- Historic Sites
The Chocolate Camelot
Once upon a time a shy but persistent candymaker named Hershey dreamed of building his own utopia …
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Devotees of great moments in industry may draw in their breath in fearful contemplation of the losses the world might have sustained if Milton’s first job had worked out better for him—he was hired as printer’s devil on a pacifist newspaper in Millwood Gap called Der Waffenlose Waechter (it was bilingual). Thumb-fingered Milton spilled a lot of the type, and, as he later told a biographer, “I lost my job when I let my old straw hat fall on the form rollers—which I may have done on purpose.” His mother promptly apprenticed him to a Lancaster confectioner, Joseph H. Royer, who, on Fanny’s insistence, soon promoted the young Hershey from handle man on the icecream freezer to the candy kitchen, where he might learn something. One night when he left the kitchen, he forgot to turn off the blower on the peanut roaster, so that the street outside was soon filled with burnt peanut shells. But he stayed on, and in the summer of 1876, when he was nineteen, his mother and aunt decided he should quit and go into business for himself in Philadelphia. Aunt Mattie kicked in a hundred fifty dollars to help out and offered to take him to the big city and find him a place.
Mattie found him a storefront at 935 Spring Garden Street and returned to Lancaster, temporarily leaving Milton to his own devices. He boiled up penny candy in the cellar and peddled it by day, but there was no profit in it. He tried to improve business by having fancy fourcolor cards printed up, with the legend “M. S. H ERSHEY, DEALER IN FINE CONFECTIONERY, FRUITS, NUTS, & C .” circling a picture of a magnificent building labelled “length 1402 feet width 360 feet,” but upon close scrutiny the building turned out to be Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 rather than the Hershey plant. Meanwhile his mother had to move to Philadelphia and open a boarding house to keep him afloat. Mattie also helped by donating her savings to Milton’s business, and when this wasn’t enough, she borrowed more money from her brother Abraham and finally moved to Philadelphia too, where she and Fanny spent their evenings wrapping bits of taffy called French Secrets that had little rhymes printed on the wrappers.
The business was still holding on five years later, when Henry Hershey turned up, after a long absence, with some candy-display cases he had had made for promoting his failed cough drops. Milton bought them for $350, and Henry headed for the silver mines of Colorado. The useless cabinets seemed to weigh on Milton’s spirits, and he suffered a moderate nervous breakdown, leaving the candy business to the women and one employee until he could recover. Not long after this the firm’s delivery horse bolted, tipping over a wagonload of candies, which were a total loss. This finished the M. S. Hershey business in Philadelphia, and Milton, with his mother and aunt, returned to Lancaster with nothing left of the enterprise but a few candy kettles. Hershey was twenty-five years old.
Within a few weeks optimism returned to Hershey’s spirit, and he travelled to Denver to join his father. He found a job with a caramel maker there and learned the advantages in taste and quality of adding fresh milk to the candy-making process. When his father moved to Chicago to take work as a carpenter, Milton followed him, and soon the two were starting up another new candy business together—until they loaned all the firm’s capital to a friend who failed to repay it. Milton tried New Orleans, and then, in 1883, he attacked New York City, working days in Huyler’s candy factory and boiling his own candy at night in his landlady’s kitchen. Soon he had his own candy store on Sixth Avenue, near Bryant Park. Within a few months he enthusiastically moved to larger quarters on West Forty-third Street, assuming he would be able to break the lease on the first store, but discovered he could not. The payment of double rent was about to break him, so to the rescue came his mother and Aunt Mattie—and his father as well, who set out to sell his son’s wares off a pushcart. Milton was still losing money, but, like a gambler, he impetuously ordered ten thousand dollars’ worth of new candy machinery on credit. Shortly after this another horse dumped another wagonload of merchandise into the street, and the New York business was finished for good. Milton had only the clothes in his rented room—until a thief stole those. So it was back to Lancaster once again.