Back in 1917, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce distributed an “educational pamphlet” that noted the candy-making industry in the city had exploded from just 20 small stores in the early 1800s to more than 130 a century later, with a combined volume of more than $7 million (equivalent to around $175 million today).
It all started with the sugar trade, with Philadelphia being one of the key ports in the relatively unsavory triangle swap of rum, slaves and molasses. During the Industrial Revolution, mechanized refineries sprung up all along the Delaware, and the newly-affordable refined sugar offered plucky entrepreneurs opportunities for retail confections businesses. Big names in the Philly scene included Quaker City Chocolate, Laurent & Maron, Wilbur and Whitman’s, all of which began producing “cream chocolates,” Jordan almonds and other decorative candies that were distributed far and wide. The nation’s first wholesale candy distributor, Casani Candy, began operations here in 1865.
Fast forward 150 years: Several of those businesses are still around, including Casani (though it has since moved across the river to Pennsauken, NJ), and a surprising number of sweets are still manufactured within the city limits. Many more are made nearby, even if the original families that started the companies have since been bought out by larger corporations. Here’s a list of some of the most-recognizable.
Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews
These miniature bars of chocolate-covered peanuts and molasses have been made in Northeast Philadelphia since 1917. Originally developed as rations for soldiers’ in World War I, they were first sold to the general public in 1921. A few years after Bethlehem-based Just Born bought the brand and plant in 2003, the company updated the packaging, but sales slumped. In 2011, it reintroduced the retro brand with the Goldenberg name featured front and center, pleasing legions of fans and reinvigorating sales throughout the region.
Most-popular at Easter, spookier versions of these famous marshmallow creatures are also likely to pop up at Philly-area Halloween happenings, since they’re also made by Bethlehem’s Just Born. They have been ever since 1953, when Sam Born (yup, it’s his actual name) bought Rodda Candy of Lancaster. Sam’s son Bob mechanized the Peep-making process, paving the way for their global popularity.
Mike and Ikes
Before Peeps, one of Just Born’s most popular products was these fruit-flavored chews. Not even the manufacturer is sure where the name came from — it may have been named after then-General (and future President) Dwight D. Eisenhower, but it also could have been taken from a popular Vaudeville act or radio song. In 2012, a marketing campaign made an appeal to younger generations by framing the duo as a gay couple who had broken up, with packages showing one or the other name scratched out (as is likely with Kermit and Miss Piggy, the pair eventually “got back together”).
Just Born built on the success of Mike and Ike with this spicy cinnamon take on the pill-size gummies in 1950, and the company claims the brand is still the number one chewy cinnamon candy in the country to this day.
Were Hershey’s Kisses a knock-off of these Philadelphia-born chocolate nibs? Either way, they came first, invented in 1883 by candy-maker Craft & Wilbur at 13th and Market streets. The Wilbur side of the company split off and eventually expanded to Lititz, Pa., where manufacturing continues to this day. Parent company Cargill (which acquired Wilbur in 1992) recently announced it would be closing the main Lititz plant, though it will open a smaller, more modern facility there and also keep open the Wilbur Americana Museum and Candy Store.
Established in Philadelphia in 1892 by a Canadian immigrant named Chester Asher, this company has been run by the same family ever since, making it the oldest such candy manufacturer to be able to make such a claim. Production stayed in Philly proper for over a century, until a new, larger facility was built in nearby Souderton in the late 1990s. Halloween best-sellers include molded chocolate lollipops in pumpkin, bat and ghost shapes, as well as orange-colored nonpareils and seasonally-striped chocolate-covered pretzels.
Frankford Gummy Bugs & Body Parts
Founded in South Philadelphia in 1947, Frankford Candy moved its seasonal confections production to Northeast Philly around a decade ago. In 2000, fourth-generation owner Stewart Selarnick became the first candy-maker to fully embrace brand licensing, and his company now produces several other sweets you might find in trick-or-treat bags, including Welch’s licorice, SpongeBob lollipops, Avengers lollipops and Hello Kitty candy necklaces.
Plumpkin Pals, Creepy Peppers and Monster Munny
Founded in 1948 in the Berks County town of Sinking Spring as a company devoted solely to producing Easter candies, R.M. Palmer has since moved production to Reading and expanded its seasonal lines to include other holidays, especially Halloween. Most of its confections are labeled “chocolate flavored,” since they are made more shelf-stable by using less cocoa butter than the FDA requires to call them actual “chocolate.” Additional R.M. Palmer brands include Double Crisp Skulls and new Yoo-hoo candy bars.
Known more for its Christmas treats than Halloween candies, this company has been producing confections in Telford, Pa. (around an hour northwest of Philly) since 1934. Often sold in round tins, favorites include candy-covered Chocolate Straws, Candy Pickles, Golden Crunchies and Walnut Chips.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1967, this local chocolatier was bought in 1986 by the Walter family, who already had plenty of candy-making experience: Tony Walter Sr. had worked at both Plantation Candies and Goldenberg’s. In fact, the company’s current manufacturing plant is at the location of the original Peanut Chew factory, although it does make some treats at its Center City store. Best-sellers include chocolate-covered pretzels, marshmallows, caramels and buttercreams — although you’re more likely to see them around Easter or Christmas than Halloween.
Though no longer produced here, these variously-sized boxes of assorted chocolates were made in Philly from their inception in 1842 all the way through the 1960s, when the brand was sold (it’s now owned by Russell Stover). They’re worth noting because the Samplers represent more Philadelphia firsts to add to our long list. Stephen Whitman’s big innovations were to pack assorted candies in boxes along with a key telling consumers which piece was which, and to use cellophane to wrap the boxes. The novel material not only kept its contents fresh, the see-through window also was a built-in sales tool as the boxes sat on display.
Like the more-famous Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups but with a gooey marshmallow center, these candies were invented by Altoona, Pa. resident Emily Boyer in 1936. By the 1940s, her sons had formed a company called Boyer Brothers, who began manufacturing them at a commercial level. Though the company was sold in 1969 to the Forgione family, the candies are still made in the same Altoona facility.
Although its varied products are now produced all over the country (and hemisphere), this world-famous brand’s home is actually closer to Philly than Mallo’s Altoona. Milton Hershey had a caramel company in Lancaster, Pa., and in 1894 he branched out into chocolate production. Early adoption of mass production led to huge success, and in 1906, the town where his plants were located — called Derry Church — changed its name to Hershey, Pa. In 1963, Hershey brought the Reese Company, and it’s now the producer of dozens of America’s top-selling candies.
Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy
Fifth-generation owner of this Atlantic City taffy-maker Frank Glaser traces his candy heritage back to his great-grandfather, who immigrated to Philadelphia in the late 1800s and started a confections and chocolate outfit called Dairy Maid. That company no longer exists, but the family bought Fralinger’s in 1947 and continues production at its original Jersey Shore location. It also recently branched back into chocolate with the purchase of Bayard’s Chocolate House in Cinnaminson, NJ.
John & Kira’s
Trick-or-treaters in well-to-do neighborhoods might be lucky enough to get this gourmet local treats dropped in their bags. Founded in 2002 by husband-and-wife team John Doyle and Kira Baker-Doyle, this Philadelphia-based outfit produces confections that are as beautiful to look at as they are to eat. Best-known for their chocolate “bees,” the company also makes caramel-spice chocolate pumpkins perfect for fall.