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.
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.
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.
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.
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.