The Cincinnati Candy Box that travelled 60 miles nearly 100 years ago.
I was nearly giddy as I brought my find to the counter cash register. For a food history geek who finds an obscure relic in an unusual place, like the Piano Factory Antique Mall in Ripley, Ohio, I felt a bit like Indiana Jones. I was wearing a cool hat, but no sleek leather chinos or leather boots, and no bullwhip at my belt. I know that in the antiques world, if you want to haggle for a better price, you have to act nonchalant, as if you could leave without it if you’re price isn’t met. That would be impossible for me with this find. I’m sure this was the only one of its kind still in existence.
Ripley, Ohio is a town filled to the hilt with Underground Railroad and pre Civil War history. It’s an easy Saturday afternoon drive along the Ohio River. This piece was not part of that history, but part of the post World War I changes happening in America. Every time I go through Ripley on the way to Augusta or Maysville, Kentucky, I have to stop at the Piano Factory, to see what I can find. Sometimes you lose, but today I won big!
For the last six months I’ve been researching and writing about the Cincinnati candy industry and have uncovered so many great stories and companies. But I think this story may take the cake. It tells the story of a candy box that travelled the 60 or so miles from Cincinnati nearly one hundred years ago to a farm in New Richmond, and what it symbolized to the doting parents who received it.
So I plopped my find on the counter and began telling the woman about this find and the company. It was a simple hinged wooden box, with an amazingly bright lithograph paper label , emblazoned with the words New Era Confectionery, New Era Butterscotch. Even though there was no marking of Cincinnati, I knew from the intertwined B & P logo in the center, it was a box from the Cincinnati Candy company Buhr & Pfaff. Before the turn of the last century they were one of the largest candy wholesalers in the United States. I had seen a large New Era candy tin for their Cocoanut (yep that’s how they spelled it back then) Clusters at the Schmipff Candy Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the logos were identical, along of course, with the New Era Brand name .
I asked the seventy-something attendant if she knew anything about the booth owner who was selling it. She smiled and said, I know a lot about her, it’s me! So I asked her where she found it and a lovely story unfolded.
She said she’d found it in the pantry at her grandparents’ farmhouse outside of town many years ago and always thought it was beautiful and unique. I asked if her grandparents went to Cincinnati frequently, to which she said they didn’t. But she did have an aunt who moved to the “Big City” to study art and landed a job working as an artist for the Gibson Greeting Card Company in Cincinnati.
The story was almost too perfect. In the brave new era after World War I, where women were entering the workforce, a single daughter leaves her farm community to become an artist and brings back New Era Confections. Come on – really?
Gibson Greeting cards had started in 1895 by four brothers whose printing family had immigrated from Scotland. The company grew by leaps and bounds after they started producing something new to America – the Christmas Greeting Card. It was a good company for a single woman to work – whether it was one of the high paying creative jobs, or even creating and setting the lithography plates for the printing press. Gibson would become known for being one of the most diverse workplaces in Cincinnati – long before women and civil rights movements gained steam.
At the time, Gibson Greeting Cards was on Fourth and Elm Street, only three or so blocks from the Buhr and Pfaff Company, who was then in five separate buildings on Second and Race Streets in Cincinnati’s ‘Candy Corridor,’ near the river. It might have been an easy walk on the way to the streetcar stop that would take her home.
The attendant described her aunt as ‘very fancy.’ She remembered whenever she and her German barber husband would visit the family in New Richmond, she always came dressed to the hilt in great hats and in great style. Imagine the circle of interesting artistic and creative friends she must have had in that flapper and speakeasy era in Cincinnati. The attendant had many of her aunt’s paintings of various scenes in Cincinnati in her house – the Lincoln Statue in Piatt Park, and Owl’s Nest Park in O’Bryonville, across from which the aunt and her husband lived.
She also remembered her grandparents talking about these New Era butterscotch candies that came in this box like they were manna from heaven – as if no other candy maker in the world had ever before made butterscotches. A great deal of candy stories tell the tales of courtship and romance, but this box told of a parents love for their daughter and their ability to let her go to pursue her passion.
Obviously these simple farm folk were so proud of their independent, intelligent daughter who left the small town by herself for the Big City and landed a good job. This box was a symbol of their daughter’s success. You can imagine them bragging to their friends and neighbors, “Look what our daughter brought to us from Cincinnati – here take one – aren’t they delicious? She lives in Cincinnati, you know – got a bigtime job with Gibson Greeting Cards.” The care with which they kept this candy box showed how important it was to them.
I love this story. Every time these parents had a butterscotch, their daughter was with them from over 60 miles away. Connecting a simple candy box to such a wonderful story is what makes history come alive, and why I’ll never stop searching for great food history! And, by the way, the woman gave me a discount anyway. She loved the story too.