Sweet History

When our town was the capital of candy

Canada Mints AdvertisementPhoto: Cambridge Historical Society

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By Gavin Kleespies

M

mmm, candy. Once upon a time, Cambridge was the hub of candy production in America. In 1946 there were more than 60 different confectionary manufacturers listed in Cambridge alone. Charleston Chews, Tootsie Rolls, Junior Mints, Fig Newtons, Sky Bars, and hundreds of different boxed chocolates were stamped out in factories in East Cambridge, Kendall Square, and Area 4.

In 1847, Oliver R. Chase of Boston invented and patented the first American candy machine—a lozenge-cutter. Together with his brother Silas, he founded Chase and Company. Chase and Company created a variety of candies, including its popular thin, multicolored sugar wafers known as Chase lozenges. Another Chase brother, Daniel, invented a lozenge printing press in 1866, which allowed him to create “Conversation Candies.” These were instantly popular at birthdays, weddings, and other occasions and are still popular today on Valentine’s Day.

Chase and Company joined with two other candy manufacturers in 1901 to form the New England Confectionery Company, or Necco. By 1927, the booming candy company was again looking to expand, and moved to Cambridge, on Massachusetts Avenue near the Charles River and MIT. When it opened, this was the world’s largest factory \entirely devoted to candy manufacturing, and remained the home of Necco until 2003. The factory contained the most modern temperature-control and candy-manufacturing equipment of its era, making Necco a worldwide candy leader.

From this location, innovation continued for Necco as it became the first candy manufacturer in the country to introduce a molded chocolate bar with four distinctly different centers encased in a chocolate covering. This new candy, the Sky Bar, was introduced to the public through a skywriting campaign in 1938.

Necco continued to gain attention in the 1930s when Admiral Richard Byrd took two and a half tons of Necco wafers with him on a South Pole exploration. The following decade, during the Second World War the U.S. government requisitioned a major portion of the production of the wafers because they were “practically indestructible,” making them ideal to ship overseas to the troops.

Necco has grown from its small origins in Oliver Chase’s invention to incorporate many other candy companies throughout its 150-plus-year history. As recently as 2004, Necco obtained the license for Squirrel Nut Candies, another Cambridge favorite since 1914. One thing that has remained the same for Necco in Cambridge is the process of creating the famed Necco wafers. The ingredients, sugar, gelatin, and flavoring, are the same as they were in 1847, and much of the machinery used to mix, roll, and press the wafers uses pre-World War II technology. Workers still judge by hand the right number of wafers for the perfect roll, and Necco has no plans to mechanize this process.

Though the company moved to Revere in 2003, its 76-year tenure in Cambridge saw Necco became one of the leading candy-manufacturing companies in the world and a leader of candy innovation.

Gavin Kleespies is executive director of the Cambridge Historical Society.

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