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The History of Snowballs (Baltimore Shaved Ice)

Snowballs (occasionally spelled as “sno-balls”) are a classic summer treat in Baltimore, Maryland. Like their close cousin the snow cone, snowballs can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-1800s, ice houses shipped wagons containing massive blocks of ice from New York to the South, and when they passed through the city, children would chase the wagons and beg for ice shavings to help cool them off on hot days. Some of the local mothers began to make toppings to sweeten the ice shavings, the most common being a homemade egg custard. Melted marshmallow also became a common topping. (Notably, today marshmallow is also included in the middle of snowball. Doing so is considered a mark of authenticity in the Baltimore snowball scene.) Snowballs gained popularity during the Great Depression because they were inexpensive to make and to buy. In fact, they were often referred to as “penny sundaes” or “hard-time sundaes.” They became so popular that snowball stands clogged neighborhoods, but Baltimore’s then-mayor Harold W. Jackson defended the free trade of snowballs, asserting that, “Some of us may be down to eating snowballs soon…” Today, their popularity has persisted and there are a myriad of flavoring options to choose from at Baltimore’s many snowball stands. Some of the most popular include classics like egg custard, skylite (which is raspberry-inspired), and blood orange. Some proprietors make their flavorings from scratch, while others purchase theirs from a locally owned supplier of syrups and ice machines, Koldkiss. Snowballs do share a similar history and composition to snow cones, but they are considered a distinct ice-based dessert. Most true snowballs are only available in Baltimore or a few other specific areas around the state of Maryland, but some authentic versions can be found at purveyors as far away as San Francisco and Sarasota, Florida. New Orleans does their own version that is made with finer shaved ice and is frequently topped with condensed milk. There are even some claims that snowballs were invented in New Orleans rather than in Baltimore, and while its difficult to prove exactly where snowballs originated, the most accepted story is generally that they got their start in Baltimore. It’s certainly true that snowballs have been integrated into the local Baltimore cuisine in a unique and thorough way, and they continue to be extremely popular in the city today.

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