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an Eskimo PieEskimo Pie

the original chocolate-covered ice cream bar on a stick

Christian K. NelsonChristian K. Nelson (left) was born on March 12, 1893, in Gunstrup, Denmark, to Pedar Nelson and Margerethe Madesen Nelson. While Nelson was an infant, the seven Nelson children and their parents emigrated to the United States. The dairy farming family settled in Illinois, Wisconsin, and finally in Iowa in 1903. In Onawa, Iowa, Nelson opened a small confectionery shop near the high school where he worked as a teacher.

In 1920, Nelson watched as a boy tried to decide whether to get ice cream or a chocolate bar. After the boy decided on the chocolate bar, Nelson asked him why he didn't get both, to which the boy replied "...I only got a nickel." Sensing an opportunity, Nelson immediately spent several weeks in his home kitchen trying to find the perfect method for sticking melted chocolate to ice cream before determing that cocoa butter was the best adherent. He then produced 500 "I-Scream Bars," which were a big hit at a local fireman's picnic. He then set out to find someone to help him manufacture and market his new product on a large scale.

On July 13, 1921, Nelson and chocolate maker Russell C. Stover signed a handwritten contract in which they agreed to jointly produce and market Nelson's choclate-covered ice cream bar, but only if Nelson agreed to change its name to "Eskimo Pie"; the men signed the agreement the first day they met. The agreement, which was signed the very first day they met, specified that they would "coat ice cream with chocolate [sic] divide the profits equally." They also decided to sell the manufacturing rights to local ice cream companies for $500 to $1000, plus royalties on each Eskimo Pie sold. Patent #1,404,539 was granted on January 24, 1922, and Nelson trademarked the name "Eskimo Pie" that same year. Nelson and Stover began their joint business venture with an advertising campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, and sold their first 250,000 pies within 24 hours. By the spring of 1922, some 2,700 manufacturers were selling one million Eskimo Pies per day. The "Eskimo Pie novelty" had worn off by the end of 1922, however, and Stover sold his share of the company to Nelson that same year.

Nelson's patent originally applied to any type of frozen material covered with candy, and he also made sure that the word "Pie" in a brand name frozen treat was covered by his trademark. Unfortunately, the broad scope of both patent and trademark led to lawsuits almost immediately. Faced with ever increasing legal costs associated with defending his patent and trademark, Nelson sold the Eskimo Pie brand to the United States Foil Company (which made the product's foil wrapper) in 1924. He did not, however, discontinue his association with the Eskimo Pie. Nelson's Eskimo Pie thermal jugIn 1925, after the invention of dry ice, Nelson began marketing thermal jugs with dry ice supplied with Eskimo Pies to vendors without access to a freezer (right). This increased visibility and distribution and made Eskimo Pie an "impulse" item.

On October 3, 1929, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the 1922 patent was invalid, due to "lack of invention," as the Eskimo Pie resembled an earlier product that also called for ice cream with cocoa butter dipped in chocolate. The judge declared that Nelson had merely changed the shape for an existing product. Even his trademark on the word "pie" was invalidated, as the judge said the word had a wide variety of uses. Nelson assigned his royalties to his wife, Myrtle Skidmore Nelson, soon after and retired to California.

In 1935, a bored Nelson came out of retirement to rejoin Eskimo Pie (by then an independent company) and work on new products. In 1955, he was awarded a patent for an "Eskimo Machine," which squeezed out ice cream of the correct dimensions which was then cut into bars. He continued to create ice cream innovations, such as ice patties and colored ice cream holiday centers within Eskimo Pie products, until officially retiring from Eskimo Pie in 1961. He died on March 8, 1992.

National Museum of American History

Russell C. Stover

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This page was last updated on January 24, 2017.