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HersheyArchives@30-24: Made in Hershey, So It Must Be Good: H.B. Reese Candy Company

While most confectionery companies regard other candy-making businesses as their competitor, Milton Hershey was different.  Hershey Chocolate limited its definition of a confectionery competitor to those businesses that produced solid chocolate bars. In fact, Hershey Chocolate sold chocolate to a wide range of companies manufacturing enrobed, or chocolate-coated, candy.

 

Harry Burnett “H.B.”Reese, a one-time employee of the Hershey Chocolate factory shipping department, was inspired by Milton Hershey’s success and decided to start his own candy business.

 

In 1921, H.B. Reese began making candies in the basement of his home at 18 E. Areba Avenue in Hershey. Reese produced a wide range of confectionery products. During the company’s first 20 years, the product line featured a variety of candies made and sold by weight. Most of the candies consisted of different centers that were hand-dipped in chocolate. H.B. Reese’s son, Ralph remembered:

 

We used Hershey’s chocolate.  I guess we were a nuisance for a while, buying fifty pounds at a time.  But I remember the little express wagon I used for hauling papers.  [I’d] go down to the [Hershey Chocolate] office and buy fifty pounds of chocolate, haul it back to the house.

 

Day Book; H.B. Reese Candy Company, ingredients purchased. 1929

Day Book; H.B. Reese Candy Company, ingredients purchased. 1929

 

The Archives holds a number of ledgers related to the early years of the H.B. Reese Candy Company. The index page of a 1929 ledger lists a variety of ingredients, including cocoanut (coconut), peanuts, butter, raisins, cherry pieces, dates and chocolate. An early employee, Rena Renshaw recalled in a 1993 oral history interview:

 

I think [until] ’41 they made the assortment, maybe about twenty different kinds, sixteen to twenty different kinds of candy.  And after the war came along, of course, they couldn’t get the coconuts and some of the sugar and butter…[all of]the products that he used in the different kinds of candy. 

 

Time Book; H.B. Reese Candy Company. 1932

Time Book; H.B. Reese Candy Company. 1932

 

For many years the number of employees remained small. Renshaw started working for the H.B. Reese Candy Company on September 1, 1926. She remembered:

 

I got paid twenty cents an hour for the first two weeks, and the next raise we got was twenty-five, about two weeks or so later. 

 

By 1932, she was making 30 cents an hour coating candy centers with chocolate.

 

H.B. Reese Candy Company; pounds of beans picked. July-August 1933.

H.B. Reese Candy Company; pounds of beans picked. July-August 1933

 

H.B. Reese’s path to success was not direct. The 1930s were filled with financial ups and downs. In summer months, when it was too hot to work with chocolate, Reese had his employees can beans and tomatoes that he had grown to generate income. Renshaw recalled her summer work at the factory:

I worked in the canning.  We snipped beans and we’d put labels on cans. That was when it was too warm and we didn’t work in the chocolate.  That they did down in the basement in the summertime.  Well, of course, when the beans came in, they had to can the beans.  We put the labels on the cans by hand. Well, then they canned tomatoes, too. Tomatoes and beans.  That was only in the summertime when it was hot. Didn’t have air-conditioning then, so it was too hot to make candy.

 

By the end of the 1930s, the H.B. Reese Candy Company was emerging as a successful candy company. One of the most popular items in its product line was the peanut butter cup. When sugar rationing was imposed during World War II, H.B. Reese made the decision to eliminate every item in the product line except for the peanut butter cup. The peanut butter filling took less sugar than most of the other Reese candy items and peanuts were readily available from southern states.

 

Customer Sales Brochure, H.B. Reese Candy Company. ca1950

Customer Sales Brochure, H.B. Reese Candy Company. ca1950

 

After the war, Reese continued to build his company based on the success of a single product: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Instead of selling the product by weight, peanut butter cups were packaged for retail sale. And every package carried the slogan: “Made in Chocolate Town, So They Must Be Good.”

 

#HersheyArchives@30

 

 

Great things sometimes start small: H.B. Reese and the Reese Candy Company

Advertisement; Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, 1963

Advertisement; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 1963

 

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are one of the United States best loved candies.  First introduced around 1928, the PB cups were not a stand-alone treat, but were marketed as part of an assortment of candies that you could buy by the weight.

They were named for their creator, Harry Burnett Reese.  Unlike Milton Hershey, it was not obvious that Harry Reese was destined to become a confectioner.  His background included stints as a farmer, dairy farmer, fish hatchery manager and factory worker.  All these varied jobs resulted from Reese’s efforts to support his rapidly growing family.  The jobs took him from York County to Ditchley, Virginia back to York County and then to New Freedom, Pennsylvania and finally to Hershey to work as a dairy farmer for Milton Hershey.  None of these jobs prepared him for his future success.

But Harry Reese was impressed with Milton Hershey and the success Mr. Hershey had achieved with the Hershey Chocolate Company.  Needing to support his family, Reese started making candy in his kitchen at night and marketing it around town and wherever he thought there might be customers.  The first years were challenging and offered little promise of his future success.

The Archives’ oral history collections contains interviews with a number of H.B. Reese’s children as well as workers.  His oldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth Reese Pearson, shared her memories of her father’s first efforts at candy making.  Born in 1901, Mary was old enough to vividly remember those early years.

Interviewer:  Right.  Tell me about the time frame when he started to make the hard candy.

Pearson:

Oh.  Well, that was in 1919, the very first thing.  He met an old man by the name of Mr. Bender up in Harrisburg at a market, where, you know, people bring in candies and things.  And Mr. Bender gave him the recipe for these hard candies and he started making them, shipping them out by the barrel.  It wasn’t long that he found his business wasn’t succeeding because the candy was sticking.  It wasn’t holding up, see.  That failed.

Interviewer: What did he try next?

Pearson:

I think maybe he tried different things, but the main–the one big thing he was doing when I was at Temple University in 1920 to ’22 was a bar called–he called a Lizzy Bar.  It was a chocolate bar, and I don’t know who gave him the recipe for the chocolate, but it started to sugar, see.  So that bar went off the market.

Interviewer: It was named after you?

Pearson:

Uh-huh.  It was named after me.  Because my roommate in those days called me Lizzy Bar.  [Laughter]  And he’d send me boxes of this candy.  It was wrapped in a very beige-looking background with brown printing.

Then I think after that, most of his–oh.  He was making another coconut caramel bar that was very popular for a while.  Some man had given him the recipe for this coconut caramel, and the coconut was fresh coconuts–grated!  He didn’t have a factory then; he just had a kitchen.  So Poppy would go around three o’clock in the morning and start opening coconuts, fresh coconuts, and had them all peeled and ground, ready to make this coconut caramel candy.  In the summertime, he would shape it in bars, see, and roll it in coconut, and take a whole carload [read “automobile”] of it over to Mount Gretna, where the government had a lot of soldiers over there, spending the summer over there at Mount Gretna.  So then in the wintertime, he would cover it with chocolate, see, and sell it.  So that was his third thing that was keeping him that he wasn’t completely out of business, see.  He was still doing something.

So then I don’t know what year he started making all the different sort of candies and absolutely every center of that candy was delicious.  He had dates that he–  It was like a sausage grinder thing.  The dates would go in there and they’d come out, and something would cut them off in little pieces.  I was coating candies in those days, and if we were coating dates, they’d all be little cut-up pieces, and [we would] lay it in the Hershey’s chocolate, see.  He always used Mr. Hershey’s coating, see.

And then that candy was put into these little tiny round cups and went out as assorted.  So one day we’d make coated dates, the next day we’d make–he learned how to make a wonderful fondant, see.  Delicious fondant.  That’s how he made all these different assorted candies, see.    I can’t tell you how many were in the box, but the box–it all went out wholesale, five-pound box for $1.29, to mostly big stores like Bon Tons and stores in Lancaster, and they would sell it out by the quarter and half-pound.

The business had a lot of ups and downs until H.B. Reese decided to concentrate on making peanut butter cups starting about 1941.  You can read the whole story here on the Archive’s website.  Just make sure you have some Reese’s peanut butter cups handy.  You’re going to want some!