Candy Making is King in Central Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has the distinction of consuming more candy per capita than any other state.  So says Janet Richey, longtime proprietor of a successful candy store in Newburyport, MA who, until her recent retirement, annually attended a national trade show in Philadelphia which laid claim to that superlative.

Matangos Candies is renowned for its handmade chocolate Easter Bunnies, a Harrisburg favorite for more than 60 years.

This makes sense in several ways.  Pennsylvania has long been deemed the “Snack Food Capital of America” for its many producers of salty as well as sweet snacks.  Chocolate making became dominant in Central Pennsylvania because of its thriving dairy industry noted for its sweet-tasting milk (which Milton Hershey discovered turned bitter-tasting pure chocolate into the tasty milk chocolate that is universally enjoyed today).  And, in addition to Mr. Hershey, there were numerous other Pennsylvanians who successfully experimented, invented, manufactured, and marketed a bountiful array of unique, popular, and enduring candy products. 

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we naturally focus on candy (which has crowded store shelves since the day after Christmas), and indeed this story focuses on Central Pennsylvania candy-making.  But first, an obligatory history lesson: 

This candy-centric February 14 holiday and its October 31 rival, Halloween, are both rooted in religious history.  Saint Valentine was a 3rd-century bishop in the Roman Empire who ministered to persecuted Christians, for which he was ultimately executed by Emperor Claudius on February 14, 269 AD.  It is said that that the daughter of the judge who imprisoned him had a secret crush on him, and as he was led to his execution, he sent her a note “from your Valentine,” an expression of love that endures today via the greeting card industry.

Whitman’s Samplers

Whitman’s Sampler switches each year from its familiar yellow rectangular box to a red heart-shaped Valentine gift.

Candy-making in America can be traced to colonial times.  As an industry, it dates to the pre-Civil-War era. One of the earliest – and still popular – brands is

Whitman’s Chocolates, founded in Philadelphia in 1842 by Stephen F. Whitman, who at age 19 got his start selling sugar plums to sailors on the Delaware River waterfront.  In 1877, relocated to Philadelphia’s retail epicenter at 12th & Market Streets, he began marketing assorted chocolates, initially in tin boxes.  With advances in cardboard box-making in the early 20th century, in 1912 he introduced the iconic “Whitman’s Sampler,” whose distinctive yellow box evokes antique Pennsylvania Dutch needlework samplers. 

 

The Whitman’s Chocolate brand today is owned by its former archrival, Kansas City-based Russell Stover.  Nevertheless, the Sampler lives on, albeit in a much-simplified yellow box.  A bright red heart-shaped version of Whitman’s Sampler appears on shelves each year in advance of Valentine’s Day.

Another venerable Pennsylvania brand, Wilbur Chocolate Company, founded in Philadelphia by Henry Oscar Wilbur in 1865, has strong Central Pennsylvania connections.  After prospering and expanding in various Philadelphia factories, the Wilbur family in 1891 built a new plant in Lititz, Lancaster County, which, as not only a major employer but also a popular tourist destination, greatly contributed to the town’s prosperity.

Wilbur Buds

Wilbur’s most popular product, Wilbur Buds, debuted in 1893, a full 14 years before the similar-shaped Hershey’s Kiss.  The two products are frequently compared, due to the 20-mile proximity of their manufacturers as well as their shape. Wilbur Buds are not individually wrapped, and they have the word WILBUR stamped on the bottom of the bud. Chocolate connoisseurs have been known to conduct taste comparisons as serious as a wine tasting.

Acquired by food conglomerate Cargill in 1992, Wilbur operations continued in Lititz until 2016 when the century-old factory was replaced by modern facilities in Elizabethtown, Mt. Joy, and Hazleton, as well as Milwaukee and Ontario, whence the Wilbur brand continues to thrive.  In 2018, the old factory was converted to condominiums.  To the delight of Wilbur aficionados (and the Chamber of Commerce), the relocated Wilbur Chocolate Retail Store, across the street at 45 N. Broad Street, remains a tourist draw, with an array of gift items as well as displays of the vast collection of antique chocolate-making memorabilia amassed by Mrs. Penny Buzzard, wife of a former Wilbur president.  Visitors may still observe “girls at work making chocolate through the window,” a longstanding Wilbur attraction.

Although Milton Hershey’s now-global enterprise is indelibly associated with the Dauphin County town that bears his name, his earliest ventures in candy making were in Philadelphia, Lancaster, Chicago, and New York, where local residents formed his customer base. After 20 years of risk-taking and experimenting, his biggest gamble of all would arise in the dairy farmlands of Derry Township, where in 1896 he built a milk processing plant, followed by a chocolate plant in 1903.  Both were built adjacent to the Reading Railroad line; Mr. Hershey intended to sell milk chocolate to a nationwide market.

Chocolate King Milton S. Hershey in 1910.

70 million Hershey’s Kisses per day!

The famous Hershey’s Kiss, which debuted in 1906, was initially hand-wrapped in small foil sheets.  In 1921, with the commencement of machine wrapping, it allowed for the addition of a small paper ribbon to protrude from the wrapper.  The protruding ribbon, indicating that this was a true Hershey product, became so symbolic that today’s streetlamps lining Chocolate Avenue alternate between brown unwrapped Kiss shapes, and silver wrapped Kisses with protruding steel ribbons.

Over the decades, Hershey added such enduring products as Mr. Goodbar in 1925 and Krackel in 1938.  Rolo and Kit Kat are produced under a licensing agreement with the British owner of those brands.  Today, 70 million Kisses are produced each day in Hershey and elsewhere, requiring the daily milk output of 65,000 cows.  Among his many innovations, Mr. Hershey had imperfect Kisses collected and fed to the dairy cows to sweeten the milk.

M&Ms, produced by Mars, are named for Forrest Mars and partner Bruce Murrie, whose Hershey connections initially enabled the use of Hershey Chocolate.

In the 1930s, M&M candy-coated chocolate debuted through an unusual partnership of Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie, son of longtime Hershey’s President William Murrie.  M&M stood for Mars and Murrie.  They sourced Hershey’s chocolate until 1948 when Mars bought out Murrie and grew to become one of Hershey’s biggest competitors.

The Hershey-Mars archrivalry is chronicled in the 1999 book, “The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars.”  Mars, founded in 1911 in Tacoma WA, and now headquartered in McLean, VA, and still owned by the Mars family, is the fourth largest privately owned company in the U.S.  The maker of Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, M&Ms, and many others, has 22 U.S. factories including one in Elizabethtown PA.

York Peppermint Pattie, introduced by York entrepreneur Henry Kessler, is now produced by Hershey’s.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Another unique example of corporate interrelations in the candy industry is that of Hershey’s and Reese’s.  Harry B. Reese, a Hershey dairy manager (Farm 28-A) who was struggling to raise 16 children, around 1920 began making candy in his basement to supplement his income.  His boxed chocolate assortment included a peanut butter cup that soon became so popular that he eventually focused on that one product.  With Milton Hershey’s blessing and with chocolate from the Hershey plant, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was an unqualified success.  In 1957 he built the plant still standing on Chocolate Avenue, subsequently run by his six sons.  In 1963, the business was sold to Hershey.  Later product diversification included “Reese’s Pieces,” candy – and chocolate-coated peanut butter buttons looking suspiciously like Mars M&Ms, but with a totally Reese’s taste.

In 1940, Henry Kessler, a York, PA ice cream cone manufacturer, decided to enter the candy business, favoring a chocolate and mint themed candy.  His York Peppermint Pattie has changed very little over the decades, even after its acquisition by Peter Paul (maker of Mounds and Almond Joy), and later Cadbury, and, in 1988, by Hershey’s.  Variations have included sugar-free Patties, boxed York Peppermint Bites, and seasonal shapes: hearts for Valentine’s Day, eggs for Easter, pumpkins for Halloween, and snowflakes for Christmas.

Peeps, Hot Tamales, Venetian Mints and more!

Other local candy makers of various sizes include:

  • Just Born, based in Bethlehem PA, maker of marshmallow Peeps, Hot Tamales, Mike and Ike, Teenee Beanee jellybeans, and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews (acquired in 2003 from the Goldenberg family of Philadelphia).  Sam Born, a Russian Immigrant in 1909, moved to San Francisco in 1916 where he invented the “Born Sucker Machine” that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops.  Moving to Brooklyn and ultimately to Bethlehem, Born’s other inventions included the chocolate sprinkles known as “Jimmies” and the mechanical process for forming Peeps.
  • Matangos Quality Candies, headquartered at 1501 Catherine Street in Harrisburg.  It was founded in 1947 by Christoforos “Pop” Matangos, a Greek immigrant who came to America by jumping ship in New York Harbor in 1914.  After candy ventures in Allentown and Scranton, he moved “to the larger Capital City of Harrisburg,” according to a company history, “where he began working in the candy kitchen of Harrisburg’s then very popular Pomeroy’s department store” before launching his business in his home at 15th & Catherine, where it is still located and run by 3rd-generation Matangos. The enterprise at one time had seven Harrisburg-area retail outlets, including the Second Street location of today’s Stock’s restaurant.  Matangos’ famous specialties include “Venetian Mints,” boxed Figaro multi-striped chocolates, and hand-made chocolate Easter rabbits.

Today, Central Pennsylvania’s venerable and thriving candy industry reflects the area’s strong dairy farming tradition, its strategic access for shipping to major markets, and its reputation for entrepreneurial risk-taking and innovation.  In addition, perhaps it’s safe to say that our collective sweet tooth is sweeter than average.

David J. Morrison is executive director of Historic Harrisburg Association.  He is a frequent contributor to Harrisburg Magazine.