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LIVING IN SWEDEN

What’s up with Sweden’s ice cream vans?

Anyone who's spent more than a short amount of time in Sweden will have the infamous ice cream van jingle seared into their mind – and may well have wondered exactly why the tradition is so popular in such a cold country. The Local investigates.

What's up with Sweden's ice cream vans?
Love it or hate it, the ice cream van is a tradition that's hard to ignore in Sweden. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden’s ice cream vans or glassbilar are a bit different from the ones you might be used to. 

In countries like the US and UK, ice cream vans usually drive to one spot and stop there, where they serve ice cream in individual portions to be eaten on the spot, or they move through residential areas.

In Sweden, one company has a monopoly on ice cream vans. Ice cream manufacturer Hemglass runs a fleet of 300 trucks that drive the length and breadth of Sweden, making a total of 15,000 stops each night and selling ice cream from the back of the van rather than through a serving hatch.

The biggest difference is that, since you’re close to home and your freezer, you usually buy in bulk. You’ll usually find typically Swedish flavours, with a lot of salty liquorice and seasonal variations, like semla-flavoured ice creams around Shrove Tuesday.

The vans were first introduced in 1968, the brainchild of ice cream manufacturer Eric Ericsson and delivery worker Anders Gavlevik.

Household freezers were starting to become common in the Nordic nation, creating new possibilities for selling ice cream direct to consumers rather than only at events. According to Hemglass, the trucks were devised as a way of ensuring quality to the consumer while improving distribution. Because the ice cream is travelling directly from the factory to the consumer, it doesn’t spend any time outside the freezer, something that can cause freezer burn (crystals forming on the ice cream when the partially unfrozen dessert re-freezes).

The idea was a hit among sweet-toothed Swedes, and after taking 160 kronor on the first day, the project soon expanded fast. Today, Hemglass trucks aren’t the only ones delivering ice cream locally, but they’re the best known, and are at least as well known for their signature jingle as for their products.

Originally, their arrival to the neighbourhood was signalled by a loud bell, but in the 1980s they adopted a tune that is seared into the memory of anyone who’s spent time in Sweden. According to the company, the problem with the bell was that it sounded too similar to truck reversal alarms – leading children to run into the street just as large vehicles were reversing.

The new jingle doesn’t have that risk, but is not without its own controversies. You can listen to it here, but be warned that it won’t leave your head in a hurry. Even its composer has disavowed the jingle, saying that the company changed the melody he wrote and made it “mechanical”.

Local residents frustrated by the earworm have taken Hemglass to court on numerous occasions, but environmental courts have usually been unable to intervene as the tune isn’t loud enough to be judged as dangerous to human health.

EDITOR’S PICKS:

A sign says ‘Hemglass, stop making noise!’ in Malmö during a vandalism trial after a man damaged an ice cream van’s tyres in protest at the jingle. Photo: Drago Prvulovic/TT

However, one reader of The Local said she had been able to get her local Hemglass truck to turn down the volume after complaining to customer service when the noise kept waking up her child. In 2013, the vans in one Swedish suburb went silent and used SMS messages to alert customers to their presence after repeated noise complaints.

So what’s the secret to the enduring popularity of the vans, and can they survive?

Well, as anyone who’s ever looked at a fully stocked fridge and declared there’s “nothing to eat” knows, food just tastes better when bought on impulse. The ice cream vans tailor to the Swedish habit of myskväll, or cosy evenings at home with family, where junk food is an essential component. For some, they’ve simply become a tradition. When you hear the jingle, you drop what you’re doing and run to the van.

Mostly, it’s a question of savvy marketing. The company adapts to consumer trends, for example also offering pizza and other ready meals as well as ice cream for dogs, using loyalty schemes and making the vans available to rent at events.

As for the future, at the moment it looks bright, with several ice cream van companies reporting a big boost to sales during the coronavirus pandemic as more people stay at home.

Member comments

  1. I lived in Stockholm for five years in the seventies and never saw nor heard a single ice-cream van, so as a tradition it must be a very recent one.

    1. It’s maybe more popular (or noticeable) outside city centres. I grew up in Sweden in the 80s and 90s and heard it every other Tuesday, if I remember correctly. 🙂

      1. I lived both in Stockholm itself and in the suburb some miles out of Stockholm, and also spent quite a lot of time in small towns such as Gnesta, and not once did I ever see or hear a single ice-cream van. As I stated before, that was in the seventies. I would have noticed them if they existed then because my son was a child at the time, so ice-cream would have been a special treat for him.

        1. Interesting, thanks for sharing! As the article says, the famous (infamous…?) tune was only introduced in the 1980s, so maybe they didn’t become “a thing” until then.

  2. They are not in any way what would be considered ice cream vans in the U.S. They are more bulk frozen foods delivery vans. There’s nothing as nice as having a single frozen confection from a local van, and in the U.S. those do drive around. Always disappointing to my son when I tell him it’s not a place we can go to get a couple ice cream cones.

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LIVING IN SWEDEN

IN DATA: Why you’re not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

It's not much consolation if you're a foreigner struggling to make friends, but you are not alone. According to official statistics, foreigners in Sweden feel lonelier and report fewer close friendships than Swedes. The Local's intern Rita Cruz carried out an open survey to learn more.

IN DATA: Why you're not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

You arrive in Sweden to work, study, or start a life with your partner. You join five or six international groups on Facebook, you are friendly to your neighbours, and take fika with your classmates and colleagues. You start collective activities and hobbies, you take Swedish lessons, you put yourself out there. But it seems you can only connect with other foreigners – why can’t you get through to Swedes? Is it in your head or is there some truth to it?

It’s an old debate, expat online forums and social media groups go through it over and over again, and researchers have been discussing it for decades. By now, Sweden’s cold, unfriendly reputation seems to be irreversible.

We asked The Local’s readers for their insight and they said it was indeed very hard to make friends in Sweden – with Swedes, that is. Looking at the issue with a scientific eye, data from Statistics Sweden (SCB), Sweden’s official statistics agency, shows that foreigners report feeling lonelier and having a harder time making friends.

While there may be many straightforward answers, like a feeling of not belonging to a new society, negative experiences while seeking housing or employment, or just a language barrier, a lot points out to cultural aspects.

Is it a matter of culture?

The Expat Insider Survey, organised by the expat networking organisation Internations, constantly ranks Sweden as one of the unfriendliest countries for international residents. When looking at topics like how easy it is to settle in, how welcome society is, how friendly the locals are and how easy it is to make friends, Swedish culture seems to be the root of the problem.

In 2022, Mexico dominated in all categories of friendliness and openness, and countries like Brazil, Portugal and Spain, or Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all make an appearance in the top 10, while the Nordics are completely absent. Are Latin American or Southeast Asia countries culturally more open and welcoming? 

For decades, academics have discussed what constitutes Swedish culture and how that can be seen as an obstacle by foreigners. Åke Daun, a professor at Stockholm University, has produced the most well-known research. He found that a clear separation of the private and public spheres was puzzling to non-Swedes.

“Swedes find it completely natural not to socialise privately with colleagues even if they have worked together for years. This doesn't conflict with the fact that many Swedes actually count those with whom they work as among their closest friends”, he wrote in the 1980s.

Since most internationals’ contact with Swedes is at work, it makes it hard for them to make Swedish friends.

“Even Swedes can - to the surprise of many foreign observers - work side by side for years without ever having been to each other’s homes,” Daun wrote. 

In many countries, it is perfectly normal, and even expected, that after a few years working alongside someone whom you’ve come to consider your friend, you would meet them for coffee or invite them to your home. 

This public/private divide extends to other areas, such as public displays of emotion, which translate in the way people communicate, making them come across as cold and distant.

“I have found that, culturally, Swedes take a while to let people in. This, in a way, can make it hard to make friends initially. However, once they get to know you they are incredibly kind and loyal friends”, says Madeline Robson, 31, who’s been living in Sweden for three years.

She recognises that Swedish culture requires more time and effort when trying to connect with people.

This seems to be an experience shared by those who answered The Local’s survey: 40 percent say they have not befriended any Swedes, while almost 30 percent say that it took them a year or more to make a Swedish friend. 

More recently, researchers Bengt Brülde and Filip Fors dove deep into the question of Swedish individualism and set out to debunk the myth of the lonely Swede. They concluded that Swedes actually do better than most Europeans when it comes to the numbers and quality of their friendships.

“A possible explanation for this is that Swedish individualism makes it easier to choose one's own company, and that this leads to more and better friendships,” they concluded. 

This means Swedes feel freer not to spend time with people they don’t want in their lives, making friendship a bigger commitment to those they actually let in.

Before moving from her native Canada to join her Swedish partner, Madeline Robson had already had a certain image of Swedes painted for her.

“I was told Swedish people were hard to get to know and that I likely wouldn’t have Swedish friends," she says. 

Eager to build a community she could lean on, Madeline thought the best way to achieve that would be to connect with other internationals, with whom she had common experiences.

Like many other newly arrived people, she actively worked on building new friendships, and her community slowly started to shape up. In that journey, she found that her own insecurities were the bigger obstacle.

“I didn’t know the language or understand the nuances of the culture. I felt like I was a burden for making people accommodate me, even though everyone spoke English and didn’t mind. So at first, I had a hard time opening up to people. But after a while I learned that the more I opened up, the more people were willing to get to know me. And that’s when things started to get a lot easier and it felt more natural to make friends.” 

“When you live abroad, everything can feel like it requires extra effort to fit in”, Madeline concludes.

On her Instagram and TikTok she shares her experience of life as a foreigner in Sweden and gets lots of questions on how to make Swedish friends.

There is no formula – and that’s also not the point, she says. “I always say that that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to connect with others who make you feel good about yourself, who support you, and who you share interests with. Go on friendship dates, join in on community events, attend meet-ups. It’s ultimately about putting yourself out there”. 

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