A Brief History of Milkshakes: McDonalds & Murder

If there’s one drink that captures summer; it’s the milkshake. With its thick frosted blend of sugary, creamy substances, what could be better on a hot August afternoon? 

More than this, the beverage feels loaded with nostalgia, as if every sip takes you back to some 1950s era American diner with the Happy Days gang. Maybe it’s the ice cream parlour glasses, or the whipped cream on top, or the crazy straw waiting to be sipped, but milkshakes imbue a wholesome sense of innocence (Kelis’ infamous euphemizing of the word in her pop single, circa August 2003, withstanding). Top it with a few cherries and enjoy. For whatever reason, the milkshake feels timeless. Except here’s the thing: it isn’t. It only feels that way because of how richly integrated it is with so many major inventions and brands that came into being over the course of the 20th century. And beneath its frothy surface—the milkshake has been far from innocent as well.

The term “milkshake” was first used in 1885 England to refer to a cocktail that was a mix of whisky and eggnog. The milkshake that we’ve all come to know and love was only invented in 1922 at a small drug-store chain known as Walgreens in the U.S. One day in the early part of the last century, when trying to improve the chocolate malt that Walgreens sold, the manager Ivan “Pop” Coulson decided to mix in two scoops of ice cream with malt powder and milk. With that simple splash of ice cream, Coulson made history. Modern milkshake was born.

And beneath its frothy surface—the milkshake has been far from innocent as well.

That’s only half the story though. How did milkshakes go from being one man’s invention to a phenomenon across the United States and Britain? Well, for one thing, in 1922 it was still a total pain to shake and mix a milkshake. It takes a lot more time and energy to shake thick heavy ice cream back and forth than your average martini cocktail. And so, coinciding with the invention of the milkshake was another item we now take for granted: the electric blender. While today we use the blender to make pretty much anything from protein drinks to kale smoothies, back in 1922, Stephen J. Poplawski only had one thing in mind when he invented it: Milkshakes.

There was one last ingredient that went into creating the beverage’s massive popularity. That last element was Ray Kroc; Electric Blender Salesman. In the 1950s, Kroc sold some mixers to the restaurant owners Richard and Maurice McDonald. (That’s right, Mc-freaking-Donald). Seeing that the two brothers’ restaurant had serious potential, Kroc signed onto being one of their first franchise owners and eventually went on to own the entire company and lead it to its worldwide growth. In doing so, it meant that easy pre-blended milkshakes were readily available pretty much anywhere. Oh so American Dreamy.

Milkshakes, however, did more than inspire the invention of electric blenders and the globally mouth-watering yet guilt-fostering McDonald’s chain. It also led to the invention of the bendy straw. Sitting in a sweetshop on a warm afternoon in the 1930s, amateur inventor Joseph B. Friedman couldn’t help but notice his daughter struggling to finish her milkshake with her straight paper straw. Friedman took the straw home and began to tinker away until he had invented the bendy straw and subsequently a multi-million dollar business.

Thick and creamy, milkshakes can conceal the flavour of any added deadly ingredients.

Yet for all their frothy deliciousness, milkshakes have a dark side. It’s proven—alongside a drop or two of poison—to be a murder weapon of choice. In 1963, the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro with a poisoned chocolate shake. Similarly, in 1965 in Vancouver, a husband chose to take leave of his wife by sprinkling a bit of arsenic in her daily milkshakes. In 2003, Nancy Kissel killed her husband in what came to be known as the ‘Milkshake Murders’. Kissel served her husband a strawberry milkshake loaded with sedatives before beating him to death. Thick and creamy, milkshakes can conceal the flavour of any added deadly ingredients.

There was once a time in the States when a burger and shake was considered the classic ideal meal. But times are changing. Studies show that casual dining is overtaking fast food restaurants, leaving cheap greasy fries and milkshakes behind. Nowadays the milkshake with its blend of sugary sweet substances is considered an indulgence, an idyll, an invitation to the past. A sip or two couldn’t hurt… could it?

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