Perhaps you aren’t old enough to remember ice cream parlor chairs in an actual ice cream parlor. You might think of an ice cream parlor as a place where teens hung out after school, and parents took their sons and daughters for a treat. But the origin of the ice cream parlor is much earlier than that. It began as long ago as the late 1700s and early 1800s when ice cream or gelato was served in tiny bowls to upper-class citizens. M.F. Brigham & Sons opened a Ladies and Gentleman’s Coffee, Lunch and Ice Cream Saloon in Boston in 1869. They sold ice cream, candies, and beverages – some of which were alcoholic. Similar establishments opened in Chicago – brightly lit places, with gaslights, mirrors, and – of course – the signature fragile-looking chairs with their cushioned bottoms, and delicately scrolled backs and legs.
As with many things, time wrought changes in the ice cream parlor. By the 1920s, with automobiles creating a more mobile society and increased availability of refrigeration, ice cream became an increasingly popular treat, until by the 1950s, soda fountains and ice cream parlors became family entertainment centers. Refrigeration might have been the death knell of these establishments, as more families had refrigerators (as opposed to ice boxes) that could keep ice cream frozen, and more supermarkets sold the sweet dairy treat in boxes.
But the ice cream parlor chairs remain as delicately refined seating that is just a little kitschy. Perhaps you can bring up in your mind’s eye a vision of four dainty chairs grouped around a round table that’s covered with a snowy tablecloth. The arrangement is grouped on a checked linoleum or tile floor, near a counter with tall bar stools. The waitress or waiter brings a tray of bubbly soda and ice cream confections, topped with straws and whipped cream. It is this vision that we associate with ice cream parlor chairs.