Posts filed under ‘Heroes and Personalities’
It’s 1909, and The Stern & Saalberg Company has a candy hit. Americans just can’t get enough of their “Chocolate Tootsie Rolls.” Those Tootsie Rolls have gotten so popular that they have to take out ads in the trade papers cautioning their customers against accepting inferior imitation. But who is this “Stern & Saalberg” who is taking all the credit for Chocolate Tootsie Rolls? Where is Leo Hirschfeld?
As candy nostalgists know, Leo Hirschfeld is the official hero of the Tootsie Roll saga. Today, Tootsie Roll is one of the top candy sellers in the U.S. And it all started with Leo, a poor Austrian immigrant with a dream and some family candy recipes. According to the Tootsie Roll Industries company history, Hirschfeld began selling the chewy candies in his little shop in New York City in 1896. The next thing you know, it’s 1917, Tootsie Rolls are a huge commercial hit, and the company changes its name to “The Sweets Company of America.” From that point out, the Tootsie empire grows in leaps and bounds. The story of Tootsie Roll after 1917 is one of a big candy company getting bigger.
There doesn’t seem to be anybody named Stern or Saalberg in official Tootsie Roll history. So what was happening in that murky gap between 1896 and 1917? And what happened to Leo Hirschfeld?
Let’s follow Leo along as he leaves his native Austria and struggles to make it in America. When Leo got off the steamship Neckar in the New York Harbor in 1884, he had two things: big dreams, and empty pockets. His father’s trade was candy, so that’s what he knew. He got to work. He set up shop in Brooklyn, sold some candy to the neighborhood kids. So far, so good.
But here’s where things get a little complicated. The common version of the story (here or here) is that Hirschfeld came up with the candy that would become Tootsie Rolls in 1896, made and wrapped them by hand, and sold them in his Brooklyn shop. A year later, seeing their popularity, he “merged” with Stern & Saalberg.
A nice story, right? But I uncovered evidence that blasts some serious holes in the official line on Tootsie Rolls.
In 1913, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press sat down with Hirschfeld and three others who had shared his cabin on the Neckar in 1884. All of them were by then extremely wealthy. Each had a remarkable rags-to-riches story. One was a movie mogul, another made a fortune in fancy goods. And Hirschfeld’s story was all about the candy business. “[Hirschfeld] fought his way up until he became Superintendent of the Stern-Saalberg concern. Then he invented a certain children’s confection”…the Tootsie Roll. Notice the way Hirschfeld told the story to this reporter in 1913: first he went to work for Stern & Saalberg, then he invented the Tootsie Roll. And what’s all this about “fought his way up” in the Stern & Saalberg company? That doesn’t sound exactly like a merger of equals.
I went looking for a record of Hirschfeld in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn city directory lists Hirschfeld as a “confectioner” with a home address on Myrtle Avenue until 1890. Then in 1891, he moves to Manhattan. His new address is 356 W. 45th Street. So, no candy shop in Brooklyn in 1896. But why did he move?
I dug a little deeper, and found more clues. Leo Hirschfeld is remembered as the man with the candy recipe. But he was really an inventor, of never-before imagined candies and confections and machines as well. The U.S. Patent Office awarded one patent to Leo Hirschfeld in December 1894 and two more in July of 1895: US Patent 530,417 for a machine for depositing confectionery into molds, U.S. Patent 543,733 for a bonbon dipping machine, and U.S. Patent 543,744 which describes a novel fork for dipping bonbons. (Hirschfeld would receive at least four other patents, not a bad record for inventions.)
The 1890s were boom years for candy making technology; making money in candy was all about volume, and volume was all about the machines. A good patent could be worth a lot. But in 1894 and 1895, the U.S. Patent Office records that Leo Hirshfeld assigned half of each of these patents to Julius Stern and Jacob Saalberg. Why would he do that?
Here’s what I think happened: sometime between May 1, 1891 and May 1, 1892, Hirschfeld moved to Manhattan because he took a job with Stern & Saalberg. His Manhattan address is only five blocks from the offices of Stern & Saalberg Co. at 311 W. 40th Street. This also explains why he would assign a half interest in his patents to Julius Stern and Jacob Saalberg. They were his employers.
Well before Stern & Saalberg started selling Tootsie Rolls, they had another hot item: Bromangelon Jelly Powder. Jelled desserts were all the rage at the turn of the century. Jell-O is the only one we remember, but around 1900 you could have your pick of such temptations as Jellycon, Tryphora, and Bro-Man-Gel-On (also known as Bromangelon). And who had invented this alchemical substance with the doubly masculine name, a pink powder which, when you added hot water, tranformed into sweet fruity jelly? Why, Leo Hirschfeld.
The first documented evidence of the existence of Bromangelon that I have uncovered is the catalog for the Nineteenth Triennial Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association held in Boston in October and November of 1895. Stern & Saalberg participated in the Exhibition to showcase their remarkable product, Bromangelon. They explained that the unusual name meant “Angel’s Food.” They may have just been trying to impress the judges with this little tid-bit. They seemed quite casual about calling it “Bro-Man-Gel-On” or “Broman-gelon” in their ads, and neither of these seems to have anything to do with angels. Angels or no, the judges, finding the ingredient “pure” and the taste “pleasant,” awarded this dessert jelly preparation a Bronze Medal.
Bromangelon was big business for Stern & Saalberg from the late 1890s through the first years of 1900. Jellied dessert powders like Bromangelon were one of the first “convenience” foods that would transform American cooking in the twentieth century. Dessert was suddenly just a matter of some hot water and some imagination. And what you could do with the stuff. An ad for Shredded Wheat Biscuits in Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1900 included a recipe and a full color illustration of “Shredded Wheat Biscuit Jellied Apple Sandwich” that involved soaking the shredded wheat in Bromangelon to startling effect. Many other recipes in popular magazines of the early 1900s included “Bromangelon” as an ingredient to whip up such novelties as “Nut Bromangelon,” “Bromangelon Snow Pudding,” or “Orange Sponge.” Bromangelon is long gone, but in the 1900s and 1910s, it was well-known, and well-used, all over the country.
Stern & Saalberg were exhibiting Hirschfeld’s jelly powder in 1895. Together with the patent assignations in 1894 and 1895 and the evidence of Hirshfeld’s move from Brooklyn to Manhattan in 1891, this adds up to a pretty clear case for Hirschfeld working for Stern & Saalberg well before anybody started thinking about Tootsie Rolls.
Hirschfeld worked his way up at Stern & Saalberg Co. In 1904, the entry for Stern & Saalberg in the Trow Co-partnership and Corporation Directory of New York City mentions Hirschfeld for the first time, naming him as one of three “directors.” By 1913, Hirschfeld is the Vice President of Stern & Saalberg, and seven hundred million pieces of Tootsie Roll have rolled out the door and into the mouths and bellies of America. Seven hundred million pieces of candy, even lowly penny candy, is lots of dollars. Hirschfeld and Stern & Saalberg did very well together.
And when did anyone start thinking about Tootsie Rolls? The Stern & Saalberg Co. applied for a trade-mark for “Tootsie” for their “chocolate candy” in November 1908. The trade-mark was registered on September 14, 1909. They stated in their application that “Tootsie” had been used in association with the candy since (drum roll, please)…September 1908.
There was a “Tootsie” in the Stern & Saalberg Co. business before September 1908, but it didn’t have anything to do with candy. Booklets printed to advertise Bromangelon featured “Tattling Tootsie,” a cute little girl whose mischief seems only tangentially connected to the joys of gelatin. We do know who this Tattling Tootsie is. Every story of the genesis of Tootsie Rolls mentions Clara, Leo’s little daughter. Her nickname was “Tootsie,” and the story goes that the candy was christened in her honor. But first, she did her time as the child spokes-model for fruity gelatin.
Did Hirschfeld make or sell a candy resembling the one that would be marketed as “Tootsie Roll” some time before? Maybe. But there is another piece of the Tootsie Roll puzzle. In May of 1907, Hirschfeld applied for a patent for a candy-making technique that would give Tootsie Rolls their distinctive texture (U.S. Patent 903,088; for more on the patent, see my Tough Tootsie, and How it Got to Be That Way). The patent was awarded in November, 1908. The Stern & Saalberg Co. started selling “Tootsie Rolls” in September 1808, and really began a big advertising and marketing push in 1909.
All the patents, trade-marks, and advertising put Tootsie Rolls in motion between 1907 and 1909. As far as I can gather from the evidence, the invention of Tootsie Rolls in 1896 in Hirschfeld’s little Brooklyn candy store is a myth.
Tootsie Rolls made Leo Hirschfeld very rich. He couldn’t have done it on his own, though. Without Stern & Saalberg, an established business with sufficient capital to launch a major candy line, Hirschfeld would have languished in his little Brooklyn house, selling bits of candy to the neighborhood kids. And without Hirschfeld and his inventions, The Stern & Saalberg Company would have gone on as a small candy wholesaler offering “Fluffy Mints” and “Diamond” brand gelatin dessert mix. But The Stern & Saalberg Company went on to become The Sweets Company of America, which in turn became Tootsie Roll Industries, a business today worth well over one billion dollars.
And what happened to Leo Hirschfeld?
The end of the story is not quite so sweet. Hirschfeld left The Sweets Company of America sometime around 1920 to start another candy venture called the Mells Candy Corporation. 1921 was a bad year. His wife was seriously ill, and recuperating in a sanatorium. Hirschfeld himself suffered from a disease of the stomach. On January 13, 1922 he shot himself in his room at the Monterey Hotel at 94th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. He died that same day. The note he left for his attorney said “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it.”
That’s the official story from his obituary, at any rate.
I think it was more complicated. By the time Stern & Saalberg reorganized as The Sweets Company of America in 1917, Stern and Saalberg were both retired. But Hirschfeld, who had been there longer than anyone else, had never risen beyond Vice-President. Others came in and took over the company. Hirschfeld was a brilliant inventor, but maybe not such a great business man. He was pushed out at The Sweets Company of America, so he ventured out on his own to start fresh with the Mells Candy Corporation. But nothing came of it. Mells was bankrupt by 1924.
What was really going through Hirschfeld’s mind that January day in 1922 when he pulled the trigger? Someone else was selling his Tootsie Rolls, and Mells Candy had nothing to show. He died wealthy, to be sure. But if he had hopes of building a candy dynasty, one he could pass on to his own children, those hopes were dashed by The Sweets Company of America.
By the way, Tootsie Roll for some reason spells Leo’s last name “Hirshfield.” This is not the way Leo spelled it in directories or patents or anyplace else. Until the day he died, it was “Hirschfeld.”
ADDENDUM: After I published this post, Steve Sheehan got in touch with me. It turns out I’m not the only one who’s been poking around in the murky Tootsie Roll past. Steve’s extensive unpublished archival research into Stern & Saalberg and related matters corroborates my findings. He drew my attention to this transcript of an 1896 New York State Assembly Hearing which names “Hirschfeld” first among some 50 employees of the Stern & Saalberg Company. Incontrovertible proof, as Steve puts it, that in 1896 Hirschfeld “was not selling candy out of his store. He was a salaried employee supervising the Stern & Saalberg line.” (Personal communication)
- Tough Tootsie, and How it Got to Be That Way The story behind the strange Tootsie texture
- Chocolate? Tootsie Roll Is it chocolate? or something else?
- Tootsie Roll: Penny Candy That’s Not When “penny candy” meant cheap and bad, Tootsie tried to sell it otherwise
- Another Tootsie Girl No, the candy wasn’t named after Leo’s daughter. Here’s why.
- Get Your Own Tootsie Mid-century ads tell the marketing story of how Tootsie tried to capture the adult market
Sources: In addition to the sources linked or referenced by name in this post, I also consulted Leo Hirschfeld obituaries in New York Tribune 14 Jan 1922 and New York Times 14 Jan 1922; announcement of Mells bankruptcy auction, New York Times July 30, 1924; various announcements of financing and directors meetings relating to The Sweets Company of America, Wall Street Journal 1919-1920; city and business directories for New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn.
This article was originally published at candyprofessor.com in February, 2010
When I say lollipop, what comes to mind? Dum Dum? Tootsie Pop?
Well, if it were 1920, you’d probably think first of the Scout Sucker.
Back in the early 1900s, there were suckers, sure. And every candy shop, no matter what other sorts of candy they sold, was sure to sell lots of suckers. But there was nothing distinctive about them. They were all more or less alike, no package or wrapper or brand to distinguish one from another. And a kid would just say “give me a sucker” and get whatever kind the shop happened to sell.
Scout Sucker was the first one to come in a special box with a special wrapper, and an ambitious advertising campaign to back it up. So instead of asking for suckers, kids started asking for Scout Suckers.
The man behind Scout Suckers was named H.W. Faulkner. In 1912, he was a scrappy 15 year old scrubbing out tubs in an ice cream parlor. But he had big dreams, and the way to riches was paved with candy. He got a bit of capital together, and by 1917 had his own little manufacture going in a basement. Faulkner knew from the start that it was all about branding and advertising. Of his first $900 investment, he put 20 percent into advertising. His business strategy was a success. Faulkner Candy grew and grew; by 1920 Faulkner had moved to a huge new factory in Mount Vernon, Illinois and was churning out millions of Scout Suckers. Faulkner was all of 23 years old.
The factory was a model of modern manufacturing efficiencies. As you can see in the picture, it was built next to the rail road line and boasted its own side track. This meant that supplies could be shipped directly by rail car; corn syrup arrived in tanks and was piped into the basement, saving on the costs of unloading barrels. The corn syrup and other ingredients would be pumped to the top floor, where manufacture began, the goods being drawn ever downward by gravity until they would arrive in their final boxes at the bottom floor, flying out the chute and into customers’ waiting mouths.
By the way, Americans didn’t used to call them “lollipops.” That’s an old word with a more general meaning, usually given as “sweetmeat.” The word was frequently used to denote something trifling and enjoyable; “Mrs. Lollipop” and “King Lollipop” were frequent characters in children’s stories of the nineteenth century, and “Lollipop” was also the name of an early 1900s literary magazine. In the early 1900s, Americans typically called candy on a stick an “all-day sucker” which soon was shortened to “sucker” simple. Notwithstanding the adorable Shirley Temple warbling about the “Good Ship Lollipop” in 1934, here in the U.S. the word “lollipop” to mean exclusively candy on a stick does not seem to have been universally accepted until the 1940s. But then, “On the Good Ship Sucker” wouldn’t have been quite so catchy.
P. W. Hanna, “Men and Methods: H.W. Faulkner” System, the Magazine for Business, March 1922 286-87, 310. Scout Sucker and factory images from Faulkner advertising in Confectioners Journal, February 1920.
Well, not the beginning of candy for all time. Let’s say, the beginning of the American candy industry.
1847. That’s the year Oliver Chase, a Boston druggist, came up with the idea of a machine to speed up the making of medicinal lozenges. There’s more about Chase and the invention of the lozenge machine in my first post on Oliver Chase here.
I come back to Chase today because I just recently found an image of what a “Chase lozenge” might have actually looked like:
This is an ad for the New England Confectionery Company, the inheritor of Oliver Chase’s original business. Today we assume that the Necco Wafer is essentially the same candy as Chase’s original lozenge. That’s what I thought, until I was this image.
Here we see that the Chase Lozenge was thicker than Necco Wafers. Also, in this ad, Necco lists “lozenges” separately from “wafers,” indicating that they are not the same goods.
The “Chase Lozenge” was still in the Necco line up in 1921, the year this ad was published. Necco had patented the name “Chase” and the logo with the big “C” for this candy, which tells us that they were worried about imitators who would try to profit by making similar lozenges and passing them off as “Chase” originals.
The Chase Lozenge is basically sugar paste: powdered sugar kneaded with gum arabic or gum tragcath (both edible binders) that could be molded like clay and then dried. Confectionery made of sugar paste would keep indefinitely.
So why would a druggist be messing around with lozenges, anyway? Oliver Chase, like all nineteenth century druggists, was familiar with the uses of sugar to make the medicine go down. I learned from Laura Mason’s book Sugar Plums and Sherbet about what sort of lozenges apothecaries might make in the nineteenth century. She explains that sugar paste in particular was a valuable medium for apothecaries working with only basic implements because the drug could be mixed in to the paste and the lozenges cut to regular size. The advantage to these medicinal lozenges was that they would deliver a reasonably accurate dose, and that the medicine would be released slowly as the lozenge dissolved.
Chase was probably not the first to leave out the drugs and sell the lozenges as candy. But once the use of machinery started speeding up the process of making lozenges, they took off. By 1890, one candy-making manual explained that machinery had transformed the making of lozenges:
Twenty years ago, lozenges were mixed and cut by journeymen confectioners…within the last few years, machinery has been introduced which mixes, rolls, stamps and cuts, all the manual labor that is required is simply a superintendent..turning out many hundredweights a day.
I’ve seen countless variations and brands of lozenges and wafers advertised in the early 1900s. Kids would eat them in rolls, and grown ups would pass them around in the candy dish. We still have Necco Wafers today. And we still have something a lot like the Chase Lozenge.
Sources: Chase Lozenge ad appeared in Confectioners Journal Nov. 1921. Skuse’s The Confectioners Handbook (1890) is quoted in Laura Mason, Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets (1998), p. 148. You can shop for pink lozenges and other old fashioned candies at End of the Commons.
It’s 1907. The intrepid Dr. Frederick Cook, a Brooklyn physician, has set sail for parts north. He promises to reach the North Pole or perish in the attempt. He returns on September 1, 1909, claiming to have reached the pole in April 1908.
As the newspapers reported on Cook’s account of his adventure, as well as the increasingly loud accusations of fraud, Cook’s supporters and backers endeavored to defend and account for his success.
His financial backer, Mr. John Bradley of Brooklyn, explained that Cook was prepared and equipped for the most rigorous challenges of the journey. “This was no intensified joy ride undertaken on nerve,” he told the Washington Post two days after Cook’s return. “Every imaginable contingency had been provided for.” That meant 5,000 gallons of gasoline. And two barrels of gum drops.
Gum drops? Mr. Bradley explained: “An Eskimo will travel thirty miles to get a gum drop, for his is the sweetest tooth in the world.”
Cook was already something of a curiosity. He had previously claimed to be the first to scale Mount McKinley in 1906. To some, Cook’s account of reaching the North Pole, particularly the timing of his arrival and the time it took him to get back to Greenland, seemed highly unlikely. Meanwhile, a rival for the claim to “first to the pole” had emerged, Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the pole in April 1909 and who went about doing everything he could to discredit Cook, including circulating the charge that his claim to Mount McKinley was also false.
Unfortunately, the gum drop story didn’t really help Cook’s credibility. Here comes this big explorer hero, and his secret weapon is…gum drops? The newspapers began publishing all kinds of fanciful accounts of how Cook reached the pole by bribing Eskimos with rations of gum drops. Worse, sketches began to appear depicting Cook dangling gum drops on strings over the mouths of Eskimos in the hopes that they would lead him to the pole as they chased the beloved gum drop.
Poor Cook was besieged. Candy store windows were filled with mounds of “Cook’s Gum Drops.” When he arrived in a new city on his national lecture tour, gum drop manufacturers would deluge him with hundreds of pounds of the candies to welcome him.
The Saturday Evening Post published a full-length dramatic parody of the Cook expedition under the title “A Typical American Drama of the Present Day in Several Acts.” Captain Cook, or “Look” in this version, is an easy target: vain, self-important, and clueless:
An Eskimo quartet, crawling out of the igloos, comes down stage and sings a touching ballad: Give me a gumdrop, mother, only a single drop, for that last bit of blubber is sticking in my crop. Chorus by Eskimo women and children, dogs assisting. Mother appears and explains she hasn’t a gumdrop to her name, and, being an ancient crone, isn’t very well provided with gums, either. Loud lamentations by the Eskimos. They must have gumdrops or they perish. Sympathetic vibrations by the aurora borealis. It looks as if this flourishing Eskimo village is done for. But ha! what is that yonder, rounding the headland? A ship! A ship!
[The explorer arrives, stern and sturdy but needing a shave, clad in fur, in the bow of the ship. ]
“Look!” shout the Eskimos, pointing at the stern and sturdy figure.
“You are right,” the stern and sturdy figure says, “I am Look,” and turning to his hardy crew, continues, “Even here in this remote and gelid corner of the world they knew me. Stir yourselves, my gallant men, and look alive. Broach a cask of gumdrops and distribute them carefully to these guileless and innocent children of the Frozen North, taking in exchange all the furs and ivory they have, while I relieve my surcharged feelings in song.”
Sings “My Whiskers Have Grown Very Long Since I Saw Dear Brooklyn Last.”
The Cook-Peary controversy gripped America’s attention for the next year or two, but Cook seems to have gotten the worst of it. By December 1910, he was complaining loudly to anyone who would listen: “I never heard the gum drop yarn until I came to New York.” According to Cook, it was not his expedition that was a fake, but rather the whole wacky gum drop story: “We took no gum drops with us on our polar trip. And to my knowledge no Eskimo ever ate a gum drop while with me.”
Cook really wasn’t the only one who suffered in this account. The stereotypical and gently offensive image of Eskimo gum drop lovers played into American ideas of their own superiority. The Eskimos in these tales appear infantile and gullible in their love of the childish gum drop.
It might not have been gum drops, but it was in fact true that the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, having survived on a traditional diet of fish and seal for so many millennia, were suddenly being exposed to food stuffs previously unknown. In the report of a 1892 expedition to Barrow Point, Captain J. Murdoch wrote that the Barrow Eskimos had “acquired a fondness for many kinds of civilized foods, especially bread of any kind, flour, sugar and molasses.” These novelties would displace the ideal nutrition of their traditional diet with empty carbohydrates, and suddenly the Eskimos had gained not only sugar and molasses, but also heart disease, diabetes, and new cancers.
Sources: “Take Cook’s Word,” Washington Post 3 Sept 1909; Samuel G. Blythe, “A Typical American Drama of the Present Day in Several Acts” Saturday Evening Post 16 Oct 1909; “Brands Gum Drop Yarn a Fake,” Washington Post 21 Dec 1910. For a fuller account of the Cook-Peary pole controversy, see Wikipedia entry on Frederick Cook at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Cook. Cook image from wikipedia; Le Petit Journal cartoon from PicApp.com. On the introduction of refined carbohydrates into traditional diets and the resulting “diseases of civilization,” see Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories 89-99.
As part of the unofficial side of the U.S. “hearts and minds” campaign in Iraq, helicopter pilots are flying a new kind of mission: candy bomb drops. Blackhawk helicopter pilots are launching the candy bombs as they fly over small Iraqi villages. The “explosions” distribute sweets as well as shoes and soccer balls to the local children. The shoes and soccer balls are donated by stateside charities for distribution to the kids. And the candy? It comes from the leftovers from all those candy care packages that arrive in U.S. military camps.
Chase Rutledge, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq, described his missions:
They used to be scared when we would drop them because there was a lot of fighting going on, and they don’t know about helicopters and what’s coming out of them. But now, it’s like a little treat. They’ll start cheering when they see us flying over, hoping something will come out.
Rutledge and his buddies are doing everything they can to make a positive difference in the lives of these kids. I’m happy to know that the military forces are seeing their mission as helping and boosting up the local people.
But I have to confess, even when the candy that falls from the sky is a welcome treat, there is something a little unsettling about the idea of “candy bombs.”
And then there is always the possibility that the candy will be harmful instead of pleasurable. This was the claim back in the first World War, when reports started surfacing that German aviators were dropping poison candy on French and English villages. A New York Times correspondent reported on notices posted in French villages by the Mayor and Prefect, detailing the dropping of poison candy and cautioning citizens to turn all found candies over to the authorities. The correspondent adds:
[This poison candy drop] strikes us as the last refinement of Prussian barbarism in its death throes. … Tell the readers of The Times, as best you can, what brand of enemies they have at last chosen to fight.
It is difficult to know what really happened. This report, and other similar stories about the German poison candy drops, tended to be second hand, based on what the reporter had heard others witness or describe. No actual candy was produced to buttress the stories. In part, the appeal of these alarming tales might have had something to do with holding an image of your enemy as one so vile as to poison children with candy. And there is also a long tradition, going back to the 1890s, of bringing up the specter of poison candy whenever something bad happens (more on poison candy stories here).
Candy poisoning stories in the U.S. tended, on closer scrutiny, to be more rumor and assumption than fact. So it’s also possible that the stories of war-time candy poisoning as part of the enemy’s attack might also have arisen out of popular ideas about candy. It is also possible, of course, that the Germans really were dropping poison candy out of airplanes.
It was Otto Schnering, the founder of Curtiss Candy Company, who transformed the idea of candy bombs into a public relations stunt. In 1923, he dropped his first load of Baby Ruth candy bars over the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Curiously, the candy bars pelting down from the sky did not lead to mayhem and destruction. In fact, the spectacle of candy rain was so successful that Schnering did it again, expanding his airplane candy drop program to 40 states.
But it wasn’t until World War II that candy bombing really took off. One WWII hero, Gail Halvorsen, became famous as the “candy bomber” for his role in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. As Halvorsen would guide his plane into the Templehof airfield in the American sector of Berlin, he would drop candy attached to parachutes to the children watching the planes land. Soon, other pilots got in on the candy action. By the end of the campaign, some 25 tons of candy has fallen from the skies and into the tummies of the grateful Berlin children.
Sources: Nanette Light, “Helicopters Drop Candy, Shoes for Iraqi Kids,” The Norman (OK) Transcipt 29 April 2010; “German Aviators Drop Poisoned Candy,” New York Times 27 May 1917; Ray Broekel, “Otto Schnering Is My Name, Advertising is My Game,” The Great American Candy Bar Book (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 22; Andrei Cherny, The Candy Bombers (Penguin 2008).
I love Steve Almond’s book Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. For me as for countless other candy lovers, Almond perfectly captures the obsessive pleasures of candy. His introduction to the history of American candy making launched me on my candy research project. As Almond continues to write and speak about candy in America, he is bringing attention to all the wonderful small candy makers still eking out a business, and maybe bringing new customers as well. So I am an enormous fan of Steve Almond.
But something has been bothering me. Take for example the recent piece Almond published in the Wall Street Journal (Jan 10, 2010) titled: “Remembrance of Candy Bars Past.” Almond sings a very particular song about American candy: a sad and mournful song about the good old candy days that have been destroyed by the evil forces of capitalism. For Steve Almond, the best days of candy were in the past.
It’s true, the heyday of American candy manufacture is long gone. After an amazing flourishing of candy making and candy eating in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American candy scene went into decline as local and regional candy makers were swallowed up by the “Big Three” and driven out by rising distribution and “slotting” costs.
So that happened. But does the transformation in the U.S. candy industry that Almond describes mean that the best days of candy in America behind us? That’s what Almond thinks. I think he’s wrong.
Change is not the same thing as “everything is getting worse.” When things change, usually it means that some things get better, some things get worse, and they might be better or worse depending on who you are or where you are. For example, we know of hundreds of candy bars made by local and regional manufacturers that have disappeared. But did your average American have the chance to try most of these? No.
In the glory days of American candy, many candies did have national distribution. But regional candies were just that, regional. That means that stock of a shop in Ohio would look dramatically different from the stock of a shop in California or New York or Mississippi. We’ve lost that local diversity, in this age of Mars and Wal Mart, to be sure. But if you didn’t travel around much, “local diversity” wasn’t diverse to you. Today, someone living in a city or town with a Wal Mart and a Target and a Cost Plus has enormous choice in the candies available, not just from around the country, but from around the world.
Some of the old American candies that persist struggle to make their way into the marketplace. It’s true, I can’t get a Twin Bing in my neighborhood store. That’s one of Almond’s favorite nostalgia picks. But I’ve had a Twin Bing. It’s a nasty candy bar, in my opinion: waxy “mockolate” coating and cough-syrup “cherry” nougat filling. It’s easy to think about the past in rosy tones. But the fact is, not everything old is good.
In an interview on Public Radio’s The Splendid Table (March 27, 2010) Almond laments the decline in the variety of flavors and forms of American candy and the homogenization of candies produced by big industries for national and international markets. It is true that many of the flavors that candy bar eaters of yore could enjoy are gone. Spice and floral flavors are almost extinct. We don’t see pineapple or even coconut much outside of specialty items, peach and banana almost never. But what would our 1940s friends have made of our flavor palette? We have goji berries and acai berries, dried cherries and dried cranberries, sesame seeds and hazelnut paste. None of these were flavors known to American candy in the 1940s. (For even more exotic flavor possibilities, see the latest flavor trend reports at candydishblog.com)
In fact, it’s worth remembering that pineapple and coconut in the 1930s were the “exotic” flavors, new fruits just appearing in U.S. markets, just like acai and pomegranate today. As for peach and banana, those popular “flavors” in the 1930s were made in the chemistry lab, not the orchard; the reason we don’t have them any more is because the FDA decided they were probably harmful. and would hardly satisfy today’s more discerning taste-bud. Then as now, the basic components of candy bars were pretty much the same: chocolate, nuts, nougats, caramels, fondants, flavorings. Tastes change and markets change, some things go out and new things come in.
And what about the decline in the diversity of candy overall? Granted, when I just look at the candy bar racks at my local CVS, it looks like everything is Hershey’s and Mars. But if you look more carefully, the question of diversity is more complex. Even the big players are moving fast to bring new products to market, many simply variations on basic themes, but also looking for the next big thing. And new start ups and small candy makers can be big players in the era of the internet. Not to mention the dramatic increase in imports of foreign candies. Industry watcher Cybele May estimates there are some 10,000 candy products available on the planet at any given time. How many of those will make it to your local shop is another story, but the candy variety is indisputable.
Almond tells the story of American candy as a simple story of flourish and decline. But there are other stories to tell of the changing candy marketplace. Consolidation in manufacturing and the domination of big stores pushed many smaller American companies out in the late 20th century. But in the 21st century we see incredible variety and amazing ingenuity in the candy that is available to someone willing to poke around a bit beyond the front racks at Wal Mart and CVS. The big national trade show organized by the National Confectioners Association every May, “Sweets & Snacks Expo” (formerly CandyExpo), expects over 400 exhibitors. That’s a lot of sweets.
My favorite candy bar right now is the Lion bar, a mysteriously creamy-caramely-crunchy-chocolaty confection. That’s a British import. I never knew it when I was a kid. Where in my California suburb in the 1970s could I have found British candy? Now I can get a Lion bar right across the street from my apartment building. Not to mention dozens others I’ve never seen before.
Sure, I miss the Marathon bar. But I’m happy to try a Yorkie, or an Aero. And even though the basic $1 candy bars might be limited to Reese’s, Snickers, M&M’s, and their variations, if we expand “candy bar” to include chocolate tablets selling for $2 to $4, we’re in a whole other universe of new possibilities. We might just as well turn nostalgia on its head, and ask how we could have survived in a world without the blissful creaminess of a Green & Black White Chocolate Bar, or the breathy bite of a Lindt “Intense Mint” Bar.
For a candy lover with a postal address and an internet connection, well, there is no stomach big enough to handle the possibilities. Check out Cybele May’s list of “110 Essential Candies for Candyvores” at candyblog.net. Most of us will never come close to sampling the variety of flavors, textures, ingredients and styles that she lists. And that is just scratching the surface.
There’s definitely more good candy on the horizon. Nostalgia is inspiring new candies and new businesses. I’m looking forward to the release of Shelf Life, a documentary film about a Chicago candy entrepreneur who attempts to recreate a beloved candy from the past called the “Cashew Nut Crunch.” And the attention to flavor and quality that has become a part of American food expectations is creating new opportunities for candy makers. Here in Brooklyn we have some amazing candy artisans. The two women behind Liddabit Sweets sell their candy almost as fast as they can make it; they specialize in innovative caramels and re-mashes of old-style candy bars, all made with the finest and freshest local ingredients. Mast Brothers Chocolate (more photos here) is made in tiny batches by the two Mast brothers, from bean to bar. They are taking the “farm to table” philosophy and making candy out of it.
This is an exciting time for candy. These new candy makers and candy entrepreneurs are steeped in the candy past, but they are looking forward to new markets, new flavors, new technologies, new ideas, new possibilities.
Steve Almond seems so sad when he talks about the good old candy days. For him, it is all gone wrong. But if it was always better in the good old days, what’s the point in moving forward? Nostalgic pessimism can paralyze us.
I say, let’s be nostalgic optimists. Nostalgia can inspire ways of bringing the past into the present, as for many new candy makers. Nostalgia can encourage us to value and learn about the past. Nostalgia can motivate us to better understand what really was, and not fixate on what we wish. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with American candy either.
Related post: Langston Hughes Sings the Blues for Penny Candy.
Today we honor an unhailed hero of candydom: Dr. Bernard Fantus (1874-1940). He seems an unlikely candidate for the Candy Hall of Fame. He is remembered as the “father of the American Blood Bank,” the first to conceive of collecting and storing a wide variety of blood for surgical and emergency use. But Fantus was a man of many talents and passions, as we shall see.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Fantus was a Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Illinois, and also a practicing physician at Cook County Hospital. He was bothered by the difficulties that children had with taking their nasty tasting medicines. Why, Dr. Fantus wondered, should medicine taste like medicine? Let’s make it taste like candy. Good candy. So he set himself to the task.
Of course, being a medical man, he knew a lot about drugs, but not much about how to make candy. So he signed up for courses with a local candy maker and learned some candy tricks. Then back to his own laboratory, where he experimented with different drugs and formulations. Sulphur taffy was not a success. His next idea was soft, chocolate covered candies with fondant centers to incorporate the medicine. Alas, his cod-liver oil chocolate creams left a little to be desired. There were other problems with fondant based medicines: fondant was tricky to work with, and dried out if stored too long, making it impractical for druggists to keep on hand.
Finally he hit on the idea of pressed sugar tablets, something akin to today’s American “Smarties.” These were easy to fabricate with a simple hand press and created a base for incorporating some 50 different active drugs. Whether you were bothered by syphilis or malaria, cough or diarrhea, Fantus had a candy tablet to suit. Fantus claimed that his formulations would result in candy tablets that tasted so good that the only problem would be to keep children from overdosing by eating too much at once.
In the early 1900s, most all prescription drugs were compounded locally by the pharmacist himself. So Fantus didn’t think of actually making any of these candy medications to sell. Instead, Fantus published a booklet titled Candy Medication in 1915 in the hopes that his idea would be taken up by doctors and pharmacists elsewhere. In his preface, he explained the benefits that would come from taking up candy in medical practice:
It is the author’s hope that this booklet may be instrumental in robbing childhood of one of its terrors, namely, nasty medicine; that it may lessen the difficulties experienced by nurse and mother in giving medicament to the sick child; and help to make the doctor more popular with the little ones.
Whether other children beyond Fantus’s own practice benefited from his idea is hard to say. But it would be quite some time before a commercial version of “candy medication” became available: children’s chewable aspirin was introduced in 1952.