Alfred L. Cralle: The Black Businessman Who Invented a Better Way to Scoop Ice Cream

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Anyone who has ever had trouble eating Chunky Monkey out of the pint with a spoon knows the importance of a good ice cream scoop. The elegant tool makes it possible to shape and serve perfect dollops of frozen dairy with one hand. It forever changed the way we eat the dessert, and it wouldn’t have been possible without a pioneering inventor named Alfred L. Cralle.

The Black American trailblazer was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, in 1866. Alfred, a tinkerer from a young age, developed his mechanical skills helping his father with his carpentry work. The bright young man had education opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to him just a generation prior. In Washington, D.C., he enrolled in the Wayland Seminary of the National Theological Institute, which the American Baptist Home Mission Society founded following the Civil War to serve formerly enslaved people.

Illustrated Portrait of Alfred L. Cralle, the inventor of the ice cream scoop.
Illustrated Portrait of Alfred L. Cralle, the inventor of the ice cream scoop. / Carnegie Library, Wikimedia Commons

After his schooling, Cralle moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a porter in a hotel and at a drugstore. Though the work itself wasn’t intellectually stimulating, Cralle managed to find inspiration in the mundane. Pharmacies still served ice cream and soda in the late 19th century, and he noticed the scoopers struggling to unstick ice cream from their spoons. It was an awkward, messy process that required multiple hands and utensils, and Cralle wondered if there might be a better way. 

In 1896 he filed a patent for his solution: a tool that allowed the holder to mold ice cream into perfect scoops and release it with the same hand. In his application he wrote, "The invention will be extremely simple in its construction, strong, durable, effectual in its operation and comparatively inexpensive to manufacture." He received U.S. Patent #576395 for his “Ice Cream Mold and Disher” less than a year later.

U.S. Patent #576395 for the “Ice Cream Mold and Disher”
U.S. Patent #576395 for the “Ice Cream Mold and Disher” / Carnegie Library, Wikimedia Commons

According to a Pittsburgh Press article from 1897, the scoop was capable of serving “40 to 50 dishes of ice cream in a minute.” The same story claimed that Cralle had received generous offers from numerous firms looking to purchase his patent. But there’s no evidence that he ever made a fortune off his product. When he was killed in a car crash in 1920, his ice cream scoop was ubiquitous, but he had largely been forgotten as its inventor. 

Though Alfred L. Cralle isn’t as big a name in the ice cream business as Ben or Jerry, his impact is undeniable. Nearly every ice cream scoop on the market today takes inspiration from his original patent. Every time an ice cream scooper fills a cone without straining their wrist, his legacy lives on.