By Sophie Schnell
In late August, confronted with oppressive humidity, blinding rays, and damp underarms, city folk turn to ice cream. Thoughts of deodorant and heatstroke are calmed, replaced by dripping cones, sticky chins, and globs of gooey cookie dough. In 2015, on the UWS, this practice is taken seriously.
But Upper West Siders treated themselves to ice cream long before the likes of Emack and Bolio’s and Shake Shack came along. The building at 302 Columbus Avenue, at 74th street, offers a window into the neighborhood’s sprinkle-covered past.
At the top of the red brick façade of 302 Columbus Avenue, sits a black triangular rooftop. And on its front, spelled out in white block letters, a sign reads “The J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company.” Although it’s since been converted into residential apartments with a Lenwich sandwich shop on the ground floor, the building was originally home to the “largest ice cream manufacturer in the world.” James Madison Horton, an Upper West Sider himself (at the time of his death he lived on west 126th), bought a small, New York based ice cream company in 1865. Horton renamed the firm (previously Jacob Fussel and Company), and expanded the business.
The J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company had tremendous success. By 1893 Horton claimed to provide 3/5ths of all of New York’s ice cream and the company produced more than 3 million gallons annually. Horton supplied ice cream to railroad dining cars, transatlantic liners, festivals, and, of course, to private New York City events. The business was featured in New York’s great industries: exchange and commercial review, embracing also historical and descriptive sketch of the city, its leading merchants and manufacturers, published in 1884:
The features of distinguished enterprise in the development of the varied resources of the metropolitan city of New York have no more fitting or more satisfactory representatives than the famous J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company. The perfection and popularization of the delicious confection of ice cream is greatly due to the energetic and conscientious exertions of Mr. J.M. Horton, the talented president, who embarked in the business with the laudable intention of making his house the greatest in the world in his line, and it is a satisfaction to be able to say that he and his colleagues have fully succeeded and the J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company to-day stands unrivaled in its line, head and shoulders above all competitors, and with an international reputation for supplying the purest, and most palatable ice cream ever manufactured.
By 1897, 302 Columbus appeared in advertisements, listed as a branch of the company (see image below). Although clearly visible from street level, the sign on the top of the building served as an advertisement, meeting the eye line of passengers on the 9th Avenue El, a line of the elevated train that ran through NYC on what is now Columbus Avenue (an image of the 9th Avenue El can be found here).
The Pioneer Ice Cream Division of Borden absorbed the J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company around 1930. Original J.M. Horton recipes were used until the mid sixties when Borden went out of business. The J.M. Horton Ice Cream Company has disappeared almost entirely, commemorated only in memory and signage. Its letters still stand; often unnoticed, waiting for a train that comes no more.
Read other entries in our Weekend History series here.