Tootsie Roll Tragedy: The Real Leo Hirschfeld Story

February 3, 2010 at 8:29 am 26 comments

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.”

UPDATE: 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)


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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.

Entry filed under: 1890 to WW I, Candy Nostalgia, Heroes and Personalities, Myth Busting. Tags: , , , , , , .

Chocolate? Tootsie Rolls Tough Tootsie, and How It Got To Be That Way

26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard @ The Bewildered Brit  |  February 5, 2010 at 12:23 am

    I’m really loving your blog. So refreshingly different from some other sites which are happy to regurgitate obviously incorrect stories about the histories of various candies. Fascinating post, thank you! 🙂

    • 2. CandyProfessor  |  February 5, 2010 at 7:02 am

      Thanks! But the sad fact is, once a story gets repeated and repeated and repeated, most of us just assume someone else checked it out. The story of Leo in his candy shop is repeated in every single book on old American candies, and in every single reference on the web. It’s a great story, it just happens to not be true!

  • […] Tootsie Roll Tragedy: The Real Leo Hirschfeld Story […]

    • 4. monica  |  October 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm

      whee i need this info thx for helping me!

  • 5. Leona  |  March 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    nicely written, CP! I think you nailed it on the head with Leo being a brilliant scientist buy lousy businessman. Quite interesting about the patented texture. I’ll admit, I like the semi-longevity of the tootsie roll-eating process. And I do loves me my Tootsie Pops!

  • 6. Black Crows and Roses « Candy Professor  |  April 28, 2010 at 8:33 am

    […] like the story of why Hershey’s named their candy “kiss,” or the story of the invention of the Tootsie Roll. They are all nice stories that add to the mystery and romance of the candy past. Candy is a […]

  • 7. Sandy Williams (Saalberg)  |  July 1, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I am soooo thrilled that this story is being investigated! We, as a family find it very interesting. My husband (a Saalberg) is the great-grandson of Jacob Saalberg (which incidentally is my nefew’s name). My husband’s father has always told us the Tootsie Roll story, but only that his grandfather was the inventor of the Toostie Roll. Keep up the great work! My kids have used your material for school reports on family history 🙂

    • 8. Candy Professor  |  July 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment, I’m so happy to know this work is of such personal interest to you and your family.

  • 9. Louise  |  November 2, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this extensive research. I happened upon your blog while researching Bro-Man-Gel-On. I have a very early advertising booklet which features Tattling Tootsie and Bromangelon. If you would like to share it with your visitors, just let me know and I would be delighted to scan a copy and put it online or send it on over. Although my blog, Months of Edible Celebrations, attempts to uncover these sorts of myths and legends, it seems I never have the time to “dig a big deeper.” I appreciate your effort and am thankful should I delved into the history of Tootsie Rolls, I have a source that I can simply link to.

    Thank you for that too!!! Louise

  • 10. Aliya Cheskis-Cotel  |  February 9, 2011 at 3:58 am

    I just happened on this site because there was a question on Millionaire about Hirschfeld and Clara and I went to Google to look up the history. The reason I was curious is that my husband (of blessed memory) told me the story for years of the inventor of the Tootsie Roll having come up with this candy serendipitously. The story, as he told it, was that one day Clara (Tootsie) came to visit her dad’s chocolate factory and, when a vat of chocolate was burned that day, she said “Don’t throw that out – it’s delicious.” Leo supposedly took the burnt chocolate and formed it into a roll and the rest is history.

    Is there any truth to this story? If not, how was the Tootsie Roll invented?

    Thanks for letting me know.


    • 11. Candy Professor  |  February 9, 2011 at 9:03 am

      Great story, but I’ve never found any reference in my research. I did write about the patent Hirschfeld filed for the process that makes Tootsie Rolls: As you can see, a part of the story seems connected, as the process involves baking the candy for a couple of hours. But was it Clara? Was it an accident? Alas, no one who was there that day is here to tell us what really happened.

  • 12. Liz Williams  |  February 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Has anyone ever heard the old allegation by certain Jehovah’s Witnesses that early Tootsie Rolls contained blood as an ingredient?

  • 13. Lisa Deak  |  January 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    This is what I’ve been looking for! How fascinating! I was always told that my great-grandmother worked at the Tootsie Roll factory in NY. She immigrated from Italy in 1919 and lived at 451 W 46th St. (where my mother was born). After seeing the Stern & Saalberg Co. ad for the Tootsie Roll it makes perfect sense. The factory located at 416-418 W 45th St. is practically in their backyard! Thank you for helping me realize the story told to me as a child, was most probably true. Great, great article and well told, you should write a book!

  • 14. gyglygirl  |  August 23, 2012 at 5:06 am

    neat story. sad ending. money does not equal happiness but at least he did what he loved.

  • 15. Deborah Kaufman  |  October 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I was always taught that my family way back, the Rubin’s, had something to do with the tootsie roll. Is this blurb mentioned in Wikipedia true?

    According to wikipedia,
    “In 1935 the company was in serious difficulty. Concerned about the possible loss of an important customer, its principal supplier of paper boxes, Joseph Rubin & Sons of Brooklyn, became interested in the possibility of acquiring control. The company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, but Bernard D. Rubin acquired a list of shareholders and approached them in person in order to purchase their shares. The Rubins eventually achieved control and agreed that Bernard would run the company as president. Bernard D. Rubin was able to steadily increase sales and restore profits, changing the formula of the Tootsie Roll and increasing its size, moving from Manhattan to a much larger plant in Hoboken, New Jersey,

    • 16. Candy Professor  |  October 17, 2012 at 8:27 am

      I believe that is true, although what I know about it is based on the same secondary sources as Wiki is likely using.

  • 17. monica  |  October 23, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    nicely written, CP!

  • 18. Gina  |  November 3, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I love my Tootsie Pops, and I loved this incredible, tragic story. It’s almost past imagining that the inventor of Tootsie Rolls – named for his spunky daughter – would have ended up putting a bullet in his brain in a lonely hotel room. Please, it’s been almost three years since this post; are either you or Steve ready to tell the tale of “how the Tootsie tale spins its sticky tentacles into surprising corners of American commerce”?

  • 19. Larry Schnitt  |  March 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    I notice that Hershey now owns Tootsie Roll. How did that come about ? Hershey seems to have acquired several companies over the last decade or so, including York mints, (which I remember as Mason Mints as a kid), any relation there? Hershey also owns York mints now. Then there was the Leaf Company which made the Whoppers Malted Balls, which is also now owned by Hershey. Reeses is another company bought by Hershey several years ago. It gets confusing because I remember the name Mason on the box with Black Crows, Juicy Fruit, and Jujubs etc. There is a lot of history here. Lastly, Tootsie Rolls taste nothing like they did when I was a kid – they had a definite texture, with a real chocolate taste, and now they are smooth and extruded like salt water taffy. They also split into 5 mouth size sections. Another example of a candy just brought back by a company on Long Island is Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, but tastes nothing like the original – but no one seems to care because the newer generations don’t remember how good the real taste was. Chalk off some of this flavor change to “CORN SYRUP, which even changed the taste of Coca Cola. Pardon me if there are any inaccuracies above, since I am just an old time consumer with a good memory for nostalgia. Of course as prices rose and sizes declined, ingredients changed as well to keep profits in line. Just remember the Three Musketeer’s Bar which for a Nickel broke into three large pieces – but inflation in the Candy business is another story altogether.

    • 20. Candy Professor  |  March 28, 2013 at 11:15 am

      I hear you! Happily, Tootsie Roll and Leaf remain independent companies…some of the last survivors from the golden age of American candy companies. Hershey’s actually acquired Reese’s a long time ago, back in the 1930s, but has successfully maintained a separate brand identity for that candy.

  • 21. Steven G. Meeks  |  July 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    A fascinating piece of detective work. What happened to Leo’s wife and daughter Clara? What did Mell’s produce?

  • 22. Laura  |  October 11, 2014 at 11:29 am

    What a fascinating story. Please, I too would love to know what became of Leo’s family and his fortune.

  • 23. Barbara Jenkins  |  October 18, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Interesting but a bit confusing about the ownership because in other works I did on the study stem and Saalberg were not mentioned, glad that Hirschfield got the recognition he deserved.

  • 24. Sunshine Sue  |  November 4, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    On the label, what does the G inside of the diamond stand mean?

  • 25. Sherry from Cecil Co Md.  |  November 8, 2014 at 4:27 am

    I had to write a comment to Tootsie to let them know i have stumbled upon a lollipop that is absolutely amazing as a 43 yr old woman i feel like a kid again every time i open a wrapper to one of them and its the Caramel Apple Pops they r simply DELICIOUS!!!!!

  • 26. Terry  |  February 24, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Interesting story. However, I believe that there is a misprint somewhere around paragraph 19 or 20 ( last sentence at the bottom) where the date says 1808. I believe it should say 1908. Just saying…


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