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  • Have You Had Your Daily Drug? The Italian Motta Ice-Cream Campaign in 1959
  • Maria Chiara Liguori (bio)

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Fig. 1.

Gelato carts in Bologna, in 1929 (Tracce di una Storia – Santa Viola Archive)

Industrially produced ice cream arrived in Italy just before the 1950s. Its arrival was accompanied by a powerful campaign to denigrate gelato, accused of being harmful to public health because of its processing (Panciera 2009, 49). The campaign insisted that the way that fresh milk was processed to produce gelato created a number of health hazards. The fear mongering was not without precedent. In 1916, for example, a wave of polio spread through New York, killing 6,000 people, 80 percent of whom were children. Searching for a cause for the spread of the disease, some focused on ice cream as a possible culprit. In an error in data analysis, some had correlated the spread of the disease with the rise of ice cream in the summer months. Others blamed the disease on the use of contaminated milk in ice cream (Wooten 2009, 12–14), while other, Sabin included, blamed sugar in general (Crawford 2011, 68).

It was true that gelato was sold in an environment without health regulations. Produced in local laboratories, gelato was then sold by vendors wielding tiny carts. Between the two wars, it had become clear that gelato had to improve to address the health and safety concerns associated with the consumption of the product. The ice cream industry was aware of this history and found the late Fifties a particularly good time to launch a massive offensive against gelato through a particularly virulent press campaign. Because industrialization of food products was seen as an expression of modernity, the media was more open to supporting the ice cream industry argument. Indeed, several articles appeared almost simultaneously that highlighted the dangers associated with eating gelato and, by contrast, the high hygienic standards of the industrial process (Polliotti 1999, 144–45). The producers of Motta ice cream were ready to take advantage of the fear factor as well as the press for modernization of Italian life.

The Food Industry and Modernity: A History of Motta

But what was Motta and how did it become a major confectionery industry? Angelo Motta started out in 1919 with 700 lire given to him by his mother. With this money, he bought equipment from a baker who had closed. He then rented a service shop in the center of Milan (Padoviani 2011, 191). He contributed to putting the panettone, the traditional Milanese Christmas cake, into the limelight. He was the inventor of the mold of paper-straw that gives shape to the dough during proofing, the shape which gained panettone a worldwide fame. Motta’s panettone was higher, richer, and softer. These improvements soon caught the attention of consumers.

By the Thirties, Motta had built a factory that churned out 1,300 tons of cake per day and gave rise to a series of pastry bars, branded with a capital M, which was inspired by the facade of the Duomo (Moioli 2013). The logo, a symbol of Milan’s enchanting atmosphere, was designed by Severino Pozzati (aka Sepo) and commissioned by Dino Villani. Villani was the advertising director of Motta in the Thirties and was also the co-founder of the Academy of Italian cuisine. He found a way to keep the confectionery workshops busy after the Christmas season by proposing a new dessert for Easter, the dove, using a recipe not too dissimilar to that of panettone (Pezzotta and Gilardelli 2011).

Motta had taken a very careful approach to both the distribution of his product and his relationship with customers. Starting in 1928, Motta opened a series of pastry bars with an emphasis on aesthetics At the beginning of the Thirties, he asked the architect Melchiorre Bega to redesign one of those spaces. As a result, Motta was mentioned in a flattering article in the 1933 March edition of Domus, the journal of architecture and decoration directed by Gio Ponti. The pastry bar featured chrome bars, diffused and indirect lighting, vivid colors, and decorations by Giulio Rosso.

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