Contributed by Emma Lavoie
Nearly $345 million dollars is spent on chocolate for Valentine’s Day each year – that’s about 58 million pounds of chocolate! Holy cacao! Chocolate candy plays such a significant role for this romantic holiday, but did you ever think those very boxes would be used to store artifacts? Currently, I am cataloguing and rehousing artifacts from Tamaulipas, Mexico – a collection from Richard “Scotty” MacNeish’s 1948-1949 Tamaulipas Project. About halfway through the collection I found a sweet surprise – an old chocolate box from Cambridge, MA!
In the Inventory and Rehousing Project, it is common to come across artifacts stored in their original housing material from archaeological recovery in the field. Many of these materials are unique and there is always something new to find! Examples of some of these materials can be found here in an earlier article by Peabody Director, Ryan Wheeler. Like Forrest Gump would say about life being a box of chocolates (pun intended here), the same goes for the Peabody collection – you never know what you’re going to get!
Alongside the chocolate box, I also found a holiday gift box and a greeting card box with artifact information and excavation notes written on the outside cover. The chocolate box was the most intriguing to me, because the product and box were from Massachusetts. Upon looking up the company name on the box, “Handspun Chocolate Co, Cambridge, MA,” I came across Boston’s rich history of chocolate production.
New England candy was king of the American confectionary industry from colonial times through to the 1950s. In 1764, two men from Dorchester, MA named John Hannon and Dr. James Baker began importing cacao beans into the United States and producing chocolate in Dorchester Lower Mills. These two men were the chocolate meisters of Revolutionary America and are known today as the oldest producers of chocolate in the United States. In 1779, John Hannon had traveled to the West Indies and never returned. As a result, Dr. James Baker became the “King of Cocoa” with the Baker Chocolate Company.
As sugar refineries began to pop up throughout New England, the candy industry reached a new height with Oliver R. Chase’s machine invention of a chalk-like candy, known today as Necco wafers. White chocolate was later created by Frederick Herbert of Hebert Candies in Shrewsbury, MA. Another local creation occurred in 1930 at the Toll House Inn in Whiteman, MA. An accidental invention, Ruth Wakefield added cut up pieces of a semisweet, chocolate bar, in hopes of melting the chocolate into the dough of her baked cookies. The chocolate kept its shape and just like that – the chocolate chip cookie was born! (Fun Fact: The chocolate chip cookie is the official cookie of the State of Massachusetts.) Nestle began selling chocolate chips in 1939.
By the 1940s, candy companies began consolidating into two large companies – Daggett Chocolates and New England Confectionary Company (NECCO). The latter still survives today, but is no longer locally owned. As of 2018, NECCO was the oldest operating candy company, celebrating 153 years of their most popular “sweethearts” candy. However, by July 2018, the company closed and announced their plans to sell everything to the Spangler Candy Company in the fall. Spangler Candy produces Dum Dum lollipops, Necco Wafers, and Circus Peanuts. In 2019, Spangler announced it would not be producing conversation hearts, as there was not enough time to meet the demand of sweethearts for Valentine’s Day. Typically it took NECCO 11 months to produce 8 billion sweethearts just to be sold for 6 weeks out of the year for Valentine’s Day. Although they were gone for 2019, the sweethearts are back for Valentine’s Day 2020! They are in limited supply at select retailers and – believe it or not – many are missing their signature sayings due to equipment printing problems!
The Daggett Chocolate Company is the lesser known of the two candy companies. Fred L. Daggett began his business in 1892 with several factories located around the city of Boston. Daggett later concentrated his production plant in Cambridge in 1925. Daggett Chocolates produced more than 40 brands of chocolate as well as strawberry fillings for their chocolates. The company also made an impact in the soda and ice cream industries, supplying syrups and crushed fruit to manufacturers. As a result, ice cream and candy were connected and Boston became the first place to mix candy into ice cream.
Looking back at the chocolate box I had found in the Peabody collection, I had searched the company name and found that the company was bought out by Daggett Chocolates along with 30 other small chocolate companies by the 1950s.
The sugar industry reached its peak in the 1950s. By this time, the Boston metro area boasted over 140 confectionaries and factories, with the main street of Cambridge, MA as the epicenter for production – known as “Confectioners Row.” Some of our favorite candy treats including Necco wafers and sweethearts, Sugar Daddies, Charleston Chews, and Junior Mints were produced on this very street. For over a century, the smell of chocolate could be found along the streets of Boston. Chocolate was in the air – literally.
After the 1950s, the candy industry in Boston took a turn. As more candy companies such as Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars took to the world stage, smaller brands were left behind. The box chocolate dynasty was reaching an end as candy bars began to take over store shelves. The candy epicenter soon waned and Confectioner’s Row became an ordinary main street. Box chocolate giant, Schrafft’s also closed in Charlestown, MA (that’s right, the building you can see from I-93 entering Boston, bearing the Schrafft’s name in red along with a clock tower, was in fact an old chocolate factory.)
Although Boston is no longer candy land today, you can still find candy makers throughout New England sharing their old-fashioned homemade treats and iconic candy classics. One candy store still in operation today is the Spindler Confections shop in North Cambridge, MA. This shop continues to hand make all of their candy and chocolate on site. They even have a candy museum! Check it out here! As for my sweet find in the Peabody collection – how could a box of chocolates send me down a rabbit hole of Boston’s sweet-toothed past? I was surprised that a simple (and chocolate-less), chocolate box could do so much.