The Rise and Fall of the City’s Candy Empire
A hundred years ago, Cambridge smelled bad. Meatpacking in East Cambridge gave off an obvious stench, while the soapmaking factories—then part of the city’s largest industry—emitted their own terrible smell.
But if you walked down Main Street, you might have gotten a whiff of candy.
Nicknamed “Confectioner’s Row,” Main Street in Kendall Square was the beating heart of Cambridge’s candy-making empire. Where tech and pharmaceutical companies now dominate, once Charleston Chews, Junior Mints, and Fig Newtons shaped Cambridge’s identity.
Greater Boston was well set up for a candy boom. With its location on the water, the area had access to sugar and molasses through triangular trade—and therefore, of course, also implicated itself in the slavery that was the backbone of the trading route.
The country’s first chocolate mill opened in Dorchester in 1765, according to the Cambridge Historical Society, and a sugar refinery in Cambridge followed suit in 1871. The Boston area pioneered crucial technological advancements, as well—the lozenge cutter, the first candy-making machine, was invented here in 1847, according to the historical society.
The lozenge cutter, the ready availability of candy ingredients, and expanding railroads paved the way for independent candy-making companies. While many got their start in Boston, most moved their factories to Cambridge because the land was cheaper.
The area’s climate made it an ideal spot for candy-making in a time before air conditioning. Companies manufactured candy 10 months a year, halting only in July and August, according to Jeremy Spindler, owner of Spindler Confections and an amateur historian.
A seemingly unrelated law might have contributed to the candy boom as well, Cambridge Historical Commission Archivist Emily Gonzalez proposes. Alcohol was illegal in the city from 1886 until the 1930s, she says, and ingredients like molasses that could’ve made rum might’ve been earmarked for candy instead.
And there’s a link between giving up alcohol and craving sweets, according to Psychology Today. “Candy kind of took over in terms of a vice, perhaps,” Gonzalez theorizes.
Candy making swelled in Cambridge between the 1850s and the 1950s. The peak was in 1947, when the city was home to 66 candy manufacturing companies, according to the historical society. Candy-making was the city’s second-largest industry, Gonzalez says, and many immigrants worked in the factories.
“In 1957, I worked at NECCO’s,” Cambridge resident Bea Harvey says in “Crossroads: Stories of Central Square,” a book compiled by the historical commission’s former oral historian, Sarah Boyer. “I packed the Rollos [sic]. They came down the chute, and we’d put ten in a package, tchoo, tchoo, tchoo. Our hands had to be quick.”
Cambridge’s candy industry started to decline in the second half of the 20th century as giant national companies—specifically Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle?—put independent manufacturers out of business. Companies that were more centrally located could distribute widely, and a move to corn syrup deemphasized Cambridge’s access to sugar.
But Cambridge’s candy factories weren’t left empty. Biomedical research company Novartis took over the NECCO building on Massachusetts Avenue, removing sugar spores from the walls and turning the factory into a laboratory. MIT nabbed the former Daggett Chocolate building. Whereas once people might have thought “candy” when they thought of Cambridge, now they think “technology.”
“It was really an industry town, there was a lot of innovation. This was the place to be, and it still is that,” Gonzalez says. “I have seen comparisons, like ‘From NECCO to Novartis,’ that change.”
The candy boom differs from the plethora of technology and pharmaceutical companies, though, members of the historical commission contend. The companies were local, almost like the proliferating craft breweries, Gonzalez suggests, and they employed working class people.
“To me, it seems unique,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t think we’ll see anything like this again.”
Candy Making Today
NECCO Goes Bankrupt
NECCO (New England Confectionary Co.) once ran the world’s biggest candy factory in Cambridge, according to the Cambridge Historical Society. The company, best known for its NECCO Wafers and Sky Bars, moved to Revere in 2004 and recently filed for bankruptcy, the Boston Globe reports.
NECCO is the country’s longest continuously operating candy company, according to the historical society. It got the rights to produce Daggett Chocolate’s recipes, and others’, after the companies closed. The historical society says this collection makes NECCO “somewhat of a retro candy empire.”
Biomedical research company Novartis took over NECCO’s Cambridge building after the company’s move to Revere. Transforming the factory into a lab cost $175 million and involved cleaning off “sugar spores in the pores of the walls and sticky residue from the floors,” according to the historical society.
The Last Cambridge Candy Factory
Cambridge’s last operating candy factory is shrouded in mystery. Most people don’t know about the factory at 810 Main St. that produces over 15 million Junior Mints every day.
The James O. Welch Company founded the factory in 1927, according to the historical society. The company, best known for its Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, Sugar Mamas, and Sugar Babies, changed hands several times in the second half of the 20th century before ending up with Tootsie Roll Industries in 1993.
Candy companies “are notoriously secretive, like something out of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’” the historical society writes on its website. Candy companies often fear that others will steal their recipes.
A representative from the factory declined Scout’s request for an interview.
The factory is the last remnant of Cambridge’s 20th century candy empire. Cambridge Historical Commission Assistant Director Kit Rawlins points out that when you walk by the factory, sometimes you can smell a hint of the furtive candy making inside.
Spindler Carries on the Candy Making Spirit
Jeremy Spindler didn’t know he was going to become a professional candy maker. He loved making sweets with his mom as a kid, but moved from Indiana to the Boston area to study music theory.
Coming from the midwest, Spindler was impressed by the amount of American history that’s deeply rooted here. He and his husband became “amateur history buffs,” and after they’d started their business, they dove into Cambridge’s candy-making past.
Spindler has a “candy museum” in the shop—relics of Boston and Cambridge’s sweet histories adorn the walls of the store, pressing against Spindler’s own creations. Spindler and his husband scour eBay and antique fairs to build their collection. Artistic chocolate boxes, poster advertisements, and vintage jars of vanilla extract form the backdrop of Spindler’s shop.
Candy making in Cambridge today is entirely different from what it was in the 20th century. Independent manufacturers have foundered, and the major, national conglomerates eat up the mass market.
But in Cambridge, there’s still an appetite for locally made candy that echoes the days when independent companies proliferated.
“It’s a pretty different world, but still, it feels like we’re bringing back a little bit of that history, on a much smaller scale that fits the market today,” Spindler says. “We’re able to survive because there’s a turn away from a lot of mass producers, big factories, artificial flavorings, colorings, ingredients you can’t pronounce. So with this turn back to small producers and supporting locally, it helps businesses like mine and a lot of other smaller businesses to be able to thrive in this area.”