An Indestructible Product
“THIS USED TO BE THE CANDY CAPITAL OF THE world,” says Walter J. Marshall, looking out from his top-floor office at the New England Confectionery Company, two blocks and a whole world away from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We started it all in 1847; Schrafft came in in 1861, and then Fanny Farmer and all the others. Now there’s just us and Tootsie Roll Industries. It all migrated to the Midwest.
“We built this building in 1927, and it’s a mausoleum. Look at those century-old walnut filing cabinets. Look at that doorknob.” The brass doorknob has the words NECCO SWEETS scrolled across the middle, with a florid TRADE above and MARK below. But the oldest thing of all here is New England Confectionery’s flagship product, the Necco Wafer. In fact, it’s the oldest product in America, remaining basically unchanged since Oliver B. Chase emigrated from England and invented a hand-cranked machine to cut out candies in 1847.
“We make four and a half billion Necco Wafers a year, and we make them on the equipment we brought with us when we moved here in 1927,” Marshall, Necco’s vice president for corporate logistics, says. At one end of the room where they’re manufactured, sugar pours down through overhead funnels to be pulverized in four outsized mixers. “Those are from before World War I,” he says matter-of-factly. “But what you really want to see is the wafer cutters. They’re the heart of the operation.”
The wafer cutters, four of them, are about fifteen feet long and four feet high. A man standing at the head of one of them reaches toward a box of what appear to be giant lumps of riotously colored Play-Doh. He lifts a pink one onto the machine. The wad of corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, flavoring, and coloring is pressed through antique rollers and under a bar with an ornate iron top that stamps down 212 times a minute, pressing out sixty-four wafers with each stamp and simultaneously embossing them with the word Necco .
“These machines could be about turn-of-the-century,” Marshall says. “We don’t even know. But nothing’s changed except that we get better speed since we replaced the belt drives with motors and electronic controls. Still, they don’t break. We really lose time only when we change over from wafers to Conversation Hearts. Oliver Chase’s brother invented them in the 186Os.” Necco Sweet Talk Tiny Conversation Hearts are those minute candies inscribed with LUV YA and HUG ME that appear around Valentine’s Day.
Necco Wafers slide out of the machine like masses of pastel twenty-five-cent pieces and travel down conveyor belts and into long metal drying tunnels. Then they pour into boxes stacked on iron-wheeled dollies made sometime before the Great War.
“Let me show you our state-of-the art tubing system,” Marshall says. “That’s the next stage: setting the wafers up to be wrapped.” Each tubing machine consists of a table top of what appear to be coin trays, with a conveyor leading off along one end. Two women face each other across the machine. As Necco Wafers shoot down into the trays, the women grab about forty at a time, like a stack of poker chips, and stick them on the conveyor, then add or subtract a few for a perfect roll’s worth. It’s fast, repetitive work. The conveyor moves the wafers off to be wrapped.
“Nobody can come up with a better technology than those two women,” Marshall says. “More engineers than you could shake a stick at have tried. This is the cutting edge.”
My tour of the factory continues to the Bolster Bar department, where two cooks wrap a yard-long gob of hot honeycomb candy around a heap of peanut filling and knead it like dough; the candy-button room, where two machines from around 1920 drip seven million individual buttons a day; and the chocolate-boxing department, where I see what Marshall calls “Henry Ford’s assembly line”: a row of women sitting before a conveyor, each adding one or two chocolates to every Candy Cupboard box that rolls by.
My mind keeps going back to the product that started it all. What made and kept it so popular?
“Well,” Marshall says, “a whole roll takes forty-five minutes to eat. Try making a candy bar last that long.”
And how long do they last on the shelf?
He pauses. “I don’t know if anyone knows. Maybe five years. What I can tell you is that not only have they been used for poker chips, for practice before a first communion, and for bull’s-eyes at target ranges, but Admiral Byrd took two thousand pounds of them to the South Pole with him.”
“Because they’re pure energy, and they’re just about indestructible.”