(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.