The Unlikely Myth Of Margaret Thatcher And Soft-Serve Ice Cream

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 27, 2016
Margaret_Thatcher_on_a_visit_to_Northern_Ireland
“In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” —Margaret Thatcher

In A Nutshell

With the death of Margaret Thatcher came a bizarre claim that she was responsible for the development of one of our favorite summer treats: soft-serve ice cream. The problem comes when you consider that soft-serve had been popular in the US for around a decade before Thatcher started her work at J. Lyons & Co. Even when she was there, she was mostly working on soap and pie fillings. The myth was likely started by the British left as a metaphor for her political policies.

The Whole Bushel

When most people think of Margaret Thatcher, they don’t usually think of hot summer afternoons, endless sun, and the excitement of ice cream. When Thatcher died in 2013, there was an odd idea tossed out almost nonchalantly at her funeral. According to the Bishop of London, Thatcher was partially responsible for the creation of one of the favorite summertime treats of children everywhere: soft-serve ice cream.

The claim was that Thatcher, who had gotten her degree in chemistry from the University of Oxford, had worked at J. Lyons & Co., where she had been instrumental in creating the emulsifiers used in soft-serve ice cream, along with the process of injecting air into the mixture to make it even more light and wonderful.

Supposedly, it was only after her work on the research team that they succeeded in creating a reliable method to make soft-serve ice cream. That ice cream would be branded Mr Whippy in the UK, and it spread to other parts of the world from there.

Her degree was awarded in 1947, the research job came not long after, and she was presently introduced to Denis Thatcher and persuaded to change careers. Seems legit, right?

It’s pretty untrue.

The biggest strike against the story is that soft-serve was already well-known in the US by the time Thatcher supposedly invented it. It was discovered jointly by J.F. McCullough (who came up with this new kind of ice cream on purpose) and Tom Carvel (who came up with it quite accidentally when his truck broke down and he kept selling the melting ice cream) in 1938.

There’s an argument there about when soft-serve became soft-serve and whether or not the earliest versions of the ice cream are legitimate. Regardless of opinions on that, though, we do know that there were a couple of different companies in the UK trying to break into the soft-serve market. J. Lyons, the company Thatcher worked for, did so by buying American soft-serve technology.

What followed was a grab for power and popularity between Whippy and Softee, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that machines advanced to the point where they had air pumps in them to create the soft ice cream we all know and love today. A closer look into the work Thatcher did at J. Lyons shows that most of what she researched was in the fields of soap-making and in documenting the quality of pie and cake fillings.

So what the heck, Britain? Why was the origin of soft-serve ice cream so wrapped up in someone who doesn’t really evoke the innocence and simplicity of childhood?

According to a brief published by the Royal Society two years before Thatcher’s death, the myth and the association might have had some strange political roots. They suggest that it was started by the British left, who could think of no metaphor more appropriate than soft-serve ice cream to point out all that they thought was wrong with Thatcher’s politics.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
The Guardian: Was Margaret Thatcher really part of team that invented Mr Whippy?
The New Yorker: The Margaret Thatcher Soft-Serve Myth
The Telegraph: Margaret Thatcher didn’t invent Mr Whippy