As much a part of a Baltimore summer as Ocean City, crabs, humidity, thunderstorms, lightning bugs and the clicking of cicadas, was the welcoming sound of the jingling bells of the ubiquitous Good Humor man, as he slowly made his way up and down city and suburban streets in the late afternoon or early evening, summoning happy, laughing, children of all ages.
Dressed in an all-white uniform, which was reflective of the product he sold — no doubt — pants, jacket and white hat accented with a black visor. The only thing that wasn’t white was the jaunty black bow tie that topped a crisp freshly pressed white shirt.
The Good Humor man’s white truck — which the company called “sales cars” — with a refrigerated compartment on its back that had a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar with a bite out of it painted on its flank, barely hinted at what other delicious ice creamy collations lay within.
The Good Humor man, as he was called, sat at the truck’s wheel in an open cab jauntily ringing a set of bells above his head while making his motorized perambulations in search of customers who raced out of houses, off porches and baseball diamonds and out of swimming pools.
And all that was needed for this creamy pleasure was a dime.
The origins of the original Good Humor ice cream bar can be traced to Christian Nelson in Iowa, who in 1920 figured out a way to coat an ice cream bar with chocolate, which was sold as the Eskimo Pie, but too messy to eat. (The product’s name was changed after the company acknowledged it as “inappropriate” in 2020. It is now known as Edy’s Pie.)
Harry Burt, who owned a Youngstown, Ohio, ice cream parlor, had learned about Nelson’s creation and was determined to improve upon it.
His son, Harry Burt Jr., suggested inserting a wooden stick that could be used as a handle, and as the ice cream hardened, the stick formed a strong bond with it.
The other advantage was that the customer could enjoy sanitary conditions because there was no need to touch the product because it was consumed off a stick.
Burt named his invention “Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers,” and in the early 1920s, outfitted a dozen trucks with freezers that coursed through the streets of Youngstown. In order to reach customers, he outfitted them with bells, and the first set were purloined from son Harry’s bobsled.
The company name came from Burt’s belief that the taste of ice cream put people in a good humor and so he decided to name his company that.
Potential Good Humor men — women were not allowed to work as vendors until 1967 — were subjected to three days of rigorous training and were required to read and memorize the company’s handbook, “Making Good at Good Humor.”
Part of their training was that they were required to tip their hats to ladies and salute gentlemen customers with a crisp salute worthy of a graduate of the Naval Academy.
A Good Humor man could be fired for saying “Good Humor Ice Cream” rather than “Ice Cream Good Humor.”
In 1928, the business was sold to Midland Food Products Co., which later changed the company’s name to Good Humor Corp. of America. The company operated in Baltimore/Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Detroit and Chicago.
In Baltimore, the company was located in the 2000 block of Windsor Avenue and its president was Harry W. Brimmer.
A 1933 ad in The Sun advertised “Good Humor Ice Cream Sticks” at 8 cents or two for 15 cents. Neapolitans, a combination of vanilla, chocolate and fresh strawberry ice cream in a “convenient brick form” was 9 cents a package.
“Free Delivery to Your Home or Stop the Good Humor Man,” the ad advised.
After World War II, baby boomers represented 90 percent of Good Humor sales, and by 1956, the company had 2,000 trucks on the street, which was supported by vendors pushing carts, riding four-wheeled bicycle carts and selling from shoulder boxes.
Its product line had grown a long way from Burt’s original “Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers” to include by the 1960s, 85 other ice cream desserts.
The company was sold in 1961 to Thomas J. Lipton, a division of Unilever, including Good Humor of Baltimore/Washington, and began marketing and selling its products in grocery stores.
In 1978, the company announced it was terminating its street truck operations nationwide with the exception of Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh.
Baltimore was spared, a company spokesperson told The Evening Sun, because Good Humor “seems to sell more ice cream on the streets in Baltimore and Washington than in other areas.”
The sound of Good Humor vendors breaking the monotony of a humid and still Baltimore summer’s night with their jaunty jangling bells is no more. (One common ice cream truck melody, “Turkey in the Straw,” is based on an old folk song that was derived from minstrel shows and often accompanied by racist lyrics. In 2020, Good Humor said it was working to end the use of the tune.)
By 1984, the handwriting was on the wall, and the company closed its Windsor Avenue plant in Northwest Baltimore, that between April and September, daily filled its local fleet of 140 trucks.
The end came as a result of rising costs, changing habits, and crime when drivers became the target of street criminals.