If you grew up in the 70’s or before, or maybe even in the 80’s, you are probably familiar with the childhood chant about ice scream: I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! You may have shouted it yourself in anticipation of the arrival of the ice cream truck (maybe the Good Humor Man). But you likely had no idea how that expression originally came about. Well, it was, predictably, a commercial slogan for a particular ice cream product. And you probably are quite familiar with this product. It’s the Eskimo Pie. However, the iconic Eskimo Pie was originally called the I-Scream bar.
Was the I-Scream bar the first of it’s kind? Why, yes. It deserves it’s place in history. Before it’s introduction, ice cream had never been delivered in such a convenient package and harmonious coupling. At least not to a mass-market. Unless you count the ice cream cone, and that was not sold in wrappers and placed in drug store coolers. The convenience of the package, a bar of vanilla ice cream encased in a crispy chocolate coating, had to do with more than just how handy it was to eat, it had to do with how handy it was to produce in mass and sell prepackaged. The ice cream cone had to be made to order (this was long before the drumstick). The idea was, of course, highly successful and quickly drew imitators, one of which placed the chocolate covered ice cream bar on a stick, giving rise to another cultural icon: The Good Humor man I briefly mentioned above. But that is another story.
The I-Scream bar, aka Eskimo Pie, was developed by a store owner named Christian Kent Nelson. A Danish immigrant, Nelson was also a teacher in
Onawa, Indiana Onawa, Iowa (thanks to reader Roseann for correction), where he taught math, Latin, and psychology at the Onawa High School. After his teaching duties were done, he would run his store, which he owned with a partner named Mustard. The shop, called the Nelson-Mustard Cream Company, was mainly a candy store, but they also sold ice cream.
Although we cannot be sure what inspired Nelson to invent the first chocolate covered ice cream bar, the story goes that a young boy came into his shop on day in 1919 and had trouble deciding between a chocolate bar, ice cream, or some other type of candy treat. Nelson asked him why he didn’t buy both. “Sure I know-I want ’em both, but I only got a nickel,” said the boy. Nelson was no stranger to indecisive children, of course. On this occasion, however, he thought to himself that it would be a good idea to try to combine chocolate with ice cream, in one handy treat, so that customers would not have to decide between the two; they could have both.
He set to work and began experimenting, by dipping bars of ice cream into melted chocolate. At first, he could not get the chocolate to adhere to the ice cream very well. Then, a chocolate “bon bon” salesman told him that confectioners added cocoa butter to chocolate to help it adhere. He experimented some more, and found success by dipping ice cream bars into a chocolate mixture heated to 80 or 90°F, and putting it straight in a freezer. He called the bar the “Temptation I-Scream Bar,” and it sold well in his shop, and at the Onawa Fireman’s picnic. And here is where things get murky. It is widely accepted that Nelson then came up with the catchy advertising slogan “I-scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Sometimes, this slogan is also given as “I-scream, you scream, we all scream for the I-scream bar.” Not as catchy, but possible. Since Nelson feared that if the tune failed to stick, his I-scream bar would fail to stick, he decided to rename his bar the Eskimo Pie, or so it is claimed.
I Scream, You Scream, We ALL Scream for Ice Cream Song
However, some sources do not attribute the phrase to Nelson. This is probably because there was also a song written in 1927, by Billy Moll, Robert King, and Howard Johnson called I scream – You scream – We All Scream For ICE CREAM. It was recorded by Walter Williams and Waring’s Pennsylvanians. This song became a Dixieland Jazz standard, and was favored by such important outfits as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, of New Orleans. Woody Allen, in his 1973 movie Sleeperincluded the song on the soundtrack, and performed it on clarinet along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra. Since this was the first time that Allen did not hire a composer and instead chose to supply his own music, 1 and since none of the actual songwriters are mentioned the credits, it is often supposed that Woody Allen himself composed all the songs, including the ICE CREAM song. Several filmographies and books state as much. But all the songs, including the ICE CREAM song, were traditional jazz standards, and as stated, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was already well familiar with it.
The song in question was written in 1927, and the movie, Sleeper, is from 1973. However, Nelson filed patent for his I-scream bar in 1921, and received it in January, 1922 (US 1,404,539), calling it a “frozen dainty” with an “encasement therefore with facilities for ready handling.” Perhaps to stave off confusion, he also made sure to mention that the encasement as also edible. He may have gone too far, as later events testify, in having his patent cover any type for frozen dessert covered with candy. As far the slogan, or the song, it is difficult to say whether Nelson was original in coming up with it, or whether he used the name because such a chant, or song, was already popular. I would assume the latter, as this would lend credence to the idea that Nelson doubted the staying power of the name I-scream bar, since songs come and go.
While in Omaha, Nebraska consulting a patent lawyer, Nelson met Russel Stove of the still operating Russel Stover Candies. At that time, Stover was the superintendent of a local ice cream plant. They both recognized the mutual benefit of a partnership, and signed a contract at their first meeting. 2 Although above I mentioned that the claim that Nelson renamed the I-scream bar to Eskimo Pie, it is also said that it was Russel Stove who thought the treat needed a better name, and surveyed dinner guests to get ideas for new choices. The word Eskimo came up, and Stover decided it was the best choice, and then combined it with pie since that was a familiar desert term. 3
After test marketing the product to rave reviews, Stover and Nelson went to Chicago and licensed ice cream makers to make Eskimo Pies. He issued 1,500 licenses within a year, and the demand for Eskimo Pies was overwhelming. After four years, there were 2,700 licensees. Magazine and newspaper articles of the time say that the Eskimo Pie gained national fame overnight. One manufacturer was quoted as saying, “People have gone wild over it. I now of nothing that has made such an appeal.” The demand for Eskimo Pies was so great (in almost two years, one billion were sold) that the product is said to have singlehandedly rescued the world cocoa market from a depression. Ecuador, especially, received great benefit from Eskimo Pie sales, and sent Chris Nelson a letter of thanks. Holland and Switzerland, as well, claimed that their economies had been rescued by Nelson. He had also changed the way ice cream was distributed, by using dry ice.
Regardless of the origin of the slogan, it is fair to say that Christopher Nelson rocked the ice cream world, and is one of the most important innovators in ice cream history. Unfortunately, after WWI, there were so many imitators, such as the Klondike Bar, emerging that tons of time, and money, had to be spent on defending the patent. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Even though over a million pies a day had been sold since the early days, Nelson and Stover were having trouble making money, owing to problems collecting royalties from the many licensees. Some paid only part of what they owed, and some paid none at all. This is not to mention having to deal with a bunch of over-paid salesmen. Things got so frustrating that Stove decided to pull out, and sold out his share of the business to Nelson. Stover then moved to Denver and opened the Russel Stove Candy Store.
Nelson found some investors, and started the Eskimo Pie Corporation. Still needing a cash infusion by the end of 1923, he approached R.S. Reynolds, Sr. of the United States Foil company, which had sold him many wrappers for his bars. Reynolds made a deal with Nelson, whereby Reynolds would own 80% and manage the company and Nelson would would receive royalties (there were other financial backers taken on who would also get a share). Reynolds had already made millions selling tin-foil wrappers for the pies, he figured he couldn’t go wrong. So, Eskimo Pie became a subsidiary of the United States Foil Company, which later became Reynolds Metals Company.
Later, Reynolds decided to file suit against one of Eskimo Pie’s imitators. The case eventually made it all the way toe the U.S. circuit Court of Appeals, in 1929. Unfortunately, the defendant was able to shed doubt on whether Nelson’s invention was truly original, and the court dissolved patent, calling it “invalid for lack of intention.” The reason was that confectioners had been dipping ice cream balls into chocolate for a long time. According to the judge, all Nelson had done was to change the shape of an already existing product. As well, Nelson had not only trademarked the name Eskimo Pie, but had also trademarked the use of the word “pie” in any brand name frozen treat. The court threw out this trademark as well.
Was it true that Nelson had been unoriginal? Well, it is true that people had dipped ice cream into chocolate before. But it is not true that this was something that people had regular access to, or even something that most consumers had ever heard of. If chocolate covered ice cream was so “unoriginal” then the Eskimo Pie could not have taken the nation by storm, as it well did. Sure, the name and its advertising had a lot to do with it, as well as the business acumen and distribution that went into it. But the advertising was not so very aggressive, and the product sold because it was something completely new, a convenient handheld ice cream treat with a memorable name that could be sold in all sorts of places, including drugstores, hotels, and grocery stores. It is quite clear that the products that came after the Eskimo Pie were imitating IT, and not simply happening upon the idea of marketing an already common treat.
The Eskimo Pie was already a huge and national success when competing manufacturers began marketing such chocolate covered bars as Alaska Bar, Frost Bite, Polar Bar, Sundae-ette, Choco-Pie, etc. Whether Nelson deserved his patent or not, he deserved his credit. According to a 1921 volume of The Soda Fountain, Russel Stover had brought suit against the Sundae-Ette company for patent infringement, although that particular product had sugar wafers coated with chocolate, and the wafers were placed on the bar, with the chocolate side in contact with the ice cream. Presumably, other such litigation was made, to the tune of thousands of dollars in expenses. It was the Reynolds suit that eventually resulted in the patent being thrown out. However, most publication of the time hold the Eskimo Pie as an original invention.
As for Nelson, he had retired after selling to Reynolds, and collected royalties and became a licensee. But after a few years, he itched to get back to work (he was only in his thirties), and rejoined the company where he stayed until he retired in 1961. He continued to innovate, inventing an excruder he called the Eskimo Machine and the Eskimo Pie Jug which was a portable insulated cooler that could be filled with dry ice to allow Eskimo Pies to be sold pretty much anywhere. He also continued to create new products and stayed on for years as an executive, retiring as vice-president and director of research. Although he didn’t have his patent anymore, he still had the Eskimo Pie trademark and the brand was very well established and entrenched, allowing it to maintain its market share. During World War II, many Eskimo Pies were supplied to United States troops. Nelson died in 1992 at the age of 99.
The Eskimo Pie Corporation was made independent of Reynolds in 1992 and was sold to CoolBrands International in the same year Nelson died. In 2007, CoolBrands sold the Eskimo Pie Corporation to Nestle’s Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, for $19 million.
Nanook of the North: An Eskimo Pie Salesman
This really has nothing to do with the question posed in the title, but it really bears mentioning in regards to the history of the Eskimo Pie. It may be no coincident that Robert Flaherty’s very successful, and famous documentary Nanook of the North came out in 1922. The movie grossed $251,000 worldwide, which was a huge run, in those days. Nanook was an Inuk hunter whose live was (supposedly) depicted in the movie. Not educational or even factual but instead mostly staged, the documentary probably should not be used as a reference on the Inuit, but it certainly could be seen as a commercial for Eskimo Pies! According to Judy Jones and William Wilson in An Incomplete Education, the movie opened in New York in the middle of one of the hottest Junes on records: “Within a matter of months, Eskimo pies were being sold on both sides of the Atlantic, and words like “igloo,” “kayak,” and “anorak,” formerly known only to anthropologists, were popping up in grade-school civics tests and sporting-goods store windows. Too bad Nanook couldn’t have basked in his new fame: He died of starvation, out there on the ice, shortly after the film was released.” 4 Watch Nanook of the North in full.
Is it possible that Russel Stover, Christian Nelson, or both, had seen the movie when they came up with the name Eskimo Pie? This has been asserted by some. Some even say that Stover’s wife probably saw the movie and suggested the name. However, the name Eskimo Pie was already well established in national markets by June 1922, the year the movie came out. It is probably that the name had been agreed upon by the end of 1921. The movie could not have influenced the name of the product itself, but it certain couldn’t have hurt sales.
The assumption is that nobody had ever heard of Eskimos before the movie came out. We’d do well to remember, though, that Nelson was a Dane, and the Danish are well-familiar with the word Eskimo, and with the native tribes of the North. It is also likely that many Americans were already familiar with the word Eskimos before Nanook of the North was released.
As early as 1893, there was and “Eskimo exhibit” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which featured 59 actual Inuits and 35 of their dogs. For fify cents, the public could enter the exposition, and for an additional quarter they could walk by the “fur clad Eskimos” posing by their papier-mache ingloos. In 1904, the St. Louis Exposition featured and “Eskimo village” with 9 Inuit families, 26 dogs, and a bear. Around 200,000 people attended on opening day and in the seven months it was open, nearly 20 million people visited. There was also an “Eskimo village” featured in the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, one of the most popular attractions. Film footage had been shot earlier as well, such as by Thomas Edison (he shot a lot of film with he newfangled camera) and the Carnegie Museum Expedition in Alaska shot 10,000 feet of Inuit fil between 1909 and 1911, which was released as a film series entitled “Tip Top of the World.” 5 It is not a stretch at all, therefore, to imagine that an the name Eskimo could have been chosen for a frozen ice cream treat before the 1922 release of Nanook!
Whatever, the origin of the name Eskimos, it is incorrectly applied to any native-Alaskan people. Nanooks people referred to themselves as the Inuu, meaning the people.
- The movie had a futuristic setting, which was offset by the oldtime Dixieland jazz of the soundtrack.
- Another story claims that Nelson had been turned down by an ice cream maker in Onawa, and so went to Omaha specifically to find a new backer.
- Of course, other versions of this story exist as well. In one, both men decide to come up with a new name and happened upon the word Eskimo, whereupon Chris Nelson blurted out Eskimo Pie!
- Jones, Judy, and William Wilson. An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t. New York: Ballantine, 2006.
- Steckley, John. White Lies about the Inuit. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008.