Waitress Kim Dempsey in the NMAH Ice Cream Parlor, 1981, by Ink Mendelsohn, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Image no. SIA2011-0958

Get the Scoop on Smithsonian’s Ice Cream Parlor

We all screamed for ice cream at the old-fashioned ice cream parlor at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History between 1981 and 2006.

Between 1981 and 2006, we all screamed for ice cream at the Smithsonian! In the not-too-distant past, visitors and staff could enjoy a treat at the old-fashioned ice cream parlor at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Two men stand behind a counter. One man is holding an ice cream float in each hand.

When Roger Kennedy became director of the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, in 1979, he set out to transform the space. In that first year, he called on staff to brainstorm ideas for concessions in the museum. One concept that gained some early traction was for a “Carousel Café,” where coffee, tea, beer, wine, pastries, and cheese would be sold. 

Fortunately, by spring 1981, leadership’s sweet tooth won out, and plans for an ice cream parlor and a small exhibit on the history of ice cream were underway.

People around the Smithsonian were excited about the opening of the spot. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, wrote an essay about making ice cream as a child, describing a fresh raspberry and dark chocolate mix as his favorite flavor. And employees were ready to form a line. In a letter from June 1981, one employee wrote to another about the need to “squelch a rumor that free ice cream will be served to the staff July 2 or 3.” Side note: If you started that rumor and still work at the Smithsonian, we should definitely be friends.

Two waitresses serve ice cream to a group of young adults.

When the parlor opened that summer, across from the fondly-remembered Foucault Pendulum, visitors indulged in “The Peanut Malted,” “The Waldorf Parfait,” “The 1906 Banana Split,” and various other mouth-watering shakes, floats, and soft drinks.

Parlor planners also ensured that the space would be historically accurate. In fact, there was even a bit of a showdown among the museum’s staff and consultants about the costumes the soda jerks would wear. Some thought the cut was historically inaccurate, and it seems that none of the stakeholders were satisfied by the opening of the parlor. The group resigned to assign a researcher to the task after the opening, “even if the timing appears to be sacrificed to accuracy.”   

Two sketches of uniforms for servers for a man and woman. Both are holding trays and wearing aprons.

But this iteration of the parlor was short-lived, and after a period of construction, it was redesigned in a “far more elaborate” way and named “Palm Court.” The museum’s leadership recognized that folks needed more than just ice cream, so they soon expanded their menu to sandwiches and light snacks.  On the way to their afternoon treats, visitors could also examine the Stohlman's Confectionery Shop and a section of a Horn and Hardart Automat from Philadelphia on display.

Image of a counter with shelves and glass counters. It is roped off.

About the shop in 1984, one newspaper wrote, “It offers visitors a vintage setting in which to kick their shoes off and have a few sips of nostalgia along with a strawberry soda.” Oh, do we wish we could still have a sip of that soda, and, oh, do we hope everyone kept on their shoes.

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