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Charmed Life

I Scream, You Scream

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Carol Runyon and a cone

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/29/1998

We all scream for ice cream. And the fact that there's a plethora of folks that hear us--be it Baskin-Robbins, Breyer's, or Ben & Jerry's--is due in large part to a Baltimorean named Jacob Fussell. Nearly a century and a half ago this erstwhile milk merchant fathered the ice cream industry.

Fussell didn't invent ice cream; humanity has been enjoying some form of this sweet eat since ancient times. (Emperor Nero poured honey over scoops of snow special runners delivered to Rome from the peaks of the Apennines; Marco Polo brought back sherbet recipes from the East.) Fussell wasn't even the first to make ice cream in Maryland. (We know that Gov. William Bladen bellied up to a bowl of strawberry ice cream in 1700, and Baltimore newspapers were running ice cream ads as early as 1798.) But Fussell was the first in the nation to produce and peddle ice cream on a large scale. He was the Henry Ford of frozen desserts.

Fussell began his career by selling dairy products Pennsylvania farmers sent him via the North Central Railroad. It proved to be an erratic business. The cows were steady suppliers, but Baltimoreans were not always regular buyers. And in 1851, the story goes, Fussell found himself with an excess supply of cream. Rather than see it sour, he decided to make it all into ice cream, unloading it at the rock-bottom price of 25 cents a quart--less than half of what other ice cream makers charged. A hot and hungry populace eagerly scooped up his product, and Fussell found a new calling.

Following the twin principles of big batches and cheap prices, he went into the ice cream biz full-time--and with sweet success. By 1856 he had opened manufacturing operations and parlors in Washington, D.C., and Boston. Ice cream went from being a pricey confection for a few to a regular treat for many. (And there's more to commend Fussell for than ice cream entrepreneurship. A practicing Quaker, he was staunchly opposed to slavery. He worked on the Underground Railroad, and his outspoken abolitionism got him besieged by one of Baltimore's infamous angry mobs.)

Don't look for Fussell's name in your grocer's freezer--a larger firm bought the Fussell company in the 1920s and the founder's name was dropped. (The circa-20s cart pictured below can be seen at the Baltimore Museum of Industry; that's curator of exhibits Carol Runyon with the cool cone.) But in 1951 the local ice cream giant was given a gala centennial celebration. Thousands gathered around the East Baltimore intersection of Hillen and Exeter streets--sight of Fussell's original operation--to dedicate a bronze plaque deeming the block the "Birthplace of the Ice Cream Industry." Politicos spoke, bands played, kids downed gallons of free ice cream, and Hollywood heartthrobs Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie were crowned the "Sweethearts of the Ice Cream Industry."

Helping to organize the festivities was another local ice cream icon: L. Manuel Hendler. His name too is gone from supermarket shelves, but it's probably not forgotten. Generations of Baltimoreans grew up eating Hendler's ice cream, which was sold from 1905 through the late 1960s. Indeed, Hendler's--billed as "The Velvet Kind"-- was so ubiquitous in its day that many soda-fountain customers probably never knew other brands existed.

Hendler's big sales jump occurred in 1912, when he established a state-of-the-art ice cream factory on East Baltimore Street. There the chilly confection flowed forth without ever being touched by human hands (a far cry from Fussell's pre-refrigeration plant, with its manually cranked machines and mountains of ice).

Hendler's company dealt mainly in the big three--vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry--but the public also developed a hankering for the exotic. Hendler's ice cream scientists created dozens of curious flavors, including ginger for the Hutzler's tearoom and a unique tomato sherbet for the Southern Hotel (where it was served as a side dish rather than a dessert). The company's rum-soaked egg-nog ice cream was a big seller around the holidays.

Ice cream was very good to Hendler, who lived in a white Reservoir Hill mansion local wags took to calling "Vanilla on the Lake." But like Fussell's before it, his company was eventually absorbed by a larger, national brand. The only places the Hendler name can be seen these days are antique shops, where the company's ice cream paraphernalia can occasionally be found.

Americans still eat a prodigious amount of ice cream (according to the Washington-based International Ice Cream Association, the Baltimore metro area consumed 6.3 million gallons of it in 1996--enough to rank it among the top-10 ice-cream-consuming cities in the U.S.). So the next time you get an ice cream jones, raise a cone to Jacob Fussell and L. Manuel Hendler, vanished captains of a once-flourishing, soft and sweet city industry. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."

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