Philadelphia’s signature ice cream topping is jimmies. Or it’s sprinkles. Or it’s both. And we’re ready to fight about it.
Considering the confection is basically just a condiment for ice cream — a decorative condiment, furthermore, one that adds texture but not really any flavor — the strength and longevity of the debate over what they’re called is impressive. A recent Billy Penn article on an artist who filled a street crack with the multicolor variety of the candy bits sparked a new wave of discussion on the dichotomy. And it was as intense as any that came before.
An assorted, uh, sprinkling of the reaction:
“You’re either right — jimmies — or a godless monster,” tweeted Philadelphia Inquirer reporter David Gambacorta.
Other reader responses ranged from indignant to offended.
“You spelled sprinkles wrong.”
“The only thing that jimmies is a thief on a car door. Motherfuckin’ sprinkles get sprinkled.”
“Yay! I love that they called them jimmies!”
“If you live in Philly and call these sprinkles, leave.”
“FYI: Jimmies are chocolate. Those were Sprinkles.”
Obviously, people are divided, and there’s also the twist of whether the chocolate and rainbow versions should be referred to differently. A Twitter poll on the issue — “What are jimmies?” — yielded more than 375 responses. Nearly half came back in favor of calling both colors jimmies. Another 20 percent voted that “jimmies” refers just to the chocolate ones and “rainbow sprinkles” is the correct phrase. There was yet another contingent — 16 percent — who agreed with the idea that “jimmies” is a racist term.
That accusation, which stems from an old wives tale that “jimmies” is derived from “Jim Crow,” has been debunked by various experts, including Snopes. So where did the term originate?
Just Born, the Brooklyn-founded, Bethlehem-based company best known as the creator of Peeps, claims it invented the topping back in the 1930s, and coined the “jimmies” name. The tale, which a rep for the company insisted is still accurate, goes that the confection (chocolate only, back then) was named after one Jimmy Bartholomew, the employee who worked the machine that made them.
But a deeper dive shows that Just Born may not have been the first to produce them. It also shows the chocolate variety was likely called “sprinkles” before it was ever known as “jimmies,” at least in the Philadelphia region.
Based on newspaper archives, “chocolate sprinkles” were advertised in local press as early as 1925. That year, American Stores (the company that owns Acme) advertised a price for “Sunshine’s Chocolate Sprinkles” — marshmallow chocolate biscuits coated in the namesake topping. In 1927, ice cream company Reid’s advertised its Choco-Loafe, an ice cream cake adorned with the candy bits. References to chocolate jimmies didn’t start appearing consistently in the Philadelphia Inquirer until the Second World War.
Bigger than Philly
Jimmies aren’t just a Philadelphia thing, however.
Pittsburgh and Boston have their own jimmies debates, while New York remains firmly Team Sprinkles. Jimmies is used — not contiguously — throughout the Northeast and Midwest. George Goebel, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, said that brand names have a sway here, which leads to “very complicated patterns” of usage based on where “that brand is sold.” A 2006 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee survey found that jimmies was the word of choice for respondents from a wide range of places, from Philly to Chattanooga. Some respondents differentiated not solely by length or color, but by application, saying that jimmies were only called that on ice cream, but should be referred to as sprinkles when on donuts.
“When I was kid in Wisconsin, the word was ‘jimmies,’” Beth Gardner, a senior proofreader for the Dictionary of American Regional English, told Billy Penn. “For me, ‘sprinkles’ was a book word.”
That dictionary, citing various book and newspaper sources over the years, notes that the dividing line in Mid-Atlantic region seems to fall in Mercer County, N.J. Northern Mercer County is sprinkles land, but Trenton and its surrounding towns, which sit in the southern part of the county, lean toward jimmies. From there, that tendency stretches through South Jersey and into Philadelphia — at least parts of it.
What you can get on your Philly cone
Based on an informal telephone survey, Billy Penn found that sprinkles is the most common word on menus in ice cream stores all over the city. That’s predictable for national chains like Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s, but local operations like Philly Flavors, More than Just Ice Cream and Scoop DeVille call them sprinkles too. Historically accurate Franklin Fountain is an outlier — it labels them jimmies. Bassetts uses both names on the menu board at Reading Terminal Market, because, a manager said, a lot of tourists come through and the company doesn’t want to offend anyone.
Does what Philly neighborhood you live in determine what you call them?
Not necessarily. But Amer Muhammad, who owns a Mister Softee franchise, has sensed differences between the North Philly and South Philly zones in which he operates. Up north, from Roosevelt Boulevard to Susquehanna and around Broad and Ridge, most folks call them sprinkles, he said. In the south, from Columbus to Broad starting at South Street and ending around Snyder, more people say jimmies.
Muhammad has noticed that older customers are usually the ones who use jimmies to mean chocolate and sprinkles to mean rainbow. But overall, it’s a commonly discussed issue.
“A lot of people have little debates next to the truck,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I told you the jimmies.’ Or they’ll say, ‘What is it, jimmies or sprinkles?’”
Michael Conway, a South Jersey Mister Softee franchise owner, has had a similar experience.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s at least a couple times a day that you see people debating in front of the truck,” he said. He noted that jimmies and sprinkles use is mixed along his routes. “It’s pretty close to 50/50.”
Muhammad, who grew up in the Northeast, is in the sprinkles caucus. It’s not just that all Mister Softees call them sprinkles on their menus. “I only know one truck that has jimmies on it,” he said.
Still, he’s not a purist: “Sometimes, I use jimmies.”