WORDS BY IRENE COSTELLO / PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Pop quiz! Which of the following candy brands is not made in Massachusetts?
a. Junior Mints
b. Necco Wafers
c. Tootsie Pops
d. Sky Bars
Answer: Tootsie Pops. They’re made by Tootsie Roll Industries in Chicago, which eventually became the hub of candy making in the United States. But for many years Boston (Cambridge specifically) was a leading player in the growth of the candy industry, creating many of the brands we know and still love today.
In fact, Boston can lay claim as the birthplace of the American candy industry. It began with an English druggist named Oliver Chase who came here in 1847 and set up an apothecary business. The apothecary’s trade involved mixing a sugar paste with prescribed, often bitter, medicines and then shaping, drying and finally cutting lozenges by hand into administrable doses. Soon after his arrival in Boston, Chase invented a machine to cut the lozenges, whereby he automated his business. The key ingredient is of course sugar, and the story of candy begins here.
Native to Southeast Asia, sugar cane is an ancient crop that spread quickly by Arab traders. The word candy most likely originated in the Arabic word qandi, meaning something made with sugar. The first candies noted in ancient times were made of sugar-coated nuts, seeds and fruits. Sugar became widely traded in Europe by the Middle Ages, but it was expensive and only enjoyed by the aristocracy for centuries. Wealthy households used it as a sweetener and also for medicinal purposes. Licorice, peppermint and marshmallow, for example, were combined with sugar and used as digestive aids.
By the 18th century a new kind of culinary trade in Europe emerged. The confectioner was highly skilled in manipulating sugar into all kinds of exciting sweets and decorations. His craft was an art form, but the process was very much a science that required precision and patience. Different temperatures determinedthe type of confection produced. High heat hardened sugar, medium softened it and cooler temperatures made it chewy. The weather—heat, humidity and rain—determined success or failure of every batch. Techniques were learned through lengthy trial and error. Confectioners experimented and then dazzled their customers with all sorts of creations made from hard sweets, nougat, fondant and coated fruits or nuts. They also created elaborate sugar sculptures often used for lavish entertaining. Enjoying a certain social standing, many worked in wealthy homes, but some opened their own shops in cities and large towns—becoming much appreciated members of the community.
A steady supply of sugar was needed to meet the growing and insatiable demand for sweets. Two sources were cultivated. Cane grows in tropical climates, and the West Indies (Caribbean) saw a huge increase in the number of sugar plantations into the 19th century. The fact that they relied on slave labor eventually presented a moral dilemma. Beets, which grow in cooler climates, became an accepted alternative to cane. In time the growth in production of both cane and beets would stabilize sugar prices, making it more affordable to a wider audience.
America in the 19th century grew with waves of immigration from all parts of Europe. People brought with them their food traditions and recipes including those for sweets. A cottage industry flourished with women producing family recipes in their home kitchens. They sold their handmade, usually unwrapped sweets to local stores which retailed them by the piece under generic names like lemon drops, peppermint sticks, fudge, taffy, caramels and brittle.
Then came the industrial revolution, and everything changed. By mid-century new technologies allowed machines to automate most aspects of production. The steam engine powered these machines and modernized transportation. New distribution channels opened up with the introduction of steamboats and railroads. Manufacturing grew rapidly.
In Boston, Oliver Chase patented his invention and founded Chase and Company with his brother. They built the first candy factory near Fort Point Channel, where they continued to design and create machinery that produced assorted sugar wafers. At some point they abandoned the apothecary trade and focused their business on these sugar discs, the forerunner of today’s Necco Wafers. Likewise, sweets produced in home kitchens soon moved to small family-run factories, and the candy industry was born.
Before long, dozens and then hundreds of candy factories appeared. By the 1850s there were 380 producers; most were family run with single lines like the Chase brothers. Products remained unbranded until new packaging equipment allowed innovative companies to differentiate themselves with fancy wrapping or printed boxes and tins. Daniel Chase discovered a way to print on shaped lozenges, thereby creating conversation candy that became the forerunners of Sweethearts. Specific product names and branding started to appear in an effort to capture a share of America’s sweet tooth.
By 1900 candy was a $100 million industry. That is when chocolate entered the scene in a big way, and the candy industry surged again. Up to that point Europe had led the innovations that transformed chocolate from a beverage to a luxury food item. For decades confectioners had experimented with techniques to temper, mold and stabilize chocolate to prevent melting. The Swiss invented milk chocolate, making it smoother and less bitter. The French invented the enrobing machine that automated the coating and dipping process. When Milton Hershey saw a German chocolate-making machine at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he quickly changed his business strategy from caramels to chocolate. Shortly thereafter he introduced his milk chocolate bar. Americans could not get enough of it. During World War I the US Army commissioned candy manufacturers to supply chocolate bars. Not only were the bars tasty, they were highly caloric and easy to pack—perfect for soldiers’ rations. Men returning from the war were hooked on chocolate bars, and by 1920 the candy industry had tripled to nearly $300 million.
The boom continued, but the business also became more capital intensive with technology introducing new equipment that could scale up production to industrial levels. Small family-run operations started to acquire or merge with other firms. In 1901 Chase and Company merged with two other local companies to form New England Confectionery Company or NECCO. With $1 million in capital the three firms relocated to a new multi-line manufacturing facility on Summer Street and became the largest candy company in the country with close to 800 employees.
NECCO began aggressive branding and advertising campaigns, and by 1905 its candies were sold in every state as well as overseas. Necco Wafers in particular were hugely popular and even selected as one of the food items for an expedition to the Arctic. Over the next few decades the company continued to expand through acquisition. Other brands that would eventually fall under the NECCO umbrella included Mary Janes, Candy Buttons, Canada Mints, Thin Mints, Candy Cupboard, Sky Bar, Clark Bar and of course Sweetheart Conversation Hearts.
The first half of the 20th century was the golden era for candy making in Boston. This region had all the conditions to lead the industry: a cool climate, good transportation systems, and its own sugar refinery located in East Boston. Anyone who lived or worked near a candy factory back then can still remember the smell of sugar and chocolate wafting in the air. Dozens of small factories dotted the neighborhoods. In Dorchester Walter Baker made chocolate. In Charlestown Schrafft’s produced its boxed chocolates. And over in Cambridge, Main Street was called confectioners row. From Kendall Square to Massachusetts Avenue candy classics such as Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, Squirrel Nut and Charleston Chew were made. NECCO joined the Cambridge neighborhood in 1927 after relocating from Boston.
By 1950 the industry started to change. At its peak as many as 6,000 candy companies existed nationwide. Consolidation was inevitable, but another trend also emerged. Distribution was the name of the game, and in her book, The Emperors of Chocolate, Joel Glenn Brenner describes the bitter battles between Hershey’s and Mars to grab market share. In time they, along with Nestle muscled out or gobbled up their competitors. Today these top three control 65% of the candy aisle. The other 35% is divided by the 150 remaining independent companies.
In this brutally competitive environment NECCO failed to keep pace. Despite its acquisitions the company slipped to a medium-sized firm compared to the growing titans. By the early 1960s it was losing money and heading toward bankruptcy. A savior came in the form of a diversified holding company that specialized in turnaround companies. Based in New York, UIS recognized the potential of the NECCO brands and purchased it.
Meanwhile, most of the other local companies ran into similar trouble. They have since disappeared either through takeover or bankruptcy. In Cambridge one candy factory remains. Although now owned by Tootsie Rolls Industries Inc., Cambridge Brands still makes Junior Mints and Sugar Daddy in a nondescript white building on Main Street. It is nestled among futuristic MIT buildings, research labs and high tech firms. Only the tracks of a now defunct railroad show any evidence of the bustling manufacturing presence that once existed there.
NECCO hummed along for the next few decades. In 2003 it consolidated all of its operations and moved to a modern 52-acre campus in Revere. Although the company reached sales of $100 million, generated mostly by Valentine’s Day Sweethearts, it never regained a leadership position in the candy world. In 2007 UIS sold NECCO to the venture capital firm, American Capital Group (ACG). The last few years have been rough. The uncertainty over another potential sale by ACG caused a lot of turnover, especially at the senior management level. That amount of change is never good. The company culture became tense and secretive. Yet Lucia Villalta fondly remembers her 17 years at NECCO. Arriving from El Salvador in 1985, it was her first job in America. She started in packaging, as all new hires do, and worked her way up eventually covering all the product lines. “It was a good place to work,” she says. “Managers were friendly and open. Everyone helped when needed. We were a team.”
So what’s next for NECCO? Should it chase current food trends like organic, fair-trade or gourmet chocolates? A few local companies are thriving in the specialty food space. Taza Chocolate’s vision is to combine Mesoamerican chocolate traditions in a socially responsible way while Harbor Sweets in Salem has built an impressive catalogue business with its handmade chocolate lines. Unfortunately, NECCO’s first foray into the all-natural space did not go well. In 2009 they replaced the artificial colorings in the classic Necco Wafer with natural dyes. Their loyal customers hated the muted colors and vehemently demanded the vibrant albeit fake colored wafers back.
Perhaps they should jump on the anti-obesity bandwagon with a low sugar line? Not likely.
“Candy is sugar,” as Jeff Green, vice president of quality and research, reminds us. It’s a treat to be enjoyed in moderation. “We’re going back to our core,” says Green. That’s probably their best move, and it plays well into what’s called the new retro. When economies hit hard times, people become nostalgic. “Companies are returning to a time when life seemed somehow easier,” says Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel, a market research firm that specializes in the food industry. Who can tell us more about those simpler times than a company that has been around for 170 years?
Basically, when it comes right down to it people still love those early brands, the ones that have been around for 50 years or more. Innovation has certainly occurred in the specialty candy segment—with green tea confections and bacon-flavored chocolate—but look at the traditional candy counter. When was the last time you saw something totally new and exciting there? Kit Kat, Twix, Dove—that’s three in 30 years. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the food industry introduces 15,000 new products a year, yet surprisingly few are candy unless they’re product extensions: new packaging, flavor variations, smaller sizes, etc. So the next time you are in the candy aisle consider all those locally made products from NECCO and Cambridge Brands, and let’s help them stick around for years to come.
Popular American brands introduced before 1960:
5th Avenue Bar
Boston Baked Beans
Bubble Gum Cigars
Dubble Bubble Gum
Good & Plenty
Mike & Ike
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
Squirrel Nut Zippers*
* made in Massachusetts
After 20 years in the world of financial services, Irene Costello broke out to develop her passion for cooking. She earned a Master's of Liberal Arts in gastronomy and a certificate in culinary arts from Boston University. In 2008 she co-founded Effie’s Homemade, a wholesale baking company located in Hyde Park.