Meet Agnes B. Marshall, the Victorian Queen of Ice Cream

udra/iStock via Getty Images
udra/iStock via Getty Images

At the extravagant dinner parties of Victorian England, the nation’s well-to-do dazzled their peers with beautiful displays of sumptuous dishes. A sample menu might start with carrot soup, oxtail soup, and two types of fish, followed by mutton, sweetbreads, oyster patties, and rabbit fillets. Next were turkey, beef, ham, and chicken. For the third course, roast hare, duck, potatoes, mushrooms, vol-au-vent stuffed with preserved fruit, and fluffy meringues floating in custard.

Then, with the dessert course came a culinary showstopper: ice cream. The frosty stuff was often piped, molded, and elaborately decorated. And there to school hosts in the art of ice cream making was Agnes B. Marshall, the 19th century guru of frozen treats.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

Marshall wrote two cookbooks devoted solely to “ices”—ice creams, sorbets (which contained alcohol), mousses, and chilled soufflés. The books’ pages were packed with detailed recipes, which also served as handy advertisements for the many products that Marshall marketed and sold. Readers were instructed to freeze their ice creams in appliances that she patented, sculpt their desserts using molds that she commissioned, flavor their custards with Marshall’s syrups, and tint their concoctions with Marshall’s food coloring. Long before Rachael Ray was selling non-stick cookware and Martha Stewart had her own wine label, Marshall transformed her name into a household brand.

She was not the only Victorian woman to run a successful business, but her female peers often inherited their companies from a deceased spouse, food historian Peter Brears tells Mental Floss. The “Queen of Ices,” as Marshall was dubbed, sat on the throne of a self-made empire—and that, Brears says, made her “exceptional.”

Little is known about Marshall’s early life, but she appears to have come from relatively modest beginnings. She was born Agnes Bertha Smith in 1855, in Walthamstow, Essex, England. Her father was a clerk. In 1878, she married Alfred Marshall, and they had four children. Marshall’s husband provides us with one of the few known clues into her culinary training. In an 1886 interview, he noted that “Mrs. Marshall has made a thorough study of cookery since she was a child, and has practiced in Paris and Vienna with celebrated chefs.” But the details of her education remain largely mysterious. According to Brears, Marshall “suddenly appears” as a charismatic force on London’s culinary scene.

Agnes . Marshall, ice cream queen
Mrs. A. B. Marshall's Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes // Public Domain

In 1883, she opened a cookery school in the capital and went on to publish four cookbooks: The Book of Ices (1885), Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Book of Cookery (1888), Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes (1890), and Fancy Ices (1894). She also launched a weekly magazine called The Table, operated an employment agency for domestic staff, and traveled across England giving cooking demonstrations. Audiences adored her.

“[F]or two hours she completely engrossed the earnest attention of some 600 people, instructing and entertaining them at the same time,” The Times reported in 1887.

Marshall was a cook of diverse talents, able to whip up everything from roast turkey to vegetable curry to apple tarts. But within the realm of frozen desserts, her ingenuity truly shone—as did her business savvy.

Until the mid-Victorian period, ice cream had been an expensive delicacy, because ice was hard to come by. Only those wealthy enough to own ice houses—storage structures with cool, underground chambers—were able to enjoy frozen dishes year-round. In the mid-19th century, England began importing ice from the United States and Norway, making the chilly commodity more accessible to the upper-middle classes. A wider demographic could now prepare ice cream at home, and Marshall was ready to capitalize on the opportunity. Her books catered to moderately wealthy housewives, who did not boast the luxury of a large kitchen staff, but still wanted to transform their desserts into the striking displays that Victorian fashions demanded.

Marshall’s recipes burst with a cornucopia of flavors: vanilla, chocolate, tangerine, cherry, peach, almond, and even lobster, to name a few. She also provided detailed instructions on how to present the ices. Pineapple ice cream was to be frozen in the shape of a pineapple; peach ice cream sculpted into a cluster of peaches; coffee mousse crafted into a geometric tower and surrounded with asparagus spears made of biscuit cream—all with the help of Marshall-brand molds.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

To create these delectable dishes, home cooks needed an ice cream maker. The machines were first patented in the early 19th century and consisted of a metal container that was placed inside a wooden tub packed with ice and salt. Cooks would pour the ice cream mixture into the metal container and churn it with a paddle, which aerated the mixture and produced a smooth, velvety dessert, rather than a cold, rocky lump. Hoping to improve on earlier models, Marshall patented an ice cream maker of her own.

“Instead of the old ice cream machines, which were tall and narrow, she devised one which was very shallow and broad,” Brears says. “And that meant that the freezing mixture had much greater surface contact to the ice cream container and froze quicker.”

Marshall also patented a range of “ice caves”—metal boxes inside larger containers that were packed with a salt-ice mixture, keeping dishes chilled until they were ready to serve. Some of her experimentation was quite avant-garde. In a 1901 issue of The Table, she suggested using liquid air to freeze ice cream on the spot at dinner parties, proclaiming that “as a table adjunct its powers are astonishing.” Today, more than a century after Marshall made her recommendation, ice cream shops deploy liquid nitrogen to make “ultrasmooth” confections.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

In the early 1900s, after years of cooking, churning, and charming, Marshall began to experience bouts of ill health. A terrible blow came in 1904, when she was thrown from a horse during a riding session. She never fully recovered, and died on July 29, 1905, just three weeks shy of her 50th birthday.

In spite of all that she accomplished at a time when few women worked outside the home, Marshall is not well-known today. The lavish aesthetic that she represented went out of fashion after World War I, when aristocrats began to sell off their estates and rigid class divisions started to soften. “There was a dissenting rejection against Victorian fussiness,” Brears says. And Marshall, who once guided the nation’s dining trends, was largely forgotten.

But with creativity and drive, Marshall had grown her business to towering heights on a foundation of frozen desserts.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

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Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Make Breakfast for the Family in a Flash With the Dash Rapid Egg Cooker

Dash/Amazon
Dash/Amazon

The number of ways you can eat eggs is limited only by your cooking ability and imagination. Now, thanks to the foolproof Dash Rapid Egg Cooker, even that doesn't have to hold you back, because you'll be able to prepare your eggs exactly how you like them in just minutes—no flipping, stirring, or frying required.

Weighing roughly 1 pound and measuring 7.5 inches across, this egg cooker is the perfect size for a shelf or countertop. Its design accommodates a variety of egg preparations, so if you like your eggs boiled, you can fit up to six of them on the tray at once and cook them until they're soft-boiled, hard-boiled, or somewhere in between. The cooker also features trays for poaching eggs and making omelettes.

Rapid Egg Cooker.
Dash/Amazon

The device comes with a measuring cup showing how much water you need to cook each style of egg, and it buzzes and shuts off automatically when they're done. That way, you can make your perfect breakfast even before you've had your first cup of coffee.

The gadget is super popular with breakfast-lovers. It has a 4.6-star rating on Amazon, and the online retailer lists it as one the most-loved items on the site. You can purchase it on Amazon today for $20.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.