October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
It was born in America, it came of age in America, and in an era when foreign competition threatens so many of our industries, it still sweetens our balance of trade
The candy bar as we know it was born in America. So too, many centuries earlier, was chocolate itself. Mexican natives cultivated the cocoa bean for more than twenty-five hundred years before Hernán Cortés took it to Spain with him in 1528. Spanish royalty drank a cold, sweetened beverage made from the beans, but they liked it so much they kept it a secret from the rest of Europe for the remainder of the century. Not until the 1840s did a British firm, Fry and Sons, make the first chocolate bar. The candy bar, agglomerating a variety of flavors and textures—almost always including chocolate—in one piece, was a purely American invention, and it’s still not one hundred years old.
Milton Snavely Hershey, the father of the modern candy bar, had already built a successful business in caramels when he first saw German chocolate-making machines at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. He ordered some for his factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and began turning out chocolate bars the next year. By the turn of the century he was through with caramels. He made not just plain chocolate and milk-chocolate bars but also innovative items like almond bars, kisses, and chocolate cigars. By 1911 his company had sales of five million dollars a year; by 1921 it was making four times that.
Such dazzling success begat swift competition, and soon a multitude of companies was making bars of chocolate combined with caramel, marshmallow, peanuts, crisped rice, and anything else that might sell. Perley G. Gerrish, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, brought out the first peanut bar, Squirrel Brand, in 1905. One of the first combination bars, with multiple ingredients, was the Goo Goo Cluster, concocted in a copper kettle in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1912, of caramel, marshmallow, peanuts, coconut, and milk chocolate. Its advertising identified it as “a nourishing lunch.” The Goo Goo Cluster is still sold today, as is another bar from 1912, the Nut Goodie, one of the pioneer nut rolls.
Throughout the first two decades of the century, a bewildering variety of candy bars appeared on shelves across the country, most of them fleetingly. There have probably been more than one hundred thousand different candy bars sold in the United States, including some thirty thousand that existed only in the years just after World War I. Nearly every confectioner in the land turned out a candy bar, choosing a name that might reflect a news or sports event, a popular hero, a food, a place, or even a popular saying of the age, like Boo-La or B’Gosh. If there was a classic recipe, it was the nut roll, made with a fudge center, caramel, peanuts, and an outer coating of chocolate. Baby Ruth, Oh Henry!, Love Nest, Old Nick, and Chicken Dinner all were popular nut rolls.
The industry began on the East Coast but quickly fanned out across the country. Since the basic ingredients were dairy products, Chicago became the natural hub for candy bars, and Milwaukee and Minneapolis were major producers. Most of the bars were made and sold regionally, not nationally, so a small manufacturer with a good bar could do well. The typical bar in the late teens cost five cents, and it weighed the same as today, about two ounces.
During World War I the Army Quartermaster Corps, recognizing that chocolate boosted both energy and morale, got chocolate companies to contribute to the war effort by supplying chocolate in twenty-pound blocks. The blocks were cut down into individual pieces and hand-wrapped at quartermaster bases before being passed out to the doughboys. After the war thousands of soldiers returned home with a sweet tooth. Business grew bigger than ever, with some of the new bars, like the Legion’s Buddy, addressed specifically to the returning troops.
When Otto Schnering started making candy bars, in a back room over a Chicago plumbing shop in 1916, he perceived that a German name would not be an asset in wartime, so he named his firm the Curtiss Candy Company, after his mother’s family. He soon made himself one of the most successful and flamboyant businessmen in candy bars. In 1920 he introduced the Baby Ruth, named for the daughter of President Grover Cleveland, who as an infant had been the pet of the nation in the 189Os. In 1923 Schnering chartered a plane to fly over Pittsburgh and let loose thousands of Baby Ruths; each floated down into the city under a small, individual parachute. That stunt sealed the bar’s success. (Although the baseball player Babe Ruth probably had nothing to do with the name of the bar still commonly associated with him, he was the inspiration for a spate of bars in the late twenties. A George H. Ruth Candy Company was organized in Cleveland at the peak of his career, and bars with names like Bambino and Big Champ thrived for a brief while.)
George Williamson owned a candy store in downtown Chicago where, in 1920, a boy named Henry dropped by every day to flirt with the girls making candy. When Williamson cast around for a name for a new bar, one of his salesmen said, “All we hear around here is, ‘Oh, Henry,’ so why not call the new bar Oh Henry!?” Williamson agreed, and he publicized his bar by distributing a free Oh Henry! cookbook, with recipes for dishes like Oh Henry! Surprise Pie and Oh Henry! Stuffed Tomatoes (ingredients: two Oh Henry!s, three tomatoes, mayonnaise, lettuce, and salt). The book was so popular the company started charging for it.
Another candy-bar magnate, Frank Mars, made it big when he seized upon the possibilities that lay in a soft, fluffy nougat center discovered by accident by the Pendergast Candy Company, in Minneapolis. He copied it for his Milky Way bar, born in 1923, and then for others, including Snickers and the Mars Bar.
The first synthetic coating that would stay hard in hot weather was invented in the 1930s by a Minneapolitan named Frank Martoccio. He had been a macaroni maker until one of his factory engines burned out; he found a replacement in a defunct candy factory and was talked into buying the whole plant, and before long he was one of the biggest candy moguls, offering brands like Zero and Milk Shake.
The Depression brought lean times to the candy-bar business, and not until the late 1930s did the industry begin to recover. When war struck again, the makers of candy bars once more were pressed into service supplying the troops. Hershey made “field ration D,” a refined chocolate that didn’t melt at high temperatures, and it was packed in kits for soldiers, sailors, and Marines. On the home front, as the supply of chocolate dwindled, manufacturers struggled to concoct new bars from ingredients such as peanuts and marshmallows and gave them patriotic names like Torpedo.
If World War I made candy bars a major industry, World War II made them a worldwide symbol of America. The GI handing out candy bars to children came to stand for liberation everywhere. Hershey bars became an international wartime currency for barter.
After the war candy bars became bigger business than ever. National brands began to predominate, with fewer companies commanding more and more of the market. The golden age of profuse and colorful local brands drew to a close. Foreign countries began for the first time to get into the act, making American-style candy bars of their own. Lately some foreign manufacturers have even begun to market their products in the United States, either buying American companies or selling their native brands. Except in the area of pure chocolate, however, they haven’t made many inroads, and it will probably be a very long time before France’s La Nougat and Japan’s Lotte Ghana Black displace Baby Ruth and the 3 Musketeers in the hearts and on the candy racks of America.