Sidney L. Russell, Sr. got into the ice cream game in New Orleans in 1933. Starting out as a small vendor for Polar Bar and Sunshine ice creams, the business grew quickly, thanks to Russell’s innovative thinking.
In 1935, he ran a contest for kids where the winner was determined by how many wrappers from purchased ice cream treats were returned. The winners submitted so many they counted them by weight rather than by amount. Winners received a bicycle or a Mickey Mouse watch, and Russell saw an increase in sales.
In 1936, Russell took a trip to Atlantic City and saw ice cream being sold via large tricycles and ordered 30. This new style of selling debuted in New Orleans in 1937 and was an immediate hit. Vendors could be found at City Park, along Carnival parade routes and in many neighborhoods. Kids memorized routes and were ready, nickels in hand, when they heard the bells coming. Russell’s Polar Bars soon became New Orleans’ best-selling ice cream on a stick.
These successes made it possible for Russell’s business to move into wholesale distributing in 1938, while still maintaining a few storefront ice cream parlors. In 1944, the individual businesses he ran were all incorporated under one new name: Russell Ice Cream Co.
During the first half of 1950s, Russell’s Ice Cream started moving from bicycle vendors to the now ubiquitous musical ice cream trucks. In 1954, they started operating a fleet of 25 Harmony Ice Cream trucks. A 1955 promotion that offered miniature musical Harmony trucks in exchange for $1 and 25 bags from purchased stick confections was so popular that they ran out of trucks in a few short weeks. They repeated the program the following year, but it appears the toy quality suffered. Instead of calling them musical Harmony trucks, they were Mystery Musical Trucks. According to the promo, they also played a song as they were pushed… “but only sometimes – and that is the mystery.”
After Sidney Russell, Sr. died in 1958, his sons Sidney Jr. and F. Emmett carried on the family business until they closed in the late 1970s.
Russell’s Polar Bars vending tricycles were each equipped with a refrigerator box and musical chimes. When they first debuted in 1937, an ad was placed seeking 20 young men, “preferably married (and) with fair education” to be ice cream peddlers. A few years later, the ads included additional requests of applicants – that they be clean, sober and reliable.
Image by Charles L. Franck Photographers on 5/23/52. Provided courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, Charles L. Franck / Franck Bertacci Photographers Collection, 1979.325.4061.