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Local candy history proves city is ‘Sweet Home Chicago’

  • Written by Kelly White

leslie goddard photo 2-8

Photo by Kelly White

Green Hills Public Library offered the perfect program on Friday afternoon just in time for Valentine’s Day called “Chicago’s Sweet Candy History” offered by Leslie Goddard, historian and public speaker.

Patrons who visited the Green Hills Library on Friday afternoon learned that the Chicago area indeed has a sweet tooth.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, often the perfect gift encompasses some kind of delicious dessert or favorite candy. For residents who love candy, the staff at the Green Hills Public Library offered the perfect program just in time for the holiday called, “Chicago’s Sweet Candy History.”

The free program was offered by Leslie Goddard, historian and public speaker, and drew 50 people to the library, 10331 S. Interlochen Drive, Palos Hills.

Goddard has a Ph.D. in history and a master’s degree in museum studies. She first became interested in the Chicago candy industry while working at local history museums in the greater Chicago area, many of which were home to the city’s candy businesses or entrepreneurs.

“Candy tends to be seen as something frivolous and fun, so it’s easy to overlook it when you’re exploring a city’s industrial history,” Goddard said. “Chicago is often thought of in terms of its contributions to the meat-packing and grain and steel and railroad industries. Compared to those, candy feels like light history, and that’s too bad because candy was not only a huge business in Chicago, it also reveals a lot about the city’s history.”

The presentation served as a fun nostalgic look back at some of our favorite Valentine’s Day goodies. Many attendees were unaware that Snickers was named for the Mars’ family’s favorite horse or that the name Fannie May was made up to sound like someone’s grandmother.

“I think candy remains a popular Valentine's Day gift because almost everyone loves candy,” said Brittany Ramos, adult programming and graphics coordinator at the Green Hills Public Library.

Ramos was responsible for organizing the program and said the timing coinciding with the holiday was no coincidence.

“Our community seems to love learning about Chicago history, so I thought I would aim to share Chicago's rich candy history to go along with Valentine's Day,” Ramos said.

During the one-hour lecture, Goddard spoke about Chicago's rich candy history and what made Chicago such a powerful location for candy-makers.

“It was an especially appealing business for immigrants to enter, given the low cost of starting a candy business, and Chicago candy-makers pioneered a huge number of innovations in the candy business, from popularizing candy in a “bar” shape to marketing candy as a quick-energy food,” Goddard said.

Goddard's book, “Chicago's Sweet Candy History,” was published by Arcadia in 2012 and is available at the library.

“For most its history, Chicago produced one-third of the nation's candy,” Goddard said. “In the early 1960s, Chicago’s candy output was double that of the second-largest candy-producing city, which was New York.”

Some of the biggest names in the industry were based in Chicago: Curtiss, Branch, Tootsie Roll, Leaf, Wrigley and Mars.

Candies made or invented in Chicago reads like a who’s who of American candies, according to Goddard. These candies include, but are not limited to: Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Tootsie Rolls, Frango Mints, Fannie May candies, Wrigley’s gum, Cracker Jack, Whoppers, Brach’s candies, Willy Wonka, Dove, Ferrara, Cupid, DeMet’s Turtles, and Andes’ Mints.

Along with these giants were smaller, family-based companies with devoted followings, such as World’s Finest Chocolate and the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, maker of Red Hots and Jaw Breakers.

Not all of these were invented in Chicago and not all of them are still made in Chicago, but all were at one point made in the city, Goddard said.

“There are many, many more candies made in Chicago because there are so many smaller operations,” Goddard said. “These are often local, neighborhood candy stores selling the most fabulous homemade candies like Margie’s Candies and Terry’s Toffee in Chicago, and Dan’s Candies in Plainfield and Graham’s Chocolates in Geneva.”

At its peak, the Chicago candy industry created more than 100 companies, employing some 25,000 Chicagoans. Refreshments of coffee, cookies and candy samples were served at the library. Participants were also able to bring in brown bag lunches for the event.

Today, M&M’s are the top selling candy in the United States.

“It’s really hard to get anyone to eat any new candy other than their favorites,” Goddard said.