluno, the capital of the province of which Peaio is part, is a beautiful town in the Dolomites, situated just over 100km (62 miles) north of Venice. It occupies an elevated position above the Piave river surrounded by rocky slopes and dense woods that make for an outstanding scenic background. The architecture of the historic centre has echoes of the town's Roman and mediaeval past. Notable Renaissance-era buildings including the 16th century Cattedrale di San Martino in the picturesque Piazza del Duomo and the nearby 15th century Palazzo dei Rettori, which is the former town hall. The Piazza dei Martiri, the scene of an execution of partisans during the Second World War, is now a popular meeting place. Local cuisine includes some unusual cheeses, including Schiz, a semi-soft cheese often served fried in butter.

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