Eskimo Pies are bars of vanilla ice cream, on a stick, coated in chocolate.
The chocolate serves three purposes: it helps to keep the ice cream fresh, helps it preserve its shape, and adds an element of visual and taste appeal.
The bar may be made in different factories in different regions at any given point in time, but always to the same recipe and branding.
Once made at the dairy factories, the bar is wrapped and shipped in foil, and kept frozen at all times.
Eskimo Pies were invented by a high school teacher named Christian Kent Nelson in Onawa, Iowa, at home in 1920.
He was born 12 March 1893 in Gunstrup, Denmark. His parents were Pedar Nelson and Margerethe Madesen Nelson. Sometime towards the end of the 1890s, the family (the parents and their 7 children in total at the time), immigrated first to Illinois, then to Wisconsin, finally settling in Onawa, Iowa in 1903.
Christian Nelson became a high school teacher, and ran as well a small candy shop near the school. In the summer of 1920, he watched a boy (Douglas Ressenden) in his store vacillate between buying an ice cream, and buying a chocolate bar. In the end, he bought the chocolate bar. When Nelson asked him why he didn’t just buy both after such a long period of deliberation, the boy reputedly answered, “Sure I know-I want ’em both, but I only got a nickel.”
That gave Nelson the idea of selling an ice cream chocolate bar.
So, at home, he began experimenting to find a chocolate coating that would adhere to frozen ice cream, and have the taste and consistency he wanted. A candy salesman gave him the tip that increasing the cocoa butter content in the chocolate might make it stick better to the ice cream. He made 500 of them based on this advice, and served them at the fireman’s picnic that summer. He called them “I-Scream-Bars.” They were so popular, he started to look for someone to mass produce the bars for him.
By the next year, he had partnered with the manager of the Graham Ice Cream Company, a man named Russell C. Stover to provide financing. They inked their deal on 13 July 1921 — which was the day they met for the first time. They also agreed that day to change the name to “Eskimo Pie.”
Some think that the idea for the name may have come from the silent film documentary hit, “Nanook of the North” by Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951.) But that film wasn’t released until 11 June 1922, almost one year after the new name was decided upon. In fact, it may have been one of Nelson’s sisters who lived in Omaha, Nebraska, that came up with the name. He asked her to go to the library (she went to the Omaha Public Library) to research a name that implied “cold.”
Nelson and Stover agreed to divide the profits equally. They licenced the rights to other companies to make it as well for amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000, plus a royalty fee on each Eskimo Pie sold. Nelson and Stover handled the advertising, starting with a campaign in Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks to the advertising, the first quarter of a million Eskimo Pies made sold in over the space of 24 hours.
On the 24 January 1922, Nelson and Stover received US patent number 1,404,539 for their Eskimo Pie. They also had the name “Eskimo Pie” trademarked. The patent and trademark would soon cause them some grief, because the patent covered any type of frozen ice cream, covered in any type of candy, and the trademark covered the use of “Pie” in relation to any frozen candy. Such broad definitions were sure to bring competitors howling around the edges.
By the spring of 1922, over 1 million Eskimo Pies a day were being sold by 2,700 different makers, earning Nelson over $2,000 US a day in royalties. Later in 1922, Stover sold his share of the company to Nelson. Stover would go on to found the candy company that still bears his name.By 1924, the legal costs were high in defending the broad patent and trademark. Overhead costs were also high, in advertising, paying sales people, and collecting royalties in a timely fashion. Consequently, Nelson sold the company in 1924 to one of his suppliers — the company that made the foil wrap for them, the “United States Foil Company” of Louisville, Kentucky, owned by R.S. Reynolds senior, now the Reynolds Metals Company, the tin foil makers. Nelson continued working for the company, though.
In 1925, when dry ice became commercially available, Nelson hit upon the idea of packing thermos containers with dry ice so that even stores without freezers could sell them.
Some of the slogans they used in 1927 were “There’s magic in its flavor” and “Eat Ice Cream for Health.”
On 3 October 1929 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the 1922 patent invalid. Nelson’s ice cream bar wasn’t actually the first of its ilk. There was an earlier treat made of ice cream dipped in chocolate, though of a different shape. But the judge invalidated the patent on the basis that Nelson had simply come up with a different shape, not the original idea. The judge invalidated as well the trademark on the expression “pie.”
Discouraged, Nelson retired to California for the next six years with his wife Myrtle Skidmore Nelson (died 1991.) Sales in the 1930s were declining anyway, owing to the depression.
In 1934, Eskimo Pies on a stick first started appearing. By 1935, Nelson had bored of the life of leisure, and came back to work for Eskimo Pies.
In 1955, Nelson invented a machine (for which he got a patent, one that stuck this time) that extruded ice cream in the right shape for cutting easily into bars, doing away with the need to mould them, as had been done before.
Nelson retired in 1961 from Eskimo Pie, holding the position of vice-president and director of research.
He died 8 March 1992.
In the same year, 1992, Reynold’s Metals spun Eskimo Pie off as a separate company.
In 2000, the company was sold for $35.7 million US to the Canadian company CoolBrands International. In 2007, CoolBrands sold it to to the Dreyer’s division of Nestlé.
For several decades, the wrappers had points on them that you saved up, and sent to the company to redeem for goods.
Literature & Lore
The film, “Who’s Minding the Mint” (1967), had an Eskimo Pie ice cream man as one of its characters, played by Bob Denver.
Radio jingles included “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream”, “Oh My, Eskimo Pie”, and “New Eskimo Pie on a Stick.”
“In the land of ice and snow
Up among the Eskimo
There’s a college known as Oogie-wawa.
You should hear those college boys
Gee, they make an awful noise
When they sing their Eskimo tra la la.
They’ve got a leader, big cheer leader, oh what a guy!
He’s got a frozen face just like an Eskimo Pie.
When he says, “Come on, let’s go!”
Though it’s forty-five below
Listen what those Eskimo all holler:
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”
— Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, and Robert A. K. King, 1927.
Baldock, Maurita. The Eskimo Pie Corporation Records, 1921-1996. National Museum of American History Archives Center. 1998.