The People Behind 4 Iconic Valentine's Day Candies

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It’s that time of year when we can kind of, sort of indulge in some guilt-free chocolate goodness—after all, if your Significant Other has gifted you with some Valentine’s sweetness, you don’t want to hurt their feelings and reach for the celery instead, right? But while you’re sneaking yet another morsel, have you ever wondered about that name on the lid of the box? Is that a real person adding an inch or two to our waistlines?

1. Russell Stover

Russell Stover and Clara Lewis both grew up on hardscrabble farms in Iowa in the late 1800s, and after they married in 1911, they moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, to raise wheat and flax on a 580 acre farm of their own. Sadly, a year of bad weather and a flood washed away their livelihood. With the pluck so typical of tenacious farm folk of the time, Russell and his wife moved to Winnipeg, where he got a job working in a candy factory. He spent the next few years learning everything he could about candy making, and eventually, after the couple had moved to Iowa, his wife started experimenting with different recipes in their home kitchen. Stover’s watershed moment came in 1921 when a young soda jerk presented him with an idea for a vanilla ice cream bar encased in a crunchy chocolate coating. The young man’s version melted easily and had other flaws, so Russell went to work fine-tuning the manufacturing process. When Russell introduced the Eskimo Pie a few months later, he sold a quarter million units in 24 hours in Omaha alone. Sadly, despite the popularity of the product, Stover spent the bulk of his profits on defending his patent against a host of imitators. He finally sold the Eskimo Pie business and used the $30,000 to launch a line of hand-dipped chocolates that Clara had been perfecting back at home.

2. Stephen Whitman

Stephen Whitman was just 19 years old when he opened a confectionary “shoppe” on Philadelphia’s Market Street in 1842. Because it was near the shipyards, he had a steady stream of sailors among his customers, and this turned out to be providential; seafarers brought him samples of exotic candies purchased abroad, and once he cracked a particular recipe, they were also able to bring him the necessary ingredients from overseas. Whitman was also something of a marketing genius and was one of the first to advertise his products in newspapers and magazines. He eventually packaged bite-sized pieces of his various chocolates in a “best of”-type box, which he called a Sampler. Walter Sharp, who took over as company president in 1911, came up with the Sampler box design based on a cross-stitch his grandmother had made. Sharp also used his marketing savvy to get the Samplers placed in “better drugstores” around the country, and also instituted a money-back guarantee that is still in place today.

3. Fannie May

Founded in Chicago in 1920, Henry Teller Archibald named his candy company “Fannie May” to give the impression of a kindly old grandmother tirelessly hand-dipping chocolates in her country kitchen. Fannie May soon became a leading retailer of fine chocolates in the Midwest, even though they were forced to close many stores during World War II due to the rationing of necessary ingredients (rather than switch to inferior substitutes). Fannie May has had further financial ups and downs over the years, including a bankruptcy filing, but today the company is owned by the folks at 1-800-FLOWERS and is still selling their Pixies and Buttercreams to dedicated customers. Interestingly enough, Mrs. Archibald—the woman whose family provided the seed money back in 1920 to fund her husband’s company—made headlines in 1930 when she was awarded a then-substantial (it was the Great Depression, after all) $1 million divorce settlement on the grounds of desertion. It seems Ol’ Henry had run off and married another woman in Florida without officially severing his previous marital ties.

4. Laura Secord

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During the War of 1812, a loyalist named Laura Secord, whose husband had been injured at the Battle of Queenston Heights, received some intelligence information and walked 20 miles across the Niagara Peninsula to warn British forces of an impending American attack. Her effort helped the British to stop the U.S. invaders at Beaver Dams, and 47 years later Edward VII rewarded her with £100. What does this have to do with chocolate? Nothing, except that Frank O’Connor decided to capitalize on her fame when he founded his candy company in Toronto in 1913. Six years later, he expanded his operation south of the border, but since the name Laura Secord wasn’t recognizable to American ears, he chose another famous name, Fanny Farmer, after the culinary expert who was famous for her cookbooks.

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February 14, 2013 - 2:00pm
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