In 1904, a 23-year-old apprentice pharmacist named David Strickler was manning the soda fountain at a drug store in Latrobe, PA. On a whim, he sliced a banana lengthwise and put ice cream inside for a few customers. Evidently, they liked it, because the banana split would go viral in the early 1900s, spreading to soda shops everywhere, transcending from a 2,000-calorie uber dessert to a piece of Americana recognized around the world.
But Strickler would never see a dime in royalties for his 10-cent banana split. In food, ideas and recipes aren’t treated like other inventions. They belong, not to companies, but to culture itself.
As strange as it may sound, a combination of agriculture, enterprise, and sweet teeth meant the banana split was more or less an inevitability.
Around the turn of the century, a growing infrastructure of railroads and steam ships reaching down to South American banana plantations gave way to a sudden influx of bananas in the U.S. market. Over the years to come, through a series of mergers, buyouts, and rebrandings, the railroads and waterways were respectively run by companies we’d come to know as Chiquita and Dole, as the banana imports grew four-fold between 1894 and 1903.
“Even if they were new and exotic, they were cheap,” explains Michael Turback, author of The Banana Split Book. “In the early days before there was this reliable market, boats would show up. If there weren’t ready buyers at the docks, they could lose a whole boatload of bananas.”
New Orleans would figure out a plan for all this fruit in their regional dish known as bananas foster. But soda shop owners, roughly a decade into selling the aging novelty known as the sundae, would think of another plan. While historical accounts indicate Strickler created the original banana split in 1904, others would stake a claim to its invention as well, including a Boston-based shop in 1905, and another in Ohio around 1907. Were they copying Strickler’s invention at that point? Probably not. Bananas had seemingly entered the zeitgeist as a way to add some global flare to a bowl of ice cream.
In fact, there was a bit of variation between these early splits. While now we understand that a classic banana split, with its vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice creams, pineapple, strawberry, and chocolate sauce toppings, whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry, earlier versions had rules made up shop-to-shop and city-to-city.
Strickler’s didn’t have the pineapple or strawberry toppings, for instance. Boston’s had only two scoops of vanilla ice cream and peaches along with the cherry. Ohio’s had three undocumented flavors of ice cream along with the now-standard pineapple topping, but it also had a caramel sauce. Walgreens hopped on the banana split bandwagon relatively late–in 1909–but eventually opening stores across the country, its recipe spread far enough to eventually become the standard.
Even though the banana split would evolve beyond Strickler’s vision, his banana sundae was the first to go viral over a decade–riding early popularity in big eastern cities, before Walgreens adopted it in the U.S. And the reason why is not that Strickler’s banana split was the tastiest or most enticing banana split imaginable, but that his customers in Latrobe were an influential group of students who would attend school in Philadelphia.
“They would leave for the big city, and when they got to Philly’s soda fountains, they’d say, ‘why aren’t you making the ice cream between the sliced bananas?’ Turback explains. “You take that straight line [between Latrobe and Philadelphia], and you go further east, to Atlantic City. That was the playground of America in those days. Everybody went to Atlantic City for a vacation. You can just imagine, when the ice cream vendors in Atlantic City heard what was going on in Philly . . . that’s how, I believe how, it became a national dish.”
A Hit Product That Wouldn’t Make Strickler Rich
“Dr. Dave” Strickler eventually worked his way up from pharmaceutical apprentice and bought out the soda fountain pharmacy where he’d invented the famous sundae. Interestingly enough, his daughter-in-law Nell Strickler, who is 89 and spoke to me over the phone last year, tells me that growing up in the area, she remembered Dr. Dave’s shop more for its homemade root beer more than his banana splits–which may or may not have been a consensus for local children.
Like many pharmacy owners at the time, Dave was an inventive, jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur. He ground and sold lenses, having earned a degree in optometry. He made his own soda fountain mixes–his lost recipe for vanilla extract was said to be delicious. He made his own painkillers dubbed “red boys”–the contents of which I haven’t nailed down. And for some time, he converted his home’s front yard to a miniature golf course where he sold some of that aforementioned root beer from a big barrel.
Dave became a successful, respected leader in the community who had a reputation of being generous with his money. At 16, his son Lou would become the youngest licensed pilot of his day. But though the family’s small town celebrity status may have given another impression, Nell implies that Dave’s personal wealth never exceeded the upper middle class. As a child, people would ask Nell’s husband (Dave’s other son, Bill), did he eat a lot of banana splits? “He said, he didn’t have a dime, so he couldn’t afford it,” Nell recounts with a chuckle.
Given Dave’s entrepreneurial nature, one might wonder, did he feel cheated as more and more shops began making banana splits without receiving credit, or paying royalties? When a local ice cream chain called Valley Dairy began selling banana splits of its own, “we got a couple of free splits [out of the deal] but that was it,” Nell recalls. And ultimately, it would be the Walgreens chain of drugstores that would capitalize on banana splits the most across their growing chain of drugstore fountain shops, offering Dave no kickback in the process.
No Profit Split
But I came across no indication that Dave harbored any bitterness. There is nothing he could have done about it anyway. Adopting the banana split–or any such iconic food–is fair game in the eyes of the legal system (and has been since the early 20th century). Recipes cannot be copyrighted, even iconic ones.
The precise logic as to why is as complicated as copyright law itself. What it ultimately comes down to, though, is that recipes are seen more as ideas, and you can’t copyright large concepts. You can only copyright that which can be recorded in a fixed, tangible medium of expression.
“Generally, when you’re talking about putting together a banana split, you’re talking about the idea of a banana split,” explains intellectual property attorney and AIPLA board member Kevin Tottis. “Pouring pineapple over chocolate, it’s not static, it’s going to sit on the top and drip.”
A prepared banana split isn’t copyrightable, but I’ll admit to not understanding the true nuances of copyright law at play: Why is an arrangement of musical notes recorded on a page protectable, while an arrangement of ingredients recorded in a very precise banana split recipe not? I still don’t quite get it. But in this regard, Dr. Dave’s loss is culture’s gain.
Imagine if someone could claim the rights to grinding beans and pouring hot water over them to make coffee, for instance. Would coffee have become as ubiquitous as it is today? And as a result, even though dishes like buffalo wings and blackened chicken can all be traced back to their original inventors, anywhere in the world, chefs can duplicate and riff on the ideas with impunity. Meanwhile, you and I get to stuff ourselves full of the tastiest foodstuff that our global culture has to offer.
A Delicious Piece of History
A few years ago, Dr. Dave’s old pharmacy building in Latrobe, PA, was razed. In its place, a monumental plaque has been placed. It’s become a photo opp of choice for a Dole’s banana-suited mascot. The fruit company, no doubt smelling the positive press, has swooped into the town to celebrate Latrobe’s annual party for banana splits, which began when the National Ice Cream Retailers Association commemorated Latrobe as the official birthplace of of the banana split in 2004.
“I know he’d be very embarrassed about it, if he were still living, having all of this attention,” Nell says. “But if anybody deserves having some kind of honors, he was such a nice man–very polite–just a very good man.”