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A root beer float

The ice cream soda, float (United Statesmarker and East Asia), spider (Australia and New Zealandmarker), brown cow (Hong Kongmarker) or black cow (Brazilmarker) is a beverage that consists of one or more scoops of ice cream in either a soft drink or a mixture of flavored syrup and carbonated water. The tiny bubbles of air present in the soda cause the ice cream to float and are nucleation sites for the formation of large bubbles of carbon dioxide. This gives the beverage a "foamy head" similar to a beer head.


Robert M. Green's account, published in Soda Fountain magazine in 1910, states that while operating a soda fountain at the Franklin Institutemarker's semi-centennial celebration in Philadelphiamarker in 1874, he wanted to create a new treat to attract customers away from another vendor who had a fancier, bigger soda fountain. After some experimenting, he decided to combine ice cream and soda water. During the celebration, he sold vanilla ice cream with 16 different flavors of soda water. The new treat was a sensation, and soon other soda fountains began selling ice cream sodas.

Another account is that of Fred Sanders, who owned the successful Chicagomarker confectioners, the Pavilion of Sweets, first opened on June 17, 1875. One night in 1876, some customers came in shortly before closing time and ordered sweet cream soda, a popular drink at that time. Sanders' ice delivery hadn't come that day, leading his sweet cream to go sour, so he used ice cream instead.

Regardless of its origins, the beverage quickly became very popular, to such a degree that it was almost socially obligatory among teens, although many adults abhorred it. According to legend, it was banned, either entirely or on holy days, by some local governments, giving rise to a substitute treat, the ice cream sundae. As soda was marketed as a miracle cure, it was often considered a substance that required oversight and control; like alcohol, another controlled substance that could not be served or purchased on Sundays in many conservative areas. Many soda fountains had to figure out a way to turn a profit on Sundays when selling soda was considered illegal. The solution was to serve ice cream on these days, as it is merely a food product and not a controlled substance. Soda fountains then coined the term "Sundaes" for the ice cream concoctions that they served on "soda's day of rest".


Variations of the ice cream soda are as countless as the varieties of soda and flavors of ice cream, but some have become more prominent over the years than others. Sometimes, people who are allergic to milk use sherbet instead of ice cream.

Chocolate Ice Cream Soda

This ice cream soda starts with approximately one ounce of chocolate syrup, then several scoops of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass. Unflavored carbonated water is added until the glass is filled and the resulting foam rises above the top of the glass. The final touch is a topping of whipped cream and usually, a maraschino cherry. This variation of ice cream soda was available at local soda fountains and nationally, at Dairy Queen stores for many years.

Root beer float

Also known as a "black dude," "black cow" or "brown cow" , the root beer float is traditionally made with vanilla ice cream and root beer, but can also be made with other flavors.

In the United States and Canada, the chain A&W Restaurants are well known for their root beer floats. The definition of a black cow varies by region. For instance in some localities, a "root beer float" has strictly vanilla ice cream; a float made with root beer and chocolate ice cream is a "chocolate cow" or a "brown cow."

In 2008, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group introduced its Float beverage line. This includes A&W Root Beer, A&W Cream Soda and Sunkist flavors which attempt to simulate the taste of their respective ice cream float flavors in a creamy, bottled drink.

The origin of the name "black cow" has always been of interest to food and beverage experts and apparently dates to August of 1893 in Cripple Creek, Coloradomarker. Frank J. Wisner, owner of the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Company had been producing a line of naturally flavored, naturally carbonated premium soda waters for the citizens of the then booming Cripple Creek gold mining district. He had been trying to create a special drink for the children of Cripple Creek and came up with an idea while staring out at his properties on Cow Mountain on a moonlit night. The full moon's glow on the snow capped Cow Mountain reminded him of a dollop of vanilla ice cream floating on top of his blackened Cow Mountain. As he told the story later, he was inspired by this view to hurry back to his bar and add a big scoop of vanilla ice cream to the one soda water he produced that the children of Cripple Creek seemed to like best - Myers Avenue Red root beer - and served it the very next day. The drink was an instant hit. Originally named "Black Cow Mountain", the local children shortened this to "black cow". Wisner was known to say many times in his later years that if he had a nickel for every time someone ordered a black cow, he'd have been a rich man.

Boston cooler

A Boston cooler is typically composed of ginger ale and vanilla ice cream. Variations abound, however, with club soda, sherbet, rum, vanilla vodka, milk, sugar, or even coffee sometimes added or substituted for the key ingredients. In Ohiomarker, a root beer float is also referred to as a Boston cooler.

The origin of the Boston cooler lies in Detroit, Michiganmarker, the city in which Fred Sanders is credited with inventing the ice cream soda. The name almost certainly has no connection to Boston, Massachusettsmarker, where the beverage is virtually unknown. One theory is that it was named after Detroit's Boston Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of what was then an upper-class neighborhood a short distance from James Vernor's drugstore.

It is known that by the 1880s the Boston cooler was being served in Detroit, made with the local Vernors, an intense golden ginger ale, unlike most modern dry ginger ales. Originally, a drink called a Vernors Cream was served as a shot or two of sweet cream poured into a glass of Vernors golden ginger ale. Later, vanilla ice cream was substituted for the cream as a Vernors float. Unlike a float however, a Boston Cooler is blended like a thick milk shake. Both Sanders' soda fountains and the Big Boy restaurant chain used their milkshake blenders to prepare the drink (it was a signature menu item at Big Boy until its change in ownership in the 1980s).

It can be found most often in the Detroit region's many Coney Island-style restaurants, which are plentiful because of Detroit's Greektownmarker district influence. National Coney Island is one of the few restaurant chains to list the Boston cooler in their menu. It is also found at the Detroit-area Dairy Queens and at Halo Burger, a mid-Michigan fast food chain.

A Boston Cooler is also available on the menu at the Chow Food Bar in San Francisco.

Snow White

The Snow White is made with 7 Up or Sprite and vanilla ice cream.

The origins of this dessert is unknown, but it is found in some Asian eateries.

Coke float

A Coke float
Coca-Cola brand sodas and soft serve ice cream. ('Coke float' is also a common term in the West Coast of Scotland for any cola-based ice cream soda).

Purple cow

In the context of ice cream soda, a purple cow is vanilla ice cream in purple grape soda. The Purple Cow, a restaurant chain in the southern United States, features this and similar beverages.

Sherbet cooler

The Friendly's chain also had a variation known as a "sherbet cooler," which was a combination of orange or watermelon sherbet, vanilla syrup and seltzer water. (Presently, it is billed as a "slammer".)

Sherbet float

It is also possible to make a float using any kind of sherbet (lime, orange, raspberry, or rainbow are often most popular) and ginger ale.

Beer float

Lager beer can be substituted for the soft drink and combined with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Russian Blizzard

Ginger ale and two shots of vodka can be mixed with vanilla ice cream to make a Russian Blizzard.

Egg cream

While an Egg Cream is not technically an ice cream soda, it uses cream or milk instead of ice cream. The cream is then mixed with seltzer and chocolate syrup.



  • Funderburg, Anne Cooper. "Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains" (2002) University of Wisconsin Popular Press. ISBN 0-87972-853-1.
  • Gay, Cheri Y. (2001). Detroit Then and Now, p. 5. Thunder Bay Press. ISBN 1-57145-689-9.
  • Bulanda, George; Bak, Richard; and Ciavola, Michelle. The Way It Was: Glimpses of Detroit's History from the Pages of Hour Detroit Magazine, p. 8. Momentum Books. ISBN 1-879094-71-1.
  • Houston, Kay. "Of soda fountains and ice cream parlors." (Date not available.) The Detroit News.
  • Alissa Ozols (2008) San Francisco.

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