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Chicago area has a sweet candy history, Elgin exhibit and speaker show

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Updated: March 14, 2014 8:28AM

ELGIN — Cracker Jacks and Butterfinger bars. Doublemint gum and Tootsie Rolls. Frango Mints and Milk Duds. Atomic Fire Balls and Milk Duds. Brach’s Pick-A-Mix and Three Musketeers.

All those — and many more candy brands — now call the Chicago area home or did so at one time. And that nostalgic glory was explained to a crowd of 70 at Gail Borden Public Library on Tuesday night by Leslie Goddard, a Ph.D. historian from Darien who wrote the 2012 Arcadia book “Chicago’s Sweet Candy History.”

The Elgin library put on the program in conjunction with an exhibit now filling the library’s first floor called “Sweet Home Chicago: The Story of America’s Candy Capital.” A traveling exhibit, it was created by the Elmhurst Historical Museum with the advice of Goddard.

The display will continue at Gail Borden through March 11. It includes photos of old-time ads and factories, explanations of each product’s history, and even a section where visitors can look at a cross-section of various candy bars and try to guess which brand each one is.

At its peak in the 1940s through the 1960s, Goddard said, “One-third of all the candy being offered for sale came from Chicago. By comparison, the second-biggest candy-manufacturing center, New York City, made only half as much as Chicago.”

She said the Chicago factories employed 25,000 people, although that has dropped to about 7,000 now as Chicago companies such as Curtis merged into two giant mega-corporations (Hershey’s and M&M/Mars) and the high price of American sugar has driven much of the manufacturing out of the United States.

Goddard said three things turned Chicago into the candy capital in the late 1800s:

It was the nation’s railroad hub, so it was easy to ship sugar, milk and oils to Chicago before they spoiled.

The city had a huge number of German immigrants, who found candy-making a relatively easy business to start up in their own kitchens.

Once a lot of candymakers had located in Chicago, a convenient support industry sprang up to make boxes, wrappers and ingredients.

Prizes and freebies

The candy business always ran on clever advertising and promotion. Goddard showed examples of everything from an ad that estimated how far an athlete could run on the energy from an Oh Henry bar to the cheap prizes that were inserted into every box of Cracker Jack — prizes that, she noted, had to be equally desirable to either a boy or a girl.

William Wrigley Jr. began giving away free baking soda to go with the soap he was selling. When the soda became more popular than the soap, he began giving away free chewing gum to promote the baking soda. And when the gum became more popular than the baking soda — well, a legend was born.

He once mailed a stick of gum to every family listed in a telephone directory anywhere in the United States.

By World War II, every G.I. breakfast, lunch and dinner ration package included a stick of Wrigley’s gum.

One member of the audience said Wrigley encouraged mom-and-pop food stores to stock his Spearmint, Doublemint and Juicy Fruit by giving the stores free meat grinders, which were manufactured in Elgin.

After World War I, Chicago and the rest of America saw a proliferation of new brands and types of candy, Goddard said. But after World War II, customers seem wedded to their old favorites.

On a list of America’s 10 top-selling candies that she showed, only one — Twix — was introduced after the nation entered World War II.

The industry also has consolidated considerably, she said. Of those 10 top-sellers today, five are made by Pennsylvania-based Hershey’s, four by New Jersey-based M&M/Mars and one by the Swiss giant Nestle.

“Hershey’s and M&M/Mars now account for 75 percent of candy sales,” she said.

Finally, the improved ability to ship ingredients has undercut the advantage of making candy in Chicago, she said.

But one big company, Tootsie Roll, did move its operations into Chicago, from New Jersey. Both M&M/Mars and Nestle still have major plants in Chicago. And several of the old-time Chicago companies still shoulder on, including Ferrara Pan with its red hots and its coated peanuts; World’s Finest, whose premium chocolate bars are sold by charity groups to raise funds; and Blommer, whose downtown Chicago plant fills the area around the Ogilvie and Union train stations with the scent of sweetness as it makes wholesale chocolate for bakeries and manufacturers.

Perhaps symbolizing the decline of Chicago’s candy-making, Goddard said, the building that moviegoers see blowing up in “Batman: The Dark Knight” was the Brach company’s former headquarters building.

Now even the Wrigley company, whose 5-cents-a-pack gums made their owners rich enough to build the Wrigley Building and buy the Chicago Cubs, makes its gum elsewhere, although company headquarters remain in Chicago.

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