"The Sweet Taste of Success" Panel at the 2013 BHC

The Sweet Taste of Success: German-American Entrepreneurs and the Transition from Artisan to Industrial Confectionery, 1860–1950

The 59th meeting of the Business History Conference, held in Columbus, Ohio, featured a panel, “The Sweet Taste of Success: German-American Entrepreneurs and the Transition from Artisan to Industrial Confectionery, 1860–1950,” sponsored by the German Historical Institute and organized by Atiba Pertilla. The panel featured three scholars who have written biographical articles for the institute’s project “Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present.” The theme of the panel was to examine how four entrepreneurs in the candy business, active from the 1870s through the 1950s, negotiated their ethnic identity during a period that saw attitudes towards German-Americans swing between grudging acceptance, hostility, and general indifference.

Christina Bearden-White (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale) described the life of Gustav Goelitz as an example of a small-scale entrepreneur who entered the candy business in 1869 and spent most of his life immersed in German communities both outside of St. Louis and in Cincinnati, relying on other ethnic Germans for workers and legal services and achieving modest success in marketing his products to a broader American audience. Under the leadership of the second generation, the family’s candy business expanded in both the Midwest and to California, eventually leading to the emergence of the iconic brand Jelly Belly under the leadership of Goelitz's descendants in the 1970s.

Samantha Chmelik (Loyola University Chicago) examined the lives of first-generation German-American Frederick Rueckheim, the inventor of Cracker Jack, and second-generation German-American Otto Schnering, who created both Baby Ruth and  Butterfinger. Rueckheim used a variety of innovative marketing practices to develop popcorn into Cracker Jack; then, in the wake of anti-German hostility during World War I, his company created a new mascot, Sailor Jack,  that linked Cracker Jack to the American navy and reified the brand with a patriotic identity. Schnering used an innovative array of techniques to publicize and market his candy bars while downplaying his ethnic background. His willingness to employ Japanese internment-camp prisoners during World War II, however, despite local protests, may have been a reaction to the anti-German sentiment of the World War I era.

In her paper on Emil J. Brach, Leslie Goddard (Graue Mill and Museum) examined the transition of Brach candy from a confection produced by hand in the back of a small Chicago shop to a Midwestern institution producing thousands of pounds of candy a day in a 600,000-square-foot factory by the 1930s. The company did not emphasize the German background of its founder (at one point even describing its candies as “Brox”) but, instead, focused on Emil J. Brach as a fatherly figure who paid paternal attention to the quality and reputation of his company’s goods.

Gabriella Petrick (George Mason University) noted in her commentary that the papers offered interesting new insights into the history of taste in the United States that go beyond the sugar-and-slavery argument offered by Stanley Mintz in Sweetness and Power. The papers, Petrick suggested, invite research into several new questions: why did candy production become industrialized? Why was Chicago such a crucial location? Why were German-Americans pivotal to this process? She stressed the close relations of German-American candy businesses with other large-scale companies in the Chicago food sector, and noted the pattern of initial family ownership followed by a transfer to corporate ownership. The session, chaired by Uwe Spiekermann, was followed by a lively question-and-answer session, when not only the details of the papers but also their relevance as a case study in the broader history of U.S. business and society were discussed.