Stay Tuned/Land Of Lost Confections

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Land Of Lost Confections
11 January 1998

In the early evenings, when it has already gotten dark in the New England winter, I walk a good deal of the way home from work, taking my exercise. I frequently walk a considerable distance down the Cambridge portion of Massachusetts Avenue, the closest thing the greater Boston area has to a main drag. After crossing the Charles and passing MIT, the next major landmark before reaching Central Square is the thirties-architecture factory of the New England Confectionery Company, smokestacks sending out clouds of wispy grape-, peppermint-, or chocolate-scented smoke.

I have not, to the best of my recollection, had occasion to walk down that section of the road when the enormous front door of the factory is unlocked and open for business. I am still not sure where the trucks pull behind it for loading and unloading, where the employees park, et cetera. All I see is the imposing front door, leading to a series of darkened front windows, and closed off behind an iron gate. Yet the factory appears to be running in the darkness, spewing clouds of candy smells.

I hope I may be excused, having read and seen the Willy Wonka story a few too many times, if I indulge upon occasion in the idea that the factory churns on without workers, or that perhaps there is a mysterious race of workers occupying and living in the place, never seen by the outside world. After all, there must be other factories like this one which gave Roald Dahl his inspiration.

When my brain turns down those avenues, I generally also end up pondering this wistful riddle: How does the New England Confectionery Co. survive? And how long can they continue to do so?

You have heard of them, but you don't realize it. Very few people will connect the New England Confectionery Co. with either their most famous product or their most profitable one. Let alone any of the other candies they make, none of which I have ever seen outside the Boston area.

Their most famous product is the NECCO Wafer, the name of which is taken from the initials of the company (and which is stamped on every wafer). Their most profitable product is the little stamped-out Valentine's candy hearts with the messages printed on them, which no one realizes they make.

And then we get really esoteric: Canada Mints, the peppermint or wintergreen lozenges (also stamped out) that have so many clones the brand has lost its identity; Candy Kitchen assorted chocolates, which I assumed were dead but have recently begun reappearing in my grocery store; and the bizarre Sky Bar, a chocolate bar with little compartments containing four different flavors of filling. If there are others (and there probably are), I have never seen any.

What keeps these people alive?

Sure, there are candies which people will go to great lengths to obtain. Squirrel Candy Company, also in Cambridge, apparently gets most of its limited business these days from individuals who now purchase the candies directly from the maker; no stores carry them that I know of. One wonders whether this will change, now that they are receiving all the promotion from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the band who borrowed - with their permission - the name of their best known candy. (The recent Squirrel Nut Zippers live album, "Sold Out," has some exceedingly old Squirrel Brand radio ads on it, which the candy company apparently donated to the cause.)

Similarly, the Standard Candy Company of Tennessee (makers of Goo Goo Clusters and King Leo peppermint sticks, neither of which you've heard of if you live north of Richmond or west of Tulsa), apparently does a booming business in mail-order, especially to displaced Southerners. So does the Chattanooga Bakery, makers of Moon Pies (accept no substitutes).

But the Squirrel company is a very small concern, able to survive on a shoestring; and the other companies mentioned all do continue to ring up suitably large retail sales figures in limited areas. New England Confectionery is caught somewhere in between. And who, after all, is fanatic about NECCO Wafers?

I don't know why I'm writing all this down. It's no more or less a mystery than other small regional brands all over the country, some of which sell only in a single town, let alone a single state.

I suppose it's walking past that factory every day, seeing it working-yet-abandoned, its facade looking permanently frozen in time, that makes me wonder. The New England Confectionery Co. is an anachronism. How long can it survive?


[February 2007:] I am happy to report that the company survives to this day - the oldest extant multi-line candy company in the US. In addition to the candies specifically mentioned, they seem to have made a trade of adopting other orphan candies - Mary Janes, the Haviland line, the Clark bar, and ... Squirrel candies. The Squirrel company, probably unable to pay Cambridge rents, moved to Texas; and in 2004 NECCO bought a license to manufacture them again in New England. Aw.

I am sad to report that those same Cambridge rents, combined with aging facilities, made the continued ownership of prime real estate on Mass. Ave. impractical, and in 2003 the company moved out to a spanking-new facility in Revere, MA. The venerable NECCO building is now owned by Novartis and houses biotech offices and laboratories, as far as I can tell.

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