Monday, May 20, 2024

Squirrel Brand Nuts, maker of such candies as Squirrel Nut Zippers and Squirrel Nut Caramels, was based for a time in Cambridge. (Image: The Leventhal Map & Education Center via Instagram)

Cambridge can be proud to host the life sciences companies leading the race for a coronavirus vaccine – Moderna and Pfizer (with runner-up AstraZeneca from, ahem, Cambridge, England) – but there’s nothing fun about it. Once upon a time, the city dominated in an industry that was far less essential but way more jolly: candy. And last month the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library gave a digital glimpse at it.

Looking back to 1914, candy-making was the third-biggest money-maker of an industry in Greater Boston with 79 companies taking part; by 1950 the industry grew to around 140 such companies between Boston and Cambridge, according to the Leventhal Center.

Posting on Instagram in the five days leading up to Halloween, the center laid out a bunch of tasty nuggets, including Cambridge-focused facts starting on Day 2 with tidbits about New England Confectionery Co. The maker of infamous Necco wafers and Valentines Day “conversation hearts” had a factory and offices here from 1927 to 2003. (Favorite fact: The chalky discs were first marketed as “Hub wafers.”)

Explore Day 3 and you’ll learn more about Confectioner’s Row, the sweet predecessor to our life sciences and tech center that once thrived on Main Street between Kendall Square and Massachusetts Avenue. (Cambridge Brands, a subsidiary of Tootsie Roll, remains.)

Day 4 alludes to the dark connection between the Necco candy known as Mary Janes and the “triangular trade” and slave labor, as well as to the Great Molasses Flood of Jan. 15, 1919, which killed 21 people. But there’s a less painful part of the story: When Mary Janes inventor Charles N. Miller started making the candy in 1884, he lived at 19 North Square, Boston. You can still step inside his home today – because decades before Miller, it was the home of Paul Revere.

The whole series of images is fascinating to click through – including a Boston criminal conviction for adulterating candy with “chromate of lead” – if only as distraction until those Moderna and Pfizer vaccines become available.