Hokypoky

Hokypoky

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks of "Hokypoky penny a lump," and later chapters show this mysterious substance being sold on the streets by Italian vendors. It was a form of cheap frozen ice that, like other ices and ice creams of its day, had been implicated in many outbreaks of disease in Europe and America.

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Wandering Rocks shows the onelegged sailor near Eccles Street "skirting Rabaiotti's icecream car," which is probably setting off for the day from nearby Madras Place where Antoni Rabaiotti, Gifford notes, "had a fleet of pushcarts that sold ices and ice cream in the Dublin streets." Circe begins with people on the edge of the Monto district, considerably south and east, grouped around this cart or a similar one: "Round Rabaiotti's halted ice gondola stunted men and women squabble. They grab wafers between which are wedged lumps of coral and copper snow. Sucking, they scatter slowly." In Eumaeus Bloom and Stephen pass the same small cart: "Adjacent to the men's public urinal they perceived an icecream car round which a group of presumably Italians in heated altercation were getting rid of voluble expressions." The novel's association of this cart with uncleanliness and ill health—Circe moves on to glance at St. Vitus' dance, often caused by streptococcal infections, and at a "scrofulous child," suffering from tuberculosis—can hardly be accidental.

The last three decades of the 19th century saw a fad for cheap flavored ices called "hokey pokey." In a note on JJON, Harald Beck quotes from several newspaper articles around the year 1880 referring to this newly popular product. The 21 July 1878 issue of Era referred to a music hall song featuring language identical to Bloom's: "Mr Wilfred Roxby [...] sang a funny strain of an amatory kind with a chorus about a street vendor who sold 'Hokey-pokey, a penny a lump.'" An 1881 issue of Tinsley's Magazine defined the term for those unfamiliar with it: "Hokey-pokey was the vulgar name for 'ice-cream sold on the street,' she explained, and she had tasted some at an open-air hokey-pokey stall near the Liverpool 'depot' for one penny." The 3 December 1881 Manchester Times listed the ingredients: "The genuine article is said to be composed of milk, cornflour, sugar, and eggs, all boiled together, and afterwards frozen into small lumps."

Rich, whipped concoctions of the kind that bear the name ice cream today did exist in the 19th century, but they were too expensive for poor people. The "ice cream" sold on the streets typically contained no cream at all and would have been more like today's ice pops or ice lollies. In the early years, people consumed these ices from small "penny lick" glasses whose conical shape and thick walls made the amounts appear greater than they were and whose regular re-use (they were simply wiped out and refilled) made countless people sick. By the turn of the century cities had begun banning the unsanitary glasses, and vendors started serving ices between "wafers," as noted at the beginning of Circe. (Joyce's fanciful adjectives—"lumps of coral and copper snow"—refer to the colors that were added to identify particular flavors.) An Italian vendor in New York City introduced paper cups in 1896, and there are reports of British ices being rolled up in brown paper cones, but edible waffle cones did not appear until the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. 

By the time Ulysses was published, hokey-pokey carts were a thing of the past. The 4 November 1919 London Times described them as unsavory memories of a vanished Dublin: "Time flies and Dublin can no longer be looked at by the nose. A main drainage system has exorcised the Liffey, and the red-herring basket is as scarce as that of the cockle seller of old, a legend now, or the more distant hokey-pokey-a-penny-a-lump man, who is not even believed in by children." It may seem odd to link ice cream with the open sewer that was the Liffey, or with the rank smells of unrefrigerated seafood, but the connection was entirely justified. Throughout the second half of the 19th century ice cream consumption was repeatedly implicated in outbreaks of severe illness, and street ices were among the worst offenders.

In an article titled "When Ice Cream Was Poisonous: Adulteration, Ptomaines, and Bacteriology in the United States, 1850-1910," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86.3 (2012): 333-60, Edward Geist summarizes some of the appalling reports, which started with the invention of the hand-cranked ice cream freezer in 1843 but became much worse in the 1880s: "During the 1880s ice cream poisoning grew from an isolated phenomenon to reach epidemic proportions. . . . By the middle of the decade, ice cream poisoning had become the subject of popular jokes" (343-44). The many cases, sometimes involving hundreds of victims, prompted intense debate about the causes. Chemical or metallic adulterants, "ptomaines" supposedly produced by bacteria digesting food products, and bacteria themselves were all theorized to be responsible, but as time went on the evidence pointed more and more conclusively to bacteria, and specifically to bacterial contamination of milk.

Geist pays only scant attention to the hokey-pokey ices of British street carts, but it is likely that the appallingly unsanitary conditions under which they were made, and what he calls "the notorious practice of refreezing unsold melted ice cream and serving it to unsuspecting customers" (340) the next day, made a universal problem much worse. He notes that "in 1898 Modern Medicine stated that 'as a result of eating ice-cream obtained at a street-stand in Antwerp, forty persons, most of them children, died'" (334). Around the turn of the century, he notes, researchers isolated from samples of cheese a demonstrably pathogenic strain of the colon bacterium now famously known as Escherichia coli. On flickr.com a blogger named Paul Townsend notes that Victorian and Edwardian physicians linked ice cream products to scarlet fever (Streptococcus pyogenes) in 1875, to "Gaertner" infection (Bacillus enteriditis) in 1905 and 1909, and to typhoid fever (Salmonella enterica) in 1892, 1894, 1897, and 1904. Tuberculosis too was known to be spread by contaminated milk.

At the beginning of Circe Joyce casts only a quick glance at such communicable diseases, but it is one of many such glances in the novel, consistent with Bloom's thoughts about unsanitary eating implements in Lestrygonians ("A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes"), his wariness of communal sources of food and drink slightly later in the same chapter ("My plate's empty. After you with our incorporated drinking cup. Like sir Philip Crampton’s fountain. Rub off the microbes with your handkerchief. Next chap rubs on a new batch with his"), and his recollection of infected shellfish in Nausicaa ("Poor man O’Connor wife and five children poisoned by mussels here. The sewage. Hopeless"). Such quick glances take for granted the impoverished, dirty, foul-smelling, unhealthy city that was Dublin in 1904. They also show Joyce's interest in recent medical research that might eventually benefit not only Deasy's precious cattle ("Foot and mouth disease. Known as Koch's preparation. Serum and virus. Percentage of salted horses. Rinderpest"), but Ireland's human inhabitants as well.

Many thanks to Vincent Van Wyk, who, in a personal communication, suggested resources consulted in this note.

JH 2020
Photograph of a Victorian ice cream cart, date and location unknown. Source: flickr.com.