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In the early 20th century, Philly was considered the candy capital of the United States.
The industry had exploded in the city from just 20 small stores in the early 1800s to more than 130 shops, manufacturers, and distributors, according to a 1917 educational pamphlet from the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Their combined sales volume was more than $7 million, equivalent to around $200 million today.
It all started with the sugar trade. Philadelphia was one of the key ports in the exploitative commerce triangle of rum, enslaved people, and molasses. So like many U.S. industries, the sweets business grew because of benefits reaped from slavery.
Molasses became plentiful in Philly, and during the Industrial Revolution mechanized refineries sprung up all along the Delaware River. The newly-affordable refined sugar offered local entrepreneurs multiple opportunities for retail confection businesses.
Big names in the scene included Quaker City Chocolate, Laurent & Maron, Wilbur, and Whitman’s. Their prime products included “cream chocolates,” Jordan almonds and other decorative candies, which were distributed far and wide.
Introduced in 1842, the Whitman Sampler was the first to package assorted candies with a key that helped consumers determine which piece held which flavors. Casani Candy, considered the country’s first wholesale candy distributor, began operations in Philadelphia in 1865.
Two centuries later, several of those compare still around, including Casani, though it has since moved across the river to Pennsauken, N.J. 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 look at some of the most-recognizable candies hailing from the Philadelphia region.
Invented in 1883 by candy-maker Croft & Wilbur at 13th and Market streets, these chocolate nibs pre-dated Hershey’s Kisses. The Wilbur side of the company split off and eventually expanded to Lititz, Pa., in Lancaster County.
Cargill acquired Wilbur in 1992. The main Lititz plant was shut down in 2016, ending a century of candy-making there, and the factory was turned into a mixed-use retail and condo development. The town is still home to the Wilbur Americana Museum and an adjacent retail store.
Though no longer produced in Philadelphia, these variously-sized boxes of assorted chocolates were made in Philly from their inception in 1842 through the 1960s, when the brand was sold (it’s now owned by Russell Stover).
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, but the see-through window also was a built-in sales tool as the boxes sat on display.
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 but also co-opted for other holidays, these famous marshmallow creatures are 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.
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Mike and Ikes
Before Peeps, one of Just Born’s most popular products was these fruit-flavored chews, introduced in 1938. Not even the manufacturer is sure where the branding came from. There was a pre-World War I comic strip by Rube Goldberg called “Mike and Ike (They Look Alike),” and the name was also used by a popular Vaudville act. Another theory is the name was inspired by the nickname of then-General and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 2012, a marketing campaign made an appeal to younger generations by framing the duo as a couple who had broken up, with packages and marketing materials showing one or the other name scratched out.
In 1950, Just Born tried building on the success of Mike and Ike with a spicy cinnamon take on the pill-size gummies.
The company claims the brand is still the number one chewy cinnamon candy in the country to this day. (Not exactly a crowded market, but it’s something.)
Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy
Fifth-generation owner of this Atlantic City taffy-maker Frank Glaser traces his 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 branched back into chocolate with the purchase of Bayard’s Chocolate House in Cinnaminson, NJ.
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.
Hershey’s Kisses (and more)
Although its varied products are now produced all over the country (and hemisphere), this world-famous brand began in Lancaster County. Milton Hershey had a caramel company in Lancaster, 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.
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.