Sign picture 4

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.

Sign building picture 3At 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).

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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.

FOOD, HISTORY | 10 comments | permalink
    1. ScooterStan says:

      COOL Ice Cream story!

      No, seriously, have often wondered about that sign. Thanks for clearing up the mystery.

      B/t/w: re: the 9th Ave. El — any chance to bring it back? Those overhead structures makes great street shadows, beloved by some of us photo-nutz who now have to trek out to Long Island City to capture the shadows of the #7 train.

    2. Laura Weiss says:

      Great story on a fascinating bit of ice cream history. For those of you who don’t know, Jacob Fussel, from Baltimore, was the first person to mass produce ice cream in a factory. If you’re interested in ice cream history, check out my book, Ice Cream: A Global History (Reaktion Boosk/University of Chicago Press.http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Cream-Global-History-Reaktion/dp/1861897928

    3. wcsnyc says:

      I’ve always enjoyed looking at this “vintage” ice cream sign at 72nd and Columbus. Though its age has been disputed, I still think it looks kinda cool.


    4. rob schron says:

      Remember, as a “treat,” a Horton’s Dixie Cup, a very small serving of vanilla that was sold in neighborhood candy stores for a nickel. On the back of the lid covering the cup there was usually a photo but can’t recall what it was.

    5. chris says:

      Thanks for seizing the moment, taking the time and telling the story so eloquently . Too much of this great City’s history is not paid mind to, and is lost with the hunger for more money and gain! Okay, now….where can I get a good scoop of ice cream down near One World Trade?

    6. dannyboy says:

      I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

      …from the Pacific Coast beach in Nicaragua. Surf’s up!

    7. Liz says:

      Wow!! What a great story about one of my absolutely favorite treats — ice cream.

      Any chance that Emack & Bollo which feature exotic ice cream flavors might discover some of those old recipes and make some of those flavors for sale at their store on Amsterdam Ave.?

    8. Joe Kreitzer says:

      Although long gone occasionally an ice cream tray for HORTON`S shows up on Ebay. The tray was made by The Novelty Advertising Co. from Coshocton, Ohio. where I live and have seen several in the past.