Ice cream has been a delicacy for hundreds of years, but in the last century, Wisconsin has come to be considered home to some of the world’s best ice cream. Babcock Hall, established in 1951, has contributed to this reputation, establishing ice cream as a symbol both of Wisconsin’s dairy farming past and its appeal as a summer destination for tourists from around the world.

This particular carton of Babcock Hall ice cream is, unfortunately, quite light – there is no ice cream inside! The carton is white with a black stripe on top, a red stripe on the bottom, and a big Bucky Badger printed on the front in the same colors. Bucky Badger is the mascot of the University of Wisconsin. On the black top of the carton is another symbol of the University of Wisconsin – a white “W” in a red oval, with a golden-brown crest covering the outside. This carton once held chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, Babcock Hall’s second-best selling flavor. On the back of the carton is a faded label, no longer readable, which once detailed the nutritional facts of the ice cream inside. In truth, we don’t need a label to tell us that ice cream isn’t very nutritious – or to tell us that it’s delicious.

Babcock Hall was named after Stephen Babcock, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. In 1890 Professor Babcock invented the first machine to test the butterfat content of milk. This invention helped to establish Wisconsin as the dairy state, because it let consumers know that the milk they were purchasing tasted good and was safe to drink. “Babcock”, then, seems a fitting name for a building that now produces 75,000 gallons of ice cream a year (from cream that contains at least 10% butterfat) as well as milk and gourmet cheese. The ice cream recipe used to make the ice cream made at Babcock Hall has stayed the same since Babcock Hall’s founding. Graduates of the University from fifty years ago would not taste a difference between the ice cream today and what was served when Babcock Hall was built in 1951!

Image of a woman shopping in the frozen foods section of a grocery store
A woman shopping for cartons of ice cream in a grocery store in Dane County, WI in 1953. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, image ID 28647.

In 2017, tourism brought $20.6 billion into the state of Wisconsin. Many visitors come for outdoor recreation like fishing our winter sports, but others are attracted by the state’s reputation for excellent dairy products – after all, who doesn’t love ice cream or cheese? For this reason, Babcock Hall ice cream is an example of the ways in which our past affects our present. By helping Wisconsin to become the dairy state over 100 years ago, Stephen Babcock also contributed to Wisconsin’s current status as a sought-after summertime vacation spot.

This humble of carton of ice cream helps show that the history of simple pleasures is not always all that simple!

Listen below to the Babcock Ice Cream Carton’s segment on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life.

This story is part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum Mini Tour

Written by Sam Gee in October 2018

Wisconsin Historical Museum logo
This object is part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum mini tour.


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