Boomers Grew Along With Mister Softee

Many businesses got their start during the Baby Boom years to capitalize on selling their products to the increasing number of children. One summer-related business that can fall into that category is Mister Softee.

Mister Softee is the now-ubiquitous soft ice cream served up in your neighborhood by familiar white and blue trucks. It was begun by two brothers, William and James Conway, in Philadelphia in 1958. Within a couple of years, its franchises spread across the country. The company was a pioneer in constructing its own trucks, which it dubbed “an ice cream shop on wheels.”

In 1960, the company adopted the jingle that is so closely tied to its brand; the jingle plays as the trucks roll down the street, calling boys and girls like a Pied Piper of summer treats. Depending on your point of view, then as now, that jingle could be one of the most annoying songs ever broadcast in public, or it’s a catchy jingle that to this day evokes a taste of Boomer Age summer. Written in 1960 by Lester Morton Waas, an advertising jingle writer, he based it on The Whistler and His Dog, by Arthur Pryor (1913). Many boomers recall the music streaming out of the rooftop speaker on the Mister Softee truck, but do not realize the song has lyrics. The lyrics were often sung by children in TV commercials that the company ran during the 1960s. Still operating today and Conway family-owned, you can download the sheet music for the jingle — which includes the lyrics — from mistersoftee.com. If you can’t get enough of that particular memory, they offer a ringtone download as well.

Mister Boomer recalls the trucks crawling down the street in his suburb. Kids would run out of their yards and houses, yelling, “Wait, wait!” until the driver took notice and stopped the truck, all that while playing that earworm of a jingle. Yes, Mister B falls into the group that finds the sound of that jingle akin to nails on a chalkboard.

When Mister B and his family succumbed to the siren of the soft-serve, he always got the same thing: a cone of chocolate. Sometimes his brother would choose a milkshake, and his mother might have a sundae, but generally speaking, it was cones for the Mister B family. Like Dairy Queen’s soft-serve, Mister B didn’t think it tasted much like ice cream, but it was cold and chocolatey, which was pretty good on a hot summer day. Mister B recalls that cones were ten cents, with sundaes and milkshakes being a nickel more.

His neighborhood seemed to be the perfect demographic for ice cream trucks, as Mister Softee, Good Humor and a local ice cream vendor all vied for business, sometimes hitting the same streets within hours of each other on the same day. Unlike Mister Softee, though, the Good Humor truck and local vendor rang bells as they inched down the street. In both cases, a series of bells mounted at the top of the truck’s windshield were tied to a rope that the driver pulled to make them ring.

The kids in the neighborhood became connoisseurs of the frozen confections, knowing that Mister Softee had soft-serve, Good Humor had Toasted Almond, Strawberry Eclair and Chocolate Malt bars, and the local guy had push-ups and frozen pops. As long as your mom had a few coins, the clanging of bells or playing of the jingle were the summer sounds of the suburbs.

Did Mister Softee’s route include your street, boomers? Can you sing the lyrics to the Mister Softee song?

Boomers Didn’t Need Expiration Dates

This past week Mister Boomer finished a container of milk. It had been the first he had been able to finish in a while, seeing as it usually spoiled sooner than the time it took to use it up. This container was particularly interesting, though, since it lasted 22 days past the expiration date marked on the side. Mister B dubbed it the “Chanukah Milk,” because it lasted far longer than anyone ever expected. “It’s a miracle,” he said, rinsing the quart container and dropping the plastic into the recycling bin.

Then he remembered recent articles that talked about how expiration dates on food packages are close to useless. Even though they are ubiquitous on all kinds of food items now, manufacturers can make the dates whatever they want, in addition to adopting the myriad of possibilities of “Sell By,” “Best By” or “Expires On.” All a consumer wants to know is, “Is this product safe to eat? And if I do, will it make me sick?” The USDA warns consumers that dates are there for “quality and not for safety.” Did you know there is no federal statute controlling the appearance, regulation of dates, or mandate on their use, except for infant formula? As Cecil the sea serpent used to say, “What the-e-e heck?!” Cynics say the dates persist because the manufacturers would rather we become paranoid and throw things out, so we have to buy more. There may be something to that, since Americans throw away 40 to 50 percent of the food they buy.

That got Mister B thinking that we didn’t have these expiration dates when we were young boomers. We had two simple tests: Does it look OK? Does it smell OK? The old adage went, “When in doubt, throw it out,” but that was because, as Jimmy Durante reminded us, “The nose knows.” So when did these expiration dates on packages first appear?

Believe it or not, many credit Al Capone with putting the first expiration dates on milk. The story goes that when gangster Al was trying to legitimize his businesses, he told his cohorts that his organization needed to invest in something that people used every day. He opined that beer and liquor — his main sources of income — were weekly purchases at best for most people. After a family member got sick drinking spoiled milk, it hit him that milk was the perfect legitimate business to explore. Al and Ralph Capone bought the Meadowmoor Dairies in Chicago in 1932, and quickly started to place the date the milk was packed on the containers, so consumers wouldn’t have the same problem as his family member.

Being the business man that he was, Mr. Capone attempted to corner the local milk market. He used his powers of persuasion to convince the Chicago City Council that dates on milk should be required by law, and he got his wish. Then he went to work trying to fix the price of milk with his competitors, and it didn’t hurt him any that with a new law on the books, he was the only one who had the stamping machinery that was now needed to be in compliance with the law. Voila! Dates on all milk appeared in Chicago.

Fast forward to the Boomer Generation. In the 1950s, it was standard industry practice for manufacturers — especially of canned goods — to stamp numerical or cryptic codes on their products. These codes were indecipherable by consumers, but were used by company workers to rotate warehouse stock and keep track of shipments.

As more people purchased processed foods in the 1960s, they began to worry about the quality and freshness of what was in the frozen foods they were buying. Yet it was 1970 before easily readable stamped dates began to appear across the country on store shelves for a wide variety of products. A survey in 1975 established that 85 percent of people preferred the Month, Day, Year configuration that is widely used today.

Mister Boomer recalls his mom employing the sniff test. Once he was sent back to the corner grocery when his mother declared that the container of cottage cheese she had just sent him to get was spoiled. It didn’t smell right to her, so back to the store Mister B went. After telling the old woman behind the counter the situation, she opened the lid and sniffed it herself. “Smells fine to me,” she said. Then, grossing Mister B out to no end, she dragged her finger across the untouched cottage cheese, scooping up a bit and tasting it. “Tastes fine to me,” she said. All a young Mister B could utter was that his mom didn’t think so and she said he should get another one from the store. Reluctantly, the woman gave Mister B another container and he ran home with it.

Do you have memories of utilizing the “sniff test,” boomers? Do you live by the dates that are stamped on your products today, or do you rely on the time-honored tradition that worked for our families for decades?