Poets and Candymakers: Louis Untermeyer
Candy has no doubt inspired plenty of poetry. While I can’t think of any particular odes to candy’s beauty, a candy dish surely must have fueled many a fire of poetic stamina. And as it turns out, one of the U.S.’s most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century was a candy lover too.
Louis Untermeyer will be known to any college English major as the editor of numerous anthologies of English and American poetry used in classrooms across the country. He was also a poet, essayist, and literary personality in his own right, publishing over 100 books and anthologies.
Untermeyer lived from 1885 to 1977, nearly a century. Those were the decades when America set its claim to be a “nation of candy eaters,” decades of candy passion on the part of ordinary people, met with incredible variety, creativity, and deliciousness in the candy industry. A poet and a candy enthusiast, he was the perfect choice to write the book on candy at mid-century. In fact, had Untermeyer’s poetic ambitions been less successful, he might have found a career in the candy business:
Being born with the proverbial sweet tooth, I have always found myself lingering in the vicinity of some candy store or other. … Sweets have always changed my disposition and altered my metabolism for the better. As the sugared flavors trickle past my palate, my heart leaps up, the blood courses with a livelier rhythm and my pulse beats with a happier throb. … I have never outgrown my youthful dream of working as chief sampler in a candy factory. (9)
Untermeyer’s book is called: A Century of Candymaking, 1847-1947: The Story of the Origin and Growth of the New England Confectionery Company Which Parallels that of the Candy Industry in America. Published in 1947, the volume marked the centenary anniversary of the invention of the first candy making machine in America: the lozenge-cutting machine, invented by Oliver Chase. Chase’s little candy enterprise would eventually grow into the New England Confectionery Company, one of the biggest and most important candy companies of the twentieth century.
The book was commissioned by the New England Confectionery Company as an official corporate history. The volume includes Untermeyer’s essay, illustrative color plates, a pictorial “trip through the modern factory,” maps of Boston’s historic candy sites and of the global origins of candy ingredients, and a chronology of major candy events from 1847 to 1947. Given the absence of any scholarly or popular history of the candy business in this period, A Century of Candymaking is, all in all, a quite useful little book.
It was not entirely Untermeyer’s work. Historian Marion F.Lansing did all the research and collecting, as Untermeyer acknowledges. But Untermeyer wrote the text. His unique voice and his boyish love of candy bring the stories of American candy heroes to life. There are such notables as Oliver Chase, of the famous lozenge machine; Daniel Fobes, who patented “mocha” in 1867; and Abner Moody, who used his whittling skills to carve fantastical novelty candy molds in the 1870s.
The best of the writing is a Valentine to the candy itself: Gibralters and Pralines and motto wafers and the boggling “array of color, perfection of shape and variety of flavors” that fascinated at the candy shop. Untermeyer indulges his nostalgia for the good old days when he would run to the candy shop, nickel in hand, and while away the afternoon imagining the possibilities. Candy shops, and candies, alas long gone. We’re fortunate to have A Century of Candymaking to show us what’s been lost.