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Home Sweet Brooklyn

By Anna Schwartz

Posted on October 1, 2020

[Candy Dept., A. I. Namm & Son Department Store], 1898, V1972.1.749 ; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Halloween is still four weeks away, but store shelves are already stocked with candy for eager trick-or-treaters. Most of the candy is manufactured out of state, but a hundred years ago Brooklyn had a thriving candy industry.

In the mid nineteenth and early twentieth century, Brooklyn was one of the largest confectionery and chocolate manufacturing centers in the United States. By 1908, local factories produced 130,000,000 pounds of candy a year. Dozens of companies including chocolatier giant Rockwood & Company, the National Licorice Company, and Mason, Au & Magenheimer Confectioner Mfg. Co. churned out an assortment of sweets–gumdrops, licorice buttons, chocolate dainties, mint patties, and mixed creams–for a growing and broad customer base.

Most of Brooklyn’s confectionery factories were concentrated in Williamsburg and Wallabout. Women and young girls made up a substantial portion of the labor force. They were often tasked with dipping, wrapping, packing, and shipping the sweets while their male counterparts operated the machinery. This 1918 advertisement from Wallace & Co. targeted “girls over 16” and “women under 60” by promising steady work, good pay, and pleasant and cheerful surroundings. The ad, however, belies a dark side to Brooklyn’s sweet past.

Despite new employment opportunities, many workers toiled in poor and dangerous working conditions. The coal furnaces and flammable raw materials made confectionery factories particularly vulnerable to fires. In 1915, a large fire broke out in the Diamond Candy Company factory, killing over twenty employees. The owners Edward and Celia Diamond had neglected to fireproof hallways and install automatic sprinklers despite repeated orders from the State Department of Labor.

Perhaps the most infamous confectionery fire occurred in 1919 at the Rockwood & Company factory near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Luckily, no one was injured. For hours the streets ran dark with chocolate. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, children from all over the borough descended upon the sugar crusted streets and left only when satiated and chocolate gorged.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward inviting you back to BHS is the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our digital collections, available here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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