Duluth: Birthplace of pie à la mode?

According to Wikipedia, pie à la mode was “invented and named by John Gieriet in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1885.” And there seems to be a preponderance of evidence backing up that claim. Yet it’s not a historical tidbit people in Duluth seem to know about.

Is it true? Well, let’s look at the facts and claims involved.

The March 26, 1885 issue of the Duluth Daily Tribune featured a grand opening advertisement for the Hotel la Perl which showed a menu that included vanilla ice cream and blueberry pie. And that, so the story goes, is the oldest known reference to pie à la mode.

Though the Wikipedia entry provides numerous references, none of that support material seems to be available on the internet … until now. This Perfect Duluth Day post is serving as a collecting ground for items helping to prove or debunk the unheralded legend. The first thing we need is a copy of the 1885 newspaper ad. (Update: It has been found and can be seen below in the second comment to this post.

Wikipedia gives the address of the Hotel la Perl as 501-503 W. Superior St. in Duluth, which is where the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview is today. From 1910 to 1961 it was the site of the Hotel Holland.

Here’s how Wiki tells the pie à la mode story:

The Gieriets moved to Duluth in 1885 and purchased the Commercial Hotel, which had been built in 1884 by William Dambruck. John re-named the building “Hotel La Perl.” It was a large two-story wood-frame building with a flat roof. A saloon, that was located on the first floor, was converted into a restaurant and the rear laundry room was remodeled into a kitchen. On the Hotel la Perl’s first day of business, John Gieriet served up a fancy dinner that included French pickles, oysters, French peas, and Lake Superior trout. For dessert, he served warm blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. Gieriet called the popular treat “pie à la mode.” It was reported in the Duluth Herald that Duluthians in the 1880s often mispronounced the local invention as “pylie mode.” In 1886, the Duluth Weekly Tribune stated the Hotel la Perl had gained a “first-class reputation” under the management of John Gieriet. John continued to operate the Hotel la Perl until his wife became very ill in 1886. He ended up selling the hotel in August of that year.

Additional tidbit from Wikipedia: Hotel la Perl owner John Gieriet was in charge of food service at the White House under the administrations of presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Wiki concludes with more on Gieriet:

Pie à la mode wasn’t John Gieriet’s only invention. He received a United States patent for a railroad car ventilating apparatus on June 20, 1882. He also received a patent on October 30, 1899 for a type of fire escape. By 1910, John Gieriet had moved to New York City where he died on May 22, 1912 at the age of 83.

Below is another random piece of non-pie-related history referencing Gieriet. It’s from Minnesota Reports: Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Minnesota, Volume 57, February 1894 – June 1894. It mentions the Tremont Hotel, which was built in 1890 and later renamed the Gardner Hotel. It still stands at 12 N. Lake Ave.


Dave Sorensen

about 7 years ago

This is bigger than Dylan. Who knew?


about 7 years ago

Here is the original ad from the March 26, 1885 issue of the Duluth Daily Tribune, one of the forerunners of the present-day News Tribune. The menu does list both blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream -- but not together. 
A quick scan of the next couple days' papers hasn't yet turned up any accounts of the opening dinner that might have mentioned a pie-ice cream combo -- so the later origin stories may have been based on longtime residents' memories vs. documentation.


about 7 years ago

I think pie à la mode needs to be the official dessert of Duluth! Someone tell the mayor!
The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (2015) by Sidney Mintz

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

It seems the 1885 newspaper article does little to verify pie à la mode as a Duluth creation, but it does verify a lot of the pieces of the story surrounding it. We don't see the phrase "pie à la mode" in the ad, nor is there any indication that pie and ice cream were recommended to be served together. But there is at least a high probability since the two were on the same menu someone ordered them together prior to 1896, when (as the barely substantiated other legend indicates) Charles Watson Townsend ordered pie with ice cream at the Cambridge Hotel in Cambridge, N.Y, and Mrs. Berry Hall named it pie à la mode.
It seems the next thing we need to look at in the process to verify or debunk is the May 23, 1936 St. Paul Pioneer Press story referenced thusly in Wikipedia:
A reporter from the St. Paul Pioneer Press read Townsend’s obituary in the New York Times and realized that the Times had incorrectly attributed the invention of pie à la mode to Townsend. The St. Paul reporter wanted to set the record straight, so the newspaper ran a story on May 23, 1936 about how the dessert was really invented inside a Superior Street restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1880s. The St. Paul newspaper indicated the Duluth restaurant specifically served ice cream with blueberry pie. This was over a decade before Townsend first ordered pie with ice cream in New York, making Duluth the true birthplace of pie à la mode.
  Since the Wiki writer asserts the article "indicated the Duluth restaurant specifically served ice cream with blueberry pie," it begs the question of whether that article offers only the 1885 ad as its evidence.


about 7 years ago

Get crackin' researchers. Here are some newspaper articles:

St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 23, 1936, pg. 8, An Invention in Doubt.
Duluth Herald, May 25, 1936, pg. 16, Had 'Finger in Pie'.
Duluth News-Tribune, July 29, 1956, pg. 4-B, Pylie Mode Originated in Duluth.
St. Paul Daily Globe, February 8, 1889, pg.1, Reached the Three Score Mark.
Alden, Ogle Illustrated Album of Biography of the Famous Valley of the Red River of the North and Park Regions of Minnesota and North Dakota 1889 pgs. 797-798
Duluth Weekly Tribune, August 13, 1886, pg. 1, Hotel Change.
Flaherty, Mike: The Legends of Pie à la Mode, 2012 (Duluth Public Library)

Alison Moffat

about 7 years ago

Some further reading on the origin of pie a la mode that reviews some of the sources cited in Wikipedia. Curiouser and curiouser: 

Grammarphobia: How pie became à la mode

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