With Chicago-area unemployment stubbornly higher than the national average, the fabled City That Works isn't exactly living up to its name these days.
But once upon a time, the Chicago candy industry was an economic powerhouse. At its height in the mid-20th century, the Chicago candy industry included more than 100 manufacturers, employing more than 25,000 people and producing a third of all the candy in the United States.
"Every time you go to a candy counter and purchase a bar with one of the well-known wrappers, you help prove that the mighty brand name is still an American institution," raved Tribune reporter Joseph Egelhof with typical postwar gusto in 1951. "Chicago's confectionery business, the world's largest, has a prize collection of these multimillion dollar labels."
But why Chicago?
"People often mention Chicago's location in the middle of the country, plus its access to rail transport and agricultural goods as the chief reasons why it became a candy giant," said Leslie Goddard, Evanston-based author of "Chicago's Sweet Candy Industry," in a recent interview.
"But just as important was Chicago's large immigrant population. There was plenty of cheap labor available."
Not just cheap but experienced. Many of those immigrants hailed from countries with strong candymaking heritages, like Germany and Italy. Many of the top Chicago firms grew out of mom and pop shops.
The delectable candies and the industry titans who made them are the stuff of Chicago legend. F.W. Rueckheim and his brother Louis created a caramel popcorn confection in 1896, christened when one of their salesmen tasted it and said, "That's a crackerjack!"
William Wrigley got into the chewing-gum business when he discovered it was more profitable than selling baking powder and soap. Frank Mars allowed his wife to choose the brand name for his company's soon-to-be-famous malted-milk bar, the Milky Way — and the fact both the Milky Way and the Mars family name referenced astronomical objects was just a "celestial coincidence," the Tribune reported.
Emil Brach was the king of penny candies like lemon drops and caramels. George Williamson of Williamson Candy Co. named the Oh Henry! — the most popular candy bar sold in the region in the late Teens — after an electrician who frequented his store and flirted with the female candymakers.
But mostly forgotten now — and yet famous in his time — was Otto Schnering, owner of the Curtiss Candy Co. and producer of the Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars.
A University of Chicago graduate and former piano salesman, Schnering had a larger-than-life personality and a knack for clever marketing.
When the Baby Ruth bar launched in the early 1920s, it supposedly was named not after the famous baseball player but for President Grover Cleveland's daughter Ruth, who died at age 12. Schnering claimed he named his new chocolate-peanut confection in the girl's honor after her father visited Curtiss' Chicago plant. But that story always raised eyebrows, considering the child had died 17 years earlier and Cleveland had been out of office for decades.
"The Ruth Cleveland story is indeed the one that Schnering and most official Curtiss statements gave" about the Baby Ruth, Goddard said. "But historians today dispute that and believe the Ruth Cleveland story was a way to capitalize on the baseball player's popularity without paying him royalties."
Schnering developed the Baby Ruth to compete with the Oh Henry! bar, which sold for 10 cents. Schnering decided to sell a similar bar for 5 cents, hiring legendary Chicago ad man Eddy S. Brandt to market the Baby Ruth under the slogan "Everything you want for a nickel."
The catchy slogan, cheaper price and other innovative marketing tactics like sponsoring circuses, hot air balloons, and even airplane barnstorming shows with the Baby Ruth moniker rocketed the bar to the top sales spot in Chicago.
Curtiss Candy became a major player in the emerging national candy-brand biz, launching other bars, like the peanut-butter crunch Butterfinger, along with now-vanished confections like the Dip (a chocolate-covered soft nougat bar, similar to today's Three Musketeers), the Buy Jiminy (a peanut bar similar to today's PayDay) and the Jolly Jack (yet another peanut-and-chocolate bar).
Schnering diversified his business into champion cattle breeding and poultry raising on farms he owned in Cary, Marengo, Arlington Heights and elsewhere, using the resulting eggs and milk in his candymaking and selling his famed "Curtiss chickens" to premier Chicago-area restaurants, according to a 2001 Tribune article on the history of the Cary farm.
And unlike many industrialists of his day, Schnering allowed the thousands of workers in his factories to share in his immense success.
"He went to four six-hour shifts per day at the height of the Great Depression to help keep more people employed," Goddard said. "He brought families out to his Cary, Ill., farm for picnics and parties. The company had employee bowling leagues, softball leagues. It was a family feeling that was real."
Schnering named Curtiss Candy after his mother's side of the family, a decision that may have also recognized the anti-German sentiment during World War I. Schnering's devotion to his mother was legendary. When she died in April 1944, he closed the company offices for a day in her honor and announced the closing with a large, somber ad in the Tribune.
Tribune reports from Curtiss' heyday also reflected Schnering's generosity with his workers. When the federal government mandated national wage increases in 1933 to battle the Depression, about 6,000 of Schnering's workers were affected. But when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1935, Schnering kept paying the higher wages.
Otto Schnering died of a heart attack in 1953. Although his widow, Dorothy, and his sons Robert and Philip helped run the company for a while, it was eventually bought out by Standard Brands (later part of Nabisco, and then Nestle) in 1964 during a time of economic upheaval for the candy industry.
But the Chicago Candy King's stamp still can be found today. The offices and outbuildings for Schnering's cattle breeding operations in Cary still stand, though remodeled as the community's Village Hall, senior center and police station. And the rotating Baby Ruth/Butterfinger sign by the still-operational former Curtiss plant in Franklin Park (now owned and operated by Nestle) is familiar to I-294 commuters — showing that while some tastes may change, these two old-time confections remain timeless.
Editor's note: Thanks to James FioRito, of Naperville, for suggesting this Flashback.