July in Maryland can be truly miserable. The temperature sizzles at over 100 degrees for days on end. Humidity weighs down the most ardent of breezes. Luckily for the sweaty masses, July is also National Ice Cream Month. So in honor of the vaunted occasion, here’s the scoop on the history of the frosty treat in Maryland.
Ice cream has always been a favorite summertime treat for Marylanders. Ice cream companies grew out of dairy businesses located across the state, and the country’s first ice cream factory was opened in Baltimore in 1851 by Jacob Fussell.
Fussell peddled dairy products in the city, but often found himself left with a surplus of cream. Instead of letting the leftovers go to waste, he decided to make ice cream with it. He began to sell ice cream for 25 cents per quart, and Baltimoreans gobbled up his decadent yet inexpensive product. Ever the enterprising businessman, Fussell’s success inspired him to produce the sweet stuff on a commercial level. He founded a production facility at the intersection of Hillen and Exeter Streets in Baltimore and Maryland’s ice cream industry was born.*
One of Maryland’s most famous ice cream scions, Lionel Manuel Hendler, seized upon a similar opportunity when he founded Hendler Creamery Company in Baltimore. Hendler learned the dairy business from his father Isaac by working at the family-owned dairy store in East Baltimore, where he saw firsthand the popularity of ice cream. In 1905, at the young age of twenty, he decided to go into the ice cream business on his own and teamed with Louis Miller. The partners made the ice cream in the basement of Miller’s home and sold it to local stores. The product was a hit, and they soon moved production out of Miller’s house to a larger facility on Lloyd Street in East Baltimore. The business relationship between Hendler and Miller eventually fizzled, and in 1907, Hendler bought out Miller.
Under Hendler’s tutelage, the ice cream company quickly outgrew the production capability at the Lloyd Street plant. In 1912, Hendler purchased a grand brick building at 1100 East Baltimore Street to serve as the company’s new headquarters. The Richardsonian Romanesque building, built in 1891, located near Baltimore’s Shot Tower, had many other lives before being converted into an ice cream factory. It had first been home to a powerhouse for the Baltimore City Passenger Railway Company, the oldest streetcar system in the city. When the streetcar company joined with the United Railways and Electric Company, it continued to operate as a powerhouse and trouble station.
The streetcar company eventually sold the building to the American Amusement Company, when the cable and pulley system that operated the streetcars was replaced with electricity. Architect Jackson C. Gott transformed the building into a lavish theater that could seat 2,000 people. The Convention Hall, as it came to be called, ran a variety of entertainments, including exhibitions, vaudeville acts, and theatrical performances. Carl Hagenbeck’s circus performed for a period of time at the Hall, spurring his rival Frank Bostock to bring his own show to the city as well.
The building changed hands several times over the next few years, though it remained a theater, operating under the names the Bijou Theatre, Baltimore Theatre, and the Princess Theatre. Vaudeville, operas, theatrical plays, silent films were all played and performed at the location. Its years as a Yiddish language theater, appealing to East Baltimore’s significant and growing Jewish population, proved the most successful, but even that was short lived. Only the Hendlers Creamery would stay in the building for more than just a few years. In fact, it served as an ice cream production plant until the 1980’s.
From its new headquarters on Baltimore Street, Hendlers ice cream grew into an iconic brand. Horse-drawn wagons delivered the frosty confection for many years until they were replaced by a fleet of trucks. After the switch, some of the horses remained loyal employees. Hendler’s son, Albert, recalled the return of one such horse, “We had sold some of our horses to Western Maryland Dairy. One afternoon in comes one of them pulling a wagon loaded with milk. It had come home. (1)”
Refrigerated delivery trucks further expanded the business. The trucks could be spotted crisscrossing the state, delivering ice cream to more and more stores. They were emblazoned with the slogans: “The Velvet Kind” and “Take home a brick.” The angelic, little kewpie became the symbol of the brand, and advertisements featured the chubby cherub enjoying a bowl of Hendler’s ice cream. The ice cream was virtually everywhere in Maryland, as it was distributed to over 400 stores at the company’s peak, which kept the production lines humming. The factory ran six days a week with vanilla ice cream being made almost everyday.
Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry were production mainstays, but the creamery dabbled in more exotic flavors as well. Hutzler’s department store sold several varieties, including ginger and peppermint. For the Southern Hotel, Hendlers supplied a tomato sorbet which was served as a side dish rather than dessert. The eggnog ice cream produced each year at Christmastime, which Hendler made with real rum, was a major hit. The factory also cranked out other holiday-themed products, such as an Independence Day treat made with vanilla, strawberry, and blueberry ice creams and a Mother’s Day cake topped with a silk screen of James McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother.
With all of the inventive flavors being churned out at his company, one would have expected Hendler himself to be a great lover of ice cream. But, this wasn’t the case, as his son Albert recounted: “As a child I remember Dad bringing home each day a couple of pints of ice cream of different flavors….Since he wasn’t a big ice cream eater, we’d do the tasting for him, and if a flavor wasn’t up to par we’d let him know in no uncertain terms. Someone was sure to catch hell the next day.(2)”
Hendler’s true passion lay in innovating and improving sanitation in the food production industry. The factory at Baltimore Street was fully automated. He invented and patented several machines that limited human contact with the product and developed one of the first air conditioning systems to keep the building cool. The delivery horses and their stable brought unwanted pests into the factory which forced him to close off the building. This caused the plant to be too hot in the summer, so he devised a system that cooled the place by pushing air through ducts, thus creating rudimentary air conditioning. He also used only tuberculosis-free or pasteurized milk from the earliest days of the business to prevent the passage of bovine tuberculosis through his product, which at the time was an uncommon practice.
Hendler discovered that success has a price when he and his family became a target of criminals. Several extortion attempts were made to scare Hendler out of some of his fortune. On one occasion he received a note which threatened, “We will not try to kidnap you or your son; a few bullets from a passing automobile into your or your son’s car is one way of paying our unsatisfactory business debts. It will also serve as an example in our remaining business matters with our clients in Baltimore and Washington….(3)”
Most of these attempts were thwarted, but in 1932 three men succeeded in kidnapping young Albert. The kidnappers planned to extort $30,000 for his safe return. Hyman Goldfinger, Samuel Max Lipsizt, and Harry Surasky snatched Albert after a school dance at Johns Hopkins University, where he was a junior. Albert was blindfolded and driven to a house in Anne Arundel County, where the kidnappers questioned him about the possibility of securing a ransom for his release. Albert’s noncommittal answers gave the men cause for worry that they would not get any money after all. They began to argue about their next move. Goldfinger suggested that they kill the young man, convinced that their identities had been compromised, but the others didn’t want to escalate the situation. Surasky recalled the event at his trial: “[Goldfinger] insisted at first on choking him and then he took out his gun and wanted to blow his brains out. He already had his gun right near Hendler’s temple.”(4) They eventually decided to free Albert, so they dropped him off at the Hanover Street bridge. They took all the money he had in his pockets, but then reconsidered and gave him back a dollar for cab fare to get home.
Albert returned home shaken but relatively unharmed. He decided against reporting the incident to the police or his family. The kidnappers could have stopped there, but they decided to push their luck once again. Lipstiz sent a note demanding that Hendler send $7,500 to an address in New York City. Hendler agreed to do so but could not wire the cash, because of the Good Friday holiday. A second letter arrived with same stipulation, but the police were already on the case. He was apprehended, which led to arrest of his cohorts, all of which were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
These events did not derail the Hendler family or the ice cream business. The Hendler Creamery Company continued to grow, and in 1929, the Borden Company purchased the company. It continued to operate under the Hendlers Creamery name until the late 1960′s. Hendlers, and later Borden’s, ice cream became household staples, known for its thick and creamy texture and wide variety of flavors. (Lara Westwood)
*Some suggest that Fussell actually founded the first ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. He purchased milk from the local dairy farmers, which he had shipped to Baltimore via railroad. Fussell did build a factory, whether he built there or in Baltimore first is difficult to determine, but both cities call themselves the birthplace of commercial ice cream.
*Our friend Kara at Old Line Plate recently pointed out to underbelly that in the 1920s and 1930s, Hendlers used some not-so-sweet imagery in their advertising and product naming. Hendlers Creamery sold the offensively named “Picaninny Freeze” flavor, strawberry ice cream with chocolate “seeds.” Similarly titled candy products were commonplace during the Jim Crow era. Learn more about the 1920s sugar boom and its surprising racial implications here.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1), (2): Albert Hendler and Amalie Ascher, “Ice Cream Days: Even Before Albert Hendler Started Working at the Plant, He Got a Taste of the Business at Home,” Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1981.
(3): Frederick M. Rasmussen, “Exhibit recalls Hendler kidnapping of 1933: Hopkins student and son of Baltimore creamery owner was freed unharmed after a day,” Baltimore Sun, June 20, 2013.
(4): “Suraksy Found Guilty in Hendler Plot,” Baltimore Sun, May 23, 1933.
Mary Bellis, “The History of Streetcars-Cable Cars.”
Edward N. Dodge, ed., “Hendler, L. Manuel,” in Encyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XXXIII (New York: The American Historical Company, Inc., 1965), 403-405.
Charles Glatfelter, “Seven Valleys ice cream claims melt under scrutiny,” York Daily Record/York Sunday News, August 17, 2012.
Robert K. Headley, Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2006), 247-248.
Brennan Jensen, “I Scream, You Scream,” City Paper, April 29, 1998.
Jewish Museum of Maryland, Hendler’s Creamery Collection, MS 147.
Maryland Historical Trust, Hendler Creamery.
Gilbert Sandler, “Hendler’s: The Man, the Legend, the Ice Cream,” in Jewish Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 87-89.