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The Weird, Brief History of the Eskimo Pie Corporation

It was America’s first chocolate-covered ice cream bar, patented on this day in 1922

An undated box that originally held Eskimo Fudge Pies. (Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1922, Christian Kent Nelson of Ohio and his business partner Russell C. Stover patented the Eskimo Pie.

Nelson’s intent: to make an ice cream dainty that allowed for “ready handling.” The idea came as a response to an experience that he had while working the counter in the sweet shop he owned near the high school where he also worked as a teacher, writes archivist Maurita Baldock: "The inspiration for the invention of Eskimo Pie was a boy’s indecision in Nelson’s confectionery store in 1920. A boy started to buy ice cream, then changed his mind and bought a chocolate bar. Nelson inquired as to why he did not buy both. The boy replied, 'Sure I know — I want ‘em both, but I only got a nickel.'"

Nelson worked for weeks to find the right way to stick melting chocolate to ice cream, she writes, finding that cocoa butter was perfect and immediately producing 500 bricks.  “The ‘I-Scream’ Bars’ were a hit at the local village fireman’s picnic and Nelson began searching for companies to manufacture his new product,” she writes.

In the end he partnered with chocolate maker Russell C. Stover. The two would sell the rights to make the confection — renamed Eskimo Pie at Stover's request — to local ice cream companies for between $500 and $1000, she writes, and take a cut of each treat sold.

The new name and the images that came with it were meant to evoke the chilly north and the indigenous people who lived there, but it traded heavily on a stereotype. Although there has been little public pushback to the Eskimo Pie in the way there has been to the Washington Redskins, at least one woman, who was of Inuk heritage, has said that the name is offensive. In Canada, there is a football team named the Edmonton Eskimos which has been the source of Washington-style controversy. 

Back in the early 1920s, though, this conversation wasn't on the radar and the treat was an immediate success. This 1925 earworm was part of the marketing campaign that helped sell the new product:

But the breadth of the patent was a real problem, she writes, one that brought down Nelson’s company. Charles Duan writing for Slate describes the issues:

Running a scant page and a half of text, the patent merely describes "a core consisting of a block or brick of ice cream, of general rectangular configuration," that is "sealed within a shell… of edible material which may be like that employed in coating chocolate candies, although preferably modified to harden at a lower temperature."  

It doesn’t describe the formula Nelson devised for the coating, which was the real thing that made the Eskimo Pie work and was Nelson’s actual invention. It basically covered the entire idea of coated ice cream bars.

Nelson and the Eskimo Pie Company spent way too much time defending and otherwise legally wrangling with their broad patent. It cost them about $4000 a day in legal fees, Duan writes, or about $53,000 in modern money. Russell Stover pulled out in 1923 to start the candy company that bears his name; in 1924, Nelson sold the company to the firm that made its wrapper, the U.S. Foil Corporation, later the Reynolds Metals Company.

Through all this, the Eskimo Pie name persisted. 

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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