By Sharon Oliver, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – Penny candies were the norm dating as far back as the Great Depression and the mere mention of some of these sweet delights can automatically put bright smiles on faces. New England Confectionery Company (Necco), the confectionary company behind the re-introduction to such low-budget treats like those peanut butter and molasses taffy Mary Janes and Squirrel Nut Zippers opened its doors near Boston in 1847.
The company is noted for producing America’s first candy, Necco Wafers, which were originally called Hub Wafers. Over time, Necco purchased the Stark Candy Company (makers of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts); the Candy House Button Company (makers of Candy Buttons); Clark Bar America, the makers of the chocolate-covered peanut butter crunch known as the Clark Bar and other brands.
Necco began as a pharmacist’s trade. During the 1800s, pharmacists often mixed prescription drugs into a liquid cocktail or pressed them, often by hand, into a lozenge which had a high content of sugar to mask the bitter taste. Necco was founded in 1847 by 26-year-old Boston druggist Oliver R. Chase and his brother Silas after Oliver invented a small machine that automated the pressing and cutting process to help keep up with the demand.
By 1899, the U.S. government started making soldier’s rations to increase caloric intake and improve morale during wartime. Necco Wafers were shipped to battlefields during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Wrapped in wax paper, original wafer flavors include chocolate (brown), lime (green), cinnamon (white), clove (light purple), orange (orange), licorice (grey), lemon (yellow) and wintergreen (pink). In 1917, the U.S. government bought an entire year’s production of Necco Wafers for military men. Not only did consumers enjoy the candies, but the hardy snack was also not ruined by heat or cold and had a two-year shelf life.
Expansion of product line
In honor of the burgeoning aviation industry, Necco introduced the Sky Bar (the first chocolate candy bar to include four different fillings) in the 1930s. Aside from its famous Necco Wafers, the company’s line of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts were another favorite, particularly around Valentine’s Day.
Necco was also one of the first American companies to provide life insurance for its employees and required no medical or physical exam. Coverage started at $500 and after three months of employment, it went up $100 every year to $1000. By the middle of the 20th century, most of Boston’s candy companies had merged, closed or left town with some moving to Pennsylvania to take advantage of better tax rates.
For over 75 years Necco had a factory in Cambridge, which now is leased by the pharmaceutical firm Novartis. Pedestrians and motorists alike for decades could smell the sweet scent of Necco Wafers being made as they passed the Massachusetts Avenue factory. In 2003, Necco operations were consolidated to its Revere facility.
Decline and rebirth
In 2018, the factory in Revere which made Necco Wafers abruptly closed. Necco was sold for $17.33 million to Round Hill Investments, LLC. Eventually Round Hill went into a bankruptcy auction, with Spangler Candy Company being the winning bidder. However, production of the iconic wafers remained on hiatus until May 2020. Spangler Candy Company CEO Kirk Vashaw announced at that time, “Just when comfort food is experiencing a resurgence, Necco Wafers is back with that very kind of familiar, comfortable feeling we all seem to be craving.”
“We are delighted to bring Necco Wafers back into production and to share in their sweet return with fans old and new,” he continued. “We know fans have been waiting anxiously for the return of Necco Wafers and anticipate high demand. Our production lines will continue to run as fast as possible to keep stores in-stock. The wafers will begin to hit the shelves of major drugstores and pharmacies in early June, followed by shipments to other major retailers.”
Necco’s candies can be ordered online including via Amazon and can still be found in various stores that sell old-fashioned candy.