Halloween is still four weeks away, but store shelves are already stocked with candy for eager trick-or-treaters. While today most of the candy is manufactured outside of New York, 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.
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