Today, January 3, is National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day. It may be a lesser known food holiday, but it is a recognized holiday by the National Confectioner’s Association, and the confection has American origins in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. They are also called cherry cordials, because at one time they included cherry liqueurs like kirsch, inside.
A chocolate company, called Dolly Varden, founded in 1900 in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, by Jewish entrepreneur Isaac Weinreich (1878-1945) is credited for bringing the chocolate covered cherry to the American market. Dolly Varden was a character from the Charles Dicken’s novel Barnaby Rudge. She was a locksmith’s daughter and known for her flowered hat and dress which gave its name to a popular women’s outfit of the 19th century. Her character was well known in America, and thus a brilliant name for a chocolate company. The company motto was, “When Words Fail – Send Dolly Varden Chocolates.”
Weinreich was son of Bavarian immigrant David Weinreich, who was a cattle dealer and butcher. Isaac’s brother, Elias owned a cigar manufacturing company in Dayton, Ohio, where Isaac grew up with his 11 other siblings.
Apparently cigars and chocolate went together well in retail at the time. Dolly Varden chocolates were advertised as a good companion gift or a free box with purchase of cigar brands like Knauf’s cigars in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Litman’s in Coffeyville, Kansas. Perhaps Isaac and his brother Elias worked together in retailing their chocolates and cigars together.
The company had humble beginnings. Starting as a small retail store, Weinreich first patented a medicinal cough drop called “Checkers” in 1901, which he sold at the store on Vine Street. When they added 11 flavors of soft centered chocolates, including the chocolate covered cherry, their business grew, requiring two Over-the-Rhine moves to 14th and Plum, then Canal and Walnut Streets. Finally, in 1919, they built a five story factory on the West End at Laurel Street, which employed 400 workers. Coveted positions for females in Cincinnati were chocolate and bonbon dippers, who could make good money for the times. Beginning wages at the factory in 1914 were $4 a week.
The Dolly Varden Chocolate Factory on Laurel Street in Cincinnati’s West End, next to the Dolly Varden Theatre.
By the 1920s, Dolly Varden chocolates were a national brand, and a sister division in St. Louis, Missouri was formed. Charles Eisen, son of Baden immigrants, became President in 1905 and believed in large advertising budgets. As a result a lot of store signs and elaborately decorated Dolly Varden candy boxes still can be found by antique buyers. The Dolly Varden fortune allowed him to build a mansion in College Hill on Hamilton and Belmont Avenues, designed by Cincinnati architect Samuel Hanniford. Eisen retired from the company, becoming a famous piano player with the Cincinnati Symphony.
Today the three main brands of cherry cordials on the market are Cella’s, Brochs, and Queen Anne. Cella’s is the oldest, established in 1865, but only started mass producing chocolate covered cherries in 1929. Broch’s started making chocolate covered cherries in 1930. Finally Queen Anne was founded in 1921, but didn’t start making the cherry treats until 1948. The oldest record I can find of Dolly Varden making chocolate covered cherries is 1917, but there is reference to them making as early as the founding in 1900. Whatever the date, although Dolly Varden didn’t invent the chocolate covered cherry, they did bring them to the American market.