When you look around inside Day’s Ice Cream in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, you can almost picture the ladies of the 1870s in their long skirts and children in sailor collars and short pants. Day’s is the oldest continually operating business in Ocean Grove. It opened in August 1876 on the very spot where it still stands today – 48 Pitman Avenue. Back then, Ocean Grove was seven years young and operated as a Methodist camp meeting site. In fact, nothing but sand dunes and pines stretched from Day’s to the ocean. Even the landmark Great Auditorium wouldn’t be built for another 18 years.
Day’s was brought to Ocean Grove by two brothers from New Providence, New Jersey: Wilbur Fiske Day, and Pennington Mulford Day. They already had a successful shop in Morristown, New Jersey, known as “W.F. Day & Brother, Caterers, Confectioners and Ice Cream Dealers” which opened in 1862. There was also a location in Mt. Tabor, New Jersey, another camp meeting site.
The Ocean Grove location of Day’s was referred to as Day’s ice cream “garden”, and it was unique in that it was designed to take full advantage of those soothing summer breezes. The seating area is completely open on one side, and there’s a roofless court in the center with a carpet of grass and flowers. One wall is lined with windows that overlook a garden.
This image is from an old stereoview card. It shows the interior of the Ocean Grove location in 1882. Notice how elaborate the gingerbread trim was in those early years.
Here’s an old postcard showing an image of the Ocean Grove location from about 1900, alongside the same building in 2015.
The Day brothers made ice cream and candy right on the premises in what they called “the factory”. I got a peek at some of their recipes in the Day family archives at the Monmouth County Historical Association – recipes for vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream, and lemon ice. They’re refreshingly simple, made with ingredients we can all pronounce: cream, sugar, eggs. There was also a recipe for something called bisque ice cream, which I had never heard of before and I had to Google it. It turns out, “bisque” refers to ice cream mixed with crushed macaroons or nuts.
In its collection, the Historical Society of Ocean Grove has Pennington Day’s ice cream scoop. It was donated to the society by his grandson. It’s really got some weight to it! The Society also has an original parfait glass from Day’s. There’s no date attached to it, but it really is the quintessential Victorian ice cream parlor dish.
By far the Historical Society’s most interesting Day’s artifacts are in its collection of 33 pewter ice cream molds that were used at Day’s at the turn of the 19th century (see photos below). Most were manufactured by Schall & Company of New York. They were the first company in America to make ice cream molds, starting in 1854. The molds shown here would have been considered single-portion molds. One quart of ice cream would have filled about eight of these.
On the outside the molds don’t look like much, but when you open them up you see the amazing detail that would’ve appeared on the surface of the ice cream. My favorite mold of all has to be the Buddhist monk (or maybe it’s meant to be Buddha himself). You can see the plain exterior and the detailed exterior in the photos below.
One of the things I find so charming about the Victorian era was how they liked to give a whimsical quality to ordinary objects. Think how cool it must’ve been to walk into Day’s ice cream parlor and buy ice cream in the shape of a boat, a banjo, or Buddha!
Beautifully molded ice cream wasn’t the only attraction at Day’s. A newspaper ad from about 1890 boasts of “celebrated cream peppermint candy, fresh little buttercups…rich coconut kisses, and new English walnut kisses”, among other temptations.
Speaking of sweets, around 1868, Wilbur Day employed an apprentice in his Morristown store, Milton Hershey. It was at Day’s that the young man made his first batch of chocolates for retail sale. The candies were meant to be cooled and flattened on a marble slab, but Mr. Day couldn’t afford a marble top work table. Instead, they used the broken tombstone of Mr. Day’s aunt, Sarah Brookfield Day. (Now that’s what I call dark chocolate!) Milton Hershey eventually left Day’s to start his own candy company, Hershey’s in Pennsylvania. I hear he did all right.
The Ocean Grove location of Day’s did so well those first two years, they opened another store in Asbury Park in 1878, and a Newark location in 1886. There was also a satellite shop inside the Ross bathing pavilion on the north end of Ocean Grove beach. Below is a postcard image of the Asbury Park store from about 1910. It was at 291 Asbury Avenue and it was built using the same floor plan as the Ocean Grove store.
Here’s the exterior of the Asbury Park store. Today there’s a grassy lot where Day’s used to be.
Speaking of Asbury Park, here’s an interesting tidbit: Elizabeth Crane Day was Wilbur and Pennington Day’s mother. She was related to Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage in 1895. Stephen Crane’s house in Asbury Park is open to the public for tours.
Here’s another good story about Day’s in Asbury Park. In the late 1800s, on any given day at the height of summer, you might see a small boy standing in front of Day’s, enthusiastically eating ice cream and proclaiming that he was the “champion cream eater of Asbury Park”. He was a publicity stunt, paid by the Day brothers as a talking advertisement. The Days considered taking the stunt a step further by outfitting the boy in a white duck suit, long coat, stovepipe hat and cane, and having him walk up and down the boardwalk eating Day’s ice cream. But we’re not sure if they actually went through with it.
That little boy wasn’t the only young person to work for Day’s. 19th century ledger books from the Ocean Grove and Asbury Park stores show children of both Day brothers working alongside their parents. For example, in July of 1890, two of Wilbur’s sons – Waters B. Day and Oliver K. Day – were paid monthly wages of $10 and $6, respectively.
It’s been rumored that entertainer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson worked at Day’s in Asbury Park where he could be heard singing while he worked. That may have been a summer job for him while he attended Rutgers University around 1915. Robeson is probably best known for his role as Joe in the 1936 movie musical Showboat in which he sang “Old Man River”.
Time passed and so did the Day brothers. In fact, Wilbur was so beloved by his employees that they served as pallbearers at his funeral in 1913, and Mayor Todd of Morristown asked the town’s businesses to draw their curtains during the funeral hour.
The Day’s shops eventually closed – all but the Ocean Grove location. It was Pennington Day’s daughter Agnes who would keep it running through the 1940s. During her reign, Agnes added a tea room that served lunch and dinner six days a week as well as a gift shop. Agnes eventually sold Day’s and beginning in 1950 she operated a rooming house at 38 Ocean Pathway in Ocean Grove which she called The Pennington, for her father.
Agnes sold Day’s to Mr. and Mrs. Homer Secor. Homer had worked for the Days as a young man. In 1951, The Secors threw a party in honor of Day’s diamond jubilee, and invited anyone who was born in 1876; the year that Day’s opened in Ocean Grove. Today Day’s is operated by Arnold Teixeira and David Fernicola, who also opened a location on the Asbury Park boardwalk in 2012. It was the first new Day’s to open up in 139 years. Some might hear that and think Day’s must be making a comeback, but for those of us who live or vacation in Ocean Grove, we know it never left.
Below, watch an episode of our video series Curiosities of Ocean Grove about Day’s Ice Cream.
Camera and editing: Mary Solecki
Researcher, writer and host: Kim Brittingham
Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission.