Weekend History: The Story Behind An Upper West Side Ice Cream Sign

Sign picture 4

By Sophie Schnell

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 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.

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    1. Lisa Alpert says:

      Great story Sophie! I always enjoy seeing that lettering up there on Columbus Avenue, so near our apartment. NYC historian John Tauranac also writes in “Manhattaon’s Little Secrets” about Horten’s Ice Cream, noting that it was served at the inaugural balls of presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.

    2. Burton says:

      Thanks for spotting that sign. I live right near there and never saw it before.

    3. Trusted Commenter says:

      Wonderfully written, thank you.

    4. Burt Scherl says:

      In my neighborhood in the West Bronx in the 1940’s, there was a man who sold ice cream from a bicycle cart labeled Fussel’s. He would announce himself by shouting, “Eat Fussel’s and you’ll have muscles”.

      • PastramiBliss says:

        Burt how old are you? My father (1938 – 2011), was from the Bronx and always talked about Lowe’s Paradise, egg creams, stickball…he said Manhattan was never the same once Horn & Hardart’s left…

    5. Jake van Hoensbroek says:

      I think there is a street level tile plaque that I noticed several years ago, but never noticed the sign on top.

    6. cma says:

      Wow! A long lost memory! I seem to remember Horton’s Ice cream being hawked (maybe in NYC) but more so,and sold in the Catskill Mountains from a truck at the bungalow colony I was at as a child between Hurlyville and Loch Sheldrake.

    7. “It’s letters still stand, often unnoticed, waiting for a train that comes no more.”

      Now THAT’S a lovely sentence to end on.

      I also love the pictorial ad you included for Horton products: “TRY THEM- YOU WILL BE PLEASED”

      I’m always pleased when I read a respectful ad that doesn’t promise the moon and stars; for example, the Crisco ads featured on the Fibber McGee & Molly radio shows in the 1940s: “CRISCO- IT’S DIGESTIBLE”

      Which is really your minimal expectation from a comestible.

      Ah… that golden age before chemical weed (and people) killers swamped the supermarket aisles of Ourtown, USA.

    8. Mark Moore says:

      Thanks, I just spent 45 minutes watching video of the 9th Ave El on youtube:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfXyu6HsdZ8

      • Typography says:

        I enjoyed Mark’s youtube link. I was wondering when my visitor mentioned about elevated train in UWS. We don’t see any remain of high line or train along 9th Ave and Amsterdam Ave.
        The elevated train charged only 15 cents per ride, lasted about 50 years. With El NYC used to look like Berlin.

    9. Christine E says:

      The company’s ice cream achievements are all the more immpressive considering there was no electricity back then.

    10. Bernie cohen says:

      And what kind of factory was the building on Columbus and w 78 St looks like the same era and design.

    11. Upper Best Side says:

      It is an affront to me that in such a proud, historic building there resides a “Lenwich” and not a proper “Lenny’s.” Perhaps I am too old fashioned, and these young folks move to fast to enjoy the delights of the original Lenny’s experience, but to me the anachro-capitalist nightmare we know as ” Lenwich ” is an affront to everything JM Horton would hold dear