|Share on Facebook|
|Share on Twitter|
The Chicago area has long been the candy Mecca of the United States, a fact currently being celebrated by an exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum called "Sweet Home Chicago." Aside from the nostalgia of seeing vintage packaging and salivating over long-gone treats, it's a great place to watch Lucy and Ethel try to keep up with the candy conveyor.
The traveling exhibit was the brainchild of curator Lance Tawzer. Like the museum's exhibit last year on toys and games manufactured in the Windy City, seeing a red movie theater vending machine holding a box of Mason Dots, whisks visitors back to their childhood. The exhibit is subtitled, "The History of America's Candy Capital."
"Chicago had over a hundred candy companies, employing 25,000 workers," Tauzer explained. "Production peaked in 1963 when Chicago's output doubled New York's. Chicago became the candy center because it was a transportation hub and home to immigrants with Old World recipes. It used to produce a third of the nation's candy and is still the candy capital."
Besides giving the overall picture of local candy-making, the exhibit has panels highlighting the biggest manufacturers, like Forest Park's Ferrara Pan, which has loomed over the Eisenhower Expressway near Harlem Avenue since it opened in 1959.
"Tootsie Roll was a family-owned business," noted Tauzer. "Melvin and Ellen Gordon started the company in Hoboken, N.J. in 1896. After they outgrew their plant, they took over a 2.3-million-square-foot factory on the South Side of Chicago, where they used to make Tucker automobiles and B29s.
"The Mars factory used to be a golf course," he added. "They kept the clubhouse for its offices."
The Mars family had a horse named Snickers for whom they named a very popular candy bar in 1930. "The Curtiss Candy Co. had a farm in Cary for their dairy products," Tauzer said. "Marshall Field's manufactured Frango mints on the 13th floor of the store."
On the second floor of the exhibit, visitors can try the "Candy Bar ID Challenge." It features cross-sections of eight candy bars, with clues to their identity. For example (spoiler alert!), "clumsy person" is the clue for Butterfingers. Another interactive exercise is the "Twisted Candy Wrapping Challenge." Competitors have one minute to see how many pieces of "candy" they can wrap.
This segues naturally into sitting down to watch a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy in which Ethel and Lucy are assigned to wrap candy coming at increasing speed along the conveyor belt. It's still laugh-out-loud funny to see them stuffing the candy into their mouths, smocks and hats.
This is followed by a more serious video, "Candyland USA," a 15-minute documentary on the history of Chicago candy-making narrated by Bill Kurtis. In his "Voice of God" inflections, Kurtis talks about how Hershey first saw candy being manufactured at the 1893 World's Fair. Eleven years later, Emil Brach erected his massive factory on Cicero Avenue (now sadly sitting empty). The plant had 17 acres of floor space, with 4,000 workers making 300 varieties of candy.
Henry Blommer opened his chocolate company in 1939. It remains one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the U.S. The Baby Ruth bar was named for President Grover Cleveland's daughter. The Sultan of Swat didn't get a dime in royalties and was sued by the candy company when he came out with his "Homer" Bar.
The Milky Way was named for its milky ingredients. Mars Candy Co. is still one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world. William Wrigley used to include a stick of gum with his baking powder, before mass-producing Spearmint, Doublemint and Juicy Fruit. In 1912, Cracker Jack coated popcorn with molasses and added a prize. Oh Henry! was named after a salesman who flirted with female clerks at the company. Fannie May, alas, was a made-up name.
The documentary also describes the decline of Chicago's candy industry. Geographic location lost its importance while federal subsidies drove up the price of sugar. Many candy companies had to leave the U.S. to remain competitive. Still, the National Confection Association remains headquartered in Chicago and the Sweets and Snacks Expo has been coming here since 1997.
In addition to making the video, Tauzer designed the portable exhibit and its interactive components. He called in a curatorial consultant, Leslie Goddard, to provide the story line and obtain the images and artifacts. Goddard was a former employee of the Elmhurst Historical Museum and is presently executive director of the Graue Mill in Hinsdale.
Goddard has been giving talks on the history of candy-making in Chicago for the past decade. Her presentation has been turned into a book, Chicago Sweet Candy History, which is coming out the last week of August.
"The fun part was the research," Goddard said. "I have a huge sweet tooth and I was craving a Milky Way and a Baby Ruth while I was doing it." She explained how sweets touch our deepest consciousness. "Our first financial transaction in life is buying candy."
Goddard also talked about why Chicago became the candy capital. "Chicago grew up at the perfect time," she said, "when the railroads started and immigration peaked. A lot of Germans, Italians and Greeks with candy-making skills came to Chicago." The city's location also helped. "It was close to Wisconsin and the milk had to get to the factories quickly. It was also a railroad center which made for cheap shipping of commodities." Even Chicago winters were an advantage. "Candy remains very weather-sensitive, especially before refrigeration."
After Tauzer recruited her, Goddard started gathering artifacts. "When people found out I was doing the exhibit, I learned that people collect candy tins and that kids collect crazy old wrappers. They let me take digital images of them." She found other artifacts on eBay and shelling out some of her own money.
It helped her cause that Chicago candy companies were relentless promoters. "The Baby Ruth emblem was put on everything: matchbooks, pocket knives, stuffed dolls. There was a lot of memorabilia. Cracker Jack prizes — there are whole societies devoted to collecting millions of these prizes." The priciest prize set her back $26.
Apart from these visual aids, Goddard also traced the stories behind the candy-making. She toured the Jelly Belly factory just across the border in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., the candy corn center of the universe. She went to the American Licorice Co. in Alsip. "They make Red Vines and Snaps," Goddard said. "I love licorice, red and black." (The famous scene in The Gold Rush in which Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe? All licorice, made by a Chicago candymaker).
Some of her favorite brands no longer exist. "Peerless made Root Beer Barrels for 92 years but they went out of business in 2007. The price of sugar has driven manufacturers out of the US and Peerless wasn't willing to leave."
Many people, she said, have no idea that Chicago had so many candy manufacturers. "A Forest Park man told me his mom had lived there her whole life before she first noticed the lemon and cinnamon smells from Ferrara Pan. You can also smell Blommer Chocolate in Chicago. No one complains about it."
The Elmhurst Historical Museum is located at 120 E. Park Ave. (630-833-1457 or visit www.elmhursthistory.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 1-5 p.m. Admission is free. You can test your hand-wrapping skills and travel back to your sweet past until Sept. 30.