The Deadly Cool Carnival

Ice Drop moulds and the finished product, familiar even today.

It was towards the end of 1921, with excitement building towards the annual Manila Carnival just a few weeks away, that a Japanese company sought permission to make what appears to have been a new product to market: Ice Drops. It proved to be a time-bomb in terms of public health.

Ice Drops were the last major type of frozen confection to be developed and the first to be produced on an industrial scale. At the 1922 Manila Carnival, one stall sold nearly a quarter of a million in one week. For the first time, a frozen confection could be eaten casually anywhere one wished.

They were made by putting a boiled wooden or bamboo stick into a slightly tapering metal mould. This would be filled with a mixture of sugar water, appropriate ingredients like fruit flavouring, ube, coconut milk, toasted rice pinipig, with cassava starch as a thickener, Theses were held in a rack containing 64 filled moulds.

The filled racks were placed in an insulated ice box filled with a saturated solution of calcium chloride which was kept moving by a motorised paddle. At the bottom of the box were copper coils filled with ethyl chloride/chloroethane pumped from a tank by another motor. Vaporised chloroethane in the coils kept the calcium chloride well below the freezing point of water.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later the contents of the moulds were frozen. The racks would be briefly dipped in warm water to release the ice drops which were then wrapped in glazed or greaseproof paper by hand and transferred to ice storage boxes for later sale.

Note the year that Ice Drops hit the streets of Manila: 1921. Frank Epperson, who is usually creditted with inventing this type of confection, only went on public sale in 1924 and patented it a year later. It was known as the Eppsicle but his kids insisted he renamed it to Popsicle, which is now a trademark of Unilever. Magnolia appears to have licensed the name for use in the Philippines.

So, an imported American name for a product that first went on sale in Manila. Go figure.


Epperson’s 1924 worldwide patent for Popsicles.

Ice and frozen desserts had now gone through five distinct stages: the emergence of sorbet/sherbets serving a wealthy elite after the introduction of ice imports from Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century; the emergence of ice-plants in the 1880s which reduced prices; the introduction of ice cream in the opening years of the 20th century boosted by the growth of a Filipino middle class in the American period; The transference of shaved ice desserts from Japanese immigrants to the Filipino mainstream consumer; and now a solid frozen product, also made by a Japanese business.

On May 3, 1922 , Dr. V. Jesus, banned hallo-halo and treats made with shaved ice in the wake of a typhoid epidemic that emerged in November the previous year. 

Epidemics of Typhoid, Cholera and Dysentery regularly hit Manila in the first quarter of the  20th century, smallpox less so due to increasing vaccination of the general population. In the case of typhoid, mortality rates increased from 3.37 per 100,000 in 1915  to 8.11 per 100,000 in 1920. 


Later assessments brought these figures into question due to suspected under-reporting but influenced responses by health authorities.

Typhoid broke out in Manila concurrently with a Cholera epidemic in November 1921 and health authorities were unable to launch an investigation until April 1922. Meanwhile, the Manila Carnival went ahead, the biggest event of its kind in South East Asia, and during its two-week run, the icy ticking time bomb went off.

As every year from1908 to 1939, the 1922 Manila Carnival, running from 4 to 12 February, was built on Wallace Field, a sports ground north east of the Luneta. There were parades, clowns, magicians, sports events, rides, commercial and industrial exhibitions, and food. Lots of food.

To get the full flavour, check out Alex Castro’s excellent blog post on the event.

The Japanese ice drop maker was a roaring success, making a profit of 12,000 pesos from selling his product at 5 centavos a pop.

At the end of the event, everyone packed up and went home. A little more than a week later typhoid became epidemic.

In January there were 71 reported cases of typhoid, by the end of February, it was on its way to doubling the January figure with 131. On 19 March 19, it peaked at 234. On 7 April public warnings were put out. By the end of June, around 1,000 cases had been reported.

In April a Typhoid Investigation Committee was set up, which issued its report three months later.

The Committee concluded that the Manila Carnival was the focus of the epidemic, especially food items and, in particular, the Japanese ice drops, the manufacture and sale of which had not been supervised. It was too late to test samples from the Carnival but examinations of samples being sold by street vendors showed that more than 54 per cent were contaminated by B. Coli, faecal bacteria, suggesting insanitary handling methods that could have helped propagate typhoid. However, less than 7 per cent of typhoid victims actually reported eating ice drops within 30 days of diagnosis.

Health authorities reacted by requiring supervision and regulation of the production of ice drops as well as bacteriological examinations at regular intervals. To reduce contact with workers’ hands the paper wrapping had to be applied using sterilised instruments. Almost all smaller manufacturers went out of business because they could not comply and a drop in typhoid prevalent was reported.

Sari-sari stores were banned from selling ice, as well as water, and after a quarter of samples were found contaminated. Sale of ice was restricted to parlours, restaurants and refreshment outlets specially fitted to serve ice and ice factories were urged to set up branches around Manila.

Ice cream and sorbets/sherbets fared even worse with regard to contamination: More than two-thirds of 354 samples were found unfit for human consumption. 40.1 per cent of typhoid victims had bought ice cream from street vendors, another 23.98 per cent from public places, and just 2.59 per cent made it at home. Ice-cream manufacturers were examined, showing a low level of contamination, indicating that it was downstream food handling at fault.

Ice-cream makers were subject to closer monitoring and given two weeks to get their act together after which a failed bacteriological examination would lead to loss of licence, which included vendors.

Halo-halo gets its first official mention in the July 1921 report of the Philippine Health Service. Mongo Con Hielo parlours were licenced at least as early as 1910 but not in 1907. and mongo con hielo, AKA ice mongo and Mongo Helado,  was common enough to be part of the menu of Tondo Intermediate School in 1912. 

“Would you like some fecal matter with that, Sir?”

The 1907-1910 window would match an earlier suggestion in this series that shaved ice products emerged from the Japanese community with the opening of cinemas in the Sampaloc area. 

Halo-halo and Mais Con Hielo suddenly appear in the 1922 typhoid investigation committee report but there were already established Japanese restaurants selling these. Health records separate ice cream from shaved ice products so the latter were not being served in ice cream parlours. It is possible that the licenced ice mongo parlours were generic shaved ice parlours that also served halo-halo and mais con hielo.

 No tests were done to find out whether samples were contaminated with typhoid or paratyphoid, the presence of B. Coli being presumptive evidence of possible contamination with intestinal bugs.

In fact, Japanese victims were disproportionally high, with 19 cases per 1,000 population, some three times higher than in the case of Filipinos, eight times higher than the Chinese community and much, much higher than American, Spanish or Europeans. 

The Typhoid Committee admitted that it had no direct evidence of a link between typhoid and shaved ice products but they were prohibited anyway and many Japanese refreshment stores were forced to close. Why shaved ice was banned while the other products were not, although they showed far more contamination is not explained.

It is tempting to suggest the disparity in treatment is evidence of racial bias against the Japanese, except that ice drops were also made by a Japanese outfit. The reason may be far simpler: The contamination came not from the ice as produced but during later handling and shaving ice involved more handling than the other products.

The day after Dr Jesus issued the ban on shaved ice the Typhoid Investigation Committee met with a Japanese businessman who demonstrated an ice shaving machine, known as a kakigori machine, that reduced manual handling and thus contamination. Such machines had been available in Japan since at least 1887 when Hanzaburo Murakami filed a patent for one in Japan. The swiftness with which the Japanese businessman turned up with his machine shows that he already had them in stock. but may previously have found them difficult to sell.

The health reports do not say how the ice was being shaved but the chances are that most of it was being made using a metal shaving device rather like a wood plane, and a lot of handling, leading to contamination. 

We don’t know what machine was demonstrated to the committee but here is video of a refurbished Japanese machine of the period:

Eventually, similar machines were made in the Philippines and one brand, Snowman, survived from pre-WW2 American-era Philippines into Independence unchanged except for one small detail.

Here is a Snowman shaver that appeared on the TV show Pawn Stars:

Snowman ice shaver on Pawn Stars

And here’s an identical machine that Ambeth Ocampo found in Batangas.

The nameplate on the top one says “Made in PI”= Philippine Islands, before the war, the lower one while the lower one is marked “Made in RP” – Republic of the Philippines, so post 1946. If you’re wondering, the Pawn Stars bought the top one for $350, 17,500 pesos, which is a lot more than it cost in the first place.

The ban on Halo-Halo was lifted the same year with the regulation that the outlets used an ice scraping machine approve by the Philippine Health Service.

Thereafter, Halo-Halo seems to disappear from health service records, but not, of course, from Filipinos hearts.

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