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Consolidated Gummies

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

There’s a review in today’s NYT of a new history of candy called Sweets. The book doesn’t actually sound that great, but it inspires me to riff on one of my weird little historical sub-interests: the industrial history of candy.

On the early history of chocolate—sacrificial offering to the Aztec war-god Huitzilopochtli, ambrosia of Jacobin conspirators against the French and English crowns—there’s no way I’m going to outdo Ken Hite’s column (link will work for Pyramid subscribers only), or David Courtwright’s fine book Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. On the eccentric chocolate giants of the 20th century I point you to Jan Pottker’s Crisis In Candyland or Joel Brenner’s Emperors of Chocolate. Milton Hershey was a Mennonite, a dreamer and a philanthropist who tried to build a utopian chocolate community (Chocotopia?) in Pennsylvania, and gave his fortune to orphans and other charities; his bitter rival, Forrest Mars, was a notorious miser and billionaire recluse who lived out his days in a massive Las Vegas chocolate factory like some sinister combination of Willy Wonka and Howard Hughes.

But between these two eras is a little chunk of local sugar baby history I’ve never seen documented: the golden age of the Cambridge Candy District. See, East Cambridge between Harvard and MIT is mostly residential, but it’s dotted with these huge brick candy factories. Everybody around here knows the Necco factory, and the Squirrel Brand factory (home of the Squirrel Nut Zipper), and Tootsie Roll Industries, but early in the 20th century there were actually over thirty major candy plants in the city.

Candy makers, like just about everyone else, industrialized their operations between the 1880s and the 1920s, and built these massive Dickensian workhouses to churn out Hot Tamales, Drumstick Lollies, and McKinley Swirls. And why, I don’t know—was it a remnant of New England’s sugar-molasses trade with the West Indies?—but one hundred years ago, Cambridge seems to have been the candy industry’s gooey caramel center. So even today there are these great brick hulks scattered through residential Cambridge*, emblazoned with goofy candy company names—Consolidated Gummies, the Jawbreaker Trust. They strike me like the vanishing-or-never-was New York pictured in Ben Katchor’s cartoons: at the same time sort of majestic, silly, and sad.

I guess it’s the clash between the delicacy of the product and the clanking factories that produced them that gets me. The candy factory on Cambridge Street near the Galleria mall (not sure which company owns it) has these big six inch pipes coming out of the side, the kind a hose from a pumper truck would connect to, labeled “corn syrup.” I don’t know why I find that so amusing. If the wind is right when you walk by the Necco factory, the sticky-sweet smell of churning sugar can be just about overpowering. You can almost hear the cries of the Oompa Loompas or the Keebler Elves chained up inside.

*Not for long, though. Squirrel Co. moved its last Nut Zipper sometime around the end of the swing revival, and I understand Necco has sold its Cambridge factory to, what else, a biotech firm.

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Guinness is Good For You

I had some time to kill on campus the other day, so I parked myself in a comfy chair in Lamont Library and read A Positively Final Appearance, by Alec Guinness, in one sitting. It’s Guinness’ journal for the last few years of his life. I recommend it; like him, it was funny and wise and occasionally laser-sharp and only a little bit sad. The 80-something Guinness was, as we all know, weary of his unshakeable association with Obi-Wan Kenobi, but still plugged in to the popular culture: he was addicted to The Simpsons and had good things to say about the Leo diCaprio / Claire Danes version of Romeo and Juliet. There are lots of funny stories in there, in the Peter O’Toole-esque raconteur vein. In fact O’Toole and Guinness were buddies, from the same generation of gin-soaked British actors up to absolutely no good. Highlights include:

The story of a scandalous stage production of Peter Pan in the 1930s in which Nana contracted syphilis from an affair with Smee. (NB: Nana was the dog.)

The fact that Marlene Dietrich used to drive out into the California desert every New Year’s Eve for a date with “a well set up gentleman from outer space”—when Guinness asked Dietrich what the spaceman looked like, she said, “Handsome, darling, and dressed all in silver.”

Some nice, unfashionable fondness for the Royal Family, and impatience with the beatification of Princess Diana.

And, of course, the following oft-told tale:

A refurbished Star Wars in on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

‘I would like you to do something for me,’ I said.

‘Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

‘You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

‘Anything, sir, anything!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor child away. Maybe she was right, but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

“A fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” Ouch.

I love that story. I’m going to start telling it, and end with the punch line, “… and that boy grew up to be … me.”