Life in the Chocolate Factory: Occupational Hazards

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‘The Fire. Now then with a will – Shake her up boys!’, The Life of a Fireman, Nathaniel Currier, 1854 Springfield Museums

One of the surprising discoveries during my study of New York’s chocolate-making past was the frequency of fires that ravaged its factories. Actually, not too shocking when one considers that the city’s structures have always been at risk to the dangers of fire; even after wooden structures gave way to sturdy brick buildings, the density of real estate in the city encouraged the rapid spread of calamity that would often consume entire blocks. Coal-fed furnaces, boiler-powered steam engines, and flammable raw material and packaging left chocolate and confectionery operations especially vulnerable. And though factory buildings may have had external brick facades, wooden floors and beams caused fire to gut their interiors. Highly combustible starch dust used for molding candies and bonbon centers was blamed for several serious fatal explosions in the 19th century.

A few chocolate manufacturers suffered losses from multiple fires over the course of their years, and many of these incidents proved fatal to either employees or the responding fire fighters – even passersby on the street. Though unclear which, if any, chocolate-makers were directly affected by them, three major fires – in 1776, 1835, and 1845 – decimated large swaths of the city. Some suggest that the lack of surviving colonial-era structures in New York City is due in part to their destruction in these fires. The alleged corrupt nature of all-volunteer fire-fighting ‘clubs’ in 19th century New York may have contributed to the chaos on the scene. Below, a summary of those catastrophic events I’ve found thus far:

 

1736 Johannes (John) Roosevelt, fire at mill on or near Maiden Lane
1852 Eugene Mendes and Nazaire Struelens, chocolate factory fire at 75 Duane Street
1853 Philander Griffing, chocolate factory fire at 781 Washington Street
1860 Nazaire Struelens and Thomas Palmer, confectionery factory fire at 66 Duane Street
1869 Henry Pierce (agent for Walter Baker) chocolate warehouse fire at 217 Fulton Street
1872 Henry Maillard, chocolate factory fire at 160 Mercer Street
1879 Runkel Brothers, chocolate factory fire at 227 West 29th Street
1877 E. Greenfield, confectionery factory explosion at 63 Barclay Street
1879 Battais & Ode, confectionery factory explosion at 139 Elm Street
1884 E. Greenfield, confectionery factory fire at 44 Barclay Street
1885 Runkel Brothers, chocolate factory fire at 328 7th Avenue
1889 Huyler’s, chocolate factory fire at 64 Irving Place
1891 Gustave Helmstetter, confectionery factory fire at 554 Broome Street
1901 Runkel Brothers, chocolate factory fire at 445 West 30th Street
1901 Claude Poyet, chocolate factory boiler explosion at 454 10th Avenue
1902 Atkinson Chocolate and Cocoa Co., at 44 Spencer Street in Brooklyn
1903 Volkmann & Stollwerck, chocolate factory fire at 5 Worth Street
1907 Huyler’s, chocolate factory fire at 64 Irving Place
1909 Dunham Manufacturing Company, chocolate factory fire at 373 Pearl Street
1911 Frederick Bischoff, chocolate factory fire at 29 Ashland Place in Brooklyn
1916 Chocolate Menier Company, chocolate factory fire in Hoboken
1953 Frederick Bischoff, chocolate factory at 158 Sands Street in Brooklyn

 
The dangers of factory work in this era of increasing industrialization were not limited to fire. As machinery became more complex and powerful, this mechanization also presented further hazards. As the city grew skyward, the elevators that moved people and material up and down floors also emerged – the earliest recorded death due to an elevator accident took place in a New York confectionery factory. The largest candy factories in New York city employed 200-300 workers – likely in cramped conditions and for long hours; at least one instance of smallpox scares began in one of these operations. A few of these incidents:

 

1861 Struelens & Palmer, employee Paul Winsheimer was killed in an elevator accident at 66–68 Duane Street, possibly the first recorded death from an elevator accident. Just a few months later Nazaire Struelens himself died after falling three floors down the open shaft way.

1867 Employee loses hand after catching it machinery at unnamed chocolate factory at 125 Hudson Street

1886 Maillard, employee Mary Cuneo killed in elevator accident at the 25th Street factory

1893 Maillard, Henry Fenio died from injuries after a fight with Francois Segeti – both of them chocolate factory employees – the dispute apparently began over a woman

1910 Employee Louise McMahon injured after getting her hair caught in chocolate machinery at unnamed Manhattan chocolate factory

1912 Fear of smallpox outbreak among employees of unnamed chocolate factory in Brooklyn

Machines and Methods: Driving Chocolate’s Evolution

 

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Layout for a turn-of-the-century chocolate factory, from The Manufacture of Chocolate, by Paul Zipperer (Second Edition, 1902).

 

The importance of the Industrial Revolution on the evolution of chocolate cannot be overstated – the highly refined flavors and textures we enjoy in fine chocolate today are a direct result of advancements in the technology we apply to the process. From hand-grinding on a heavy metate to multi-purposed water-powered stone mills, from the Watts steam engine to Rudolf Lint’s early conche, machinery not only increased the output of production, but placed a greater degree of control over the process, and ultimately broadened the forms in which the noble bean appears.

…That leads to the chocolate and the machinery. The chocolate in its primitive condition most people know little about. It is in the form of a bean when it reaches the confectioner, not as large as a paper-shelled almond, and with a crisp papery shell. These beans go into a roaster, and are roasted very much as the coffee bean is roasted. From there they go into another machine, and are crushed and again into a hopper, and the outside, or cocoa shell, is separated from the chocolate after the manner in which wheat is separated from the chaff. There is  another machine revolving in opposite ways, with a great granite block, in which the chocolate and sugar are combined, and still another into which the mass of sweetened chocolate is placed to be refined, and through which it passes again and again until it is of the most delicately smooth consistency. Then we go back to the butter machine.

In all chocolate there is to be found this cocoa butter. In some confection, there is a greater, and in some a less, proportion of it. In some of the finest clear chocolate bonbons there is not only the proportion of cocoa butter which belongs to that proportion of chocolate, but more. In some forms of chocolates there far less. In this cocoa butter machine the product is removed and used for the different varieties of chocolate as desired.

One of the requirements in preparing chocolates is the management of the heat. There must not be too high or too low a degree of heat. If not properly treated, the chocolate will become gray instead of showing the rich chocolate color which is natural to it….

‘Bonbons and Confections – How They are Made…’, The New York Times, Feb 21, 1897 (though the factory is not named, presumably a visit to Maillard’s 5th Avenue operation)

It is doubtful that many of New York’s earliest cocoa bean processors dedicated themselves full-time to the task. Local supplies of chocolate were ground on mills that also turned out flour, mustard, oils, and paints. Chocolate-making, as it was for the time, was often carried out by grocers, pharmacists, and by the merchants who also imported and exported beans in and out of the city. As the craft became more specialized, so too did the equipment. What must have been largely a product of hard manual labor in the early 1800s, would quickly incorporate dedicated roasters, winnowers, and refiners. Hydraulic presses not only lightened the beverage as it was known, but also paved the way for smooth solid bars for eating. Throughout the 19th century, New York’s growing number of chocolate-makers continued to expanded their factories, equipped with a battery of machines also manufactured in the city.

West Side Story: New York’s Chocolate District

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The Runkel Brothers slowly expanded uptown and opened a factory that occupied West 30th Street for nearly five decades into the 1930s.

 

Throughout much of the 1800s, the city’s chocolate manufacturers remained clustered in lower Manhattan – the neighborhoods we would eventually call the Financial District, TriBeCa, SoHo, and the Lower East Side. The familiar grid of numbered streets and avenues was plotted in the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811; as those large raw blocks were filled in, new commercial and industrial districts took shape in the decades to follow.

The west side – the 20s and 30s bounded by Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River would become home to several chocolate factories. The first to open in the neighborhood was likely Maillard in the 1870s – he opened a factory in Long Island City before moving to 401 Broadway and 158 Mercer Street in lower Manhattan in the 1840s to 1850s. By that time large parts of Chelsea also comprised what was dubbed ‘The Tenderloin’ – a dense district of saloons, dance halls, brothels, and ‘clip joints’ – considered to be perhaps the most crime-ridden neighborhood in the country. Contemporary accounts do record the necessity for night watchmen in the factory at 116 West 25th Street to prevent petty vandalism and break-ins.

Louis and Herman Runkel began making chocolate downtown at 9 Maiden Lane in the 1870s and eventually moved to the area – first to 328 Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, and then to their longtime home at 445 West 30th Street. Before moving to Brooklyn, Frederick Bischoff opened his first factory at 227 West 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in the 1890s. Also servicing the local confectionery business, Chris Abele manufactured and sold chocolate and candy-making equipment at 235 West 27th Street.

NEW YORK’S lights and noises are far better known to country cousins in neighboring and distant States than are its assorted aromas. The smells of a mighty metropolis are, however. as expressive of its personality and pursuits as are its illumination and its sounds…

…What is perhaps the sweetest and most intriguing scent in all the city is that which permeates West Thirty First Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, where factories devoted to the delectable occupation of manufacturing chocolate bars, with almonds and without, are situated. The chocolate aroma did not win its place without struggle for the engines that haul and shunt freight cars on Tenth Avenue give off a gassy, sooty smell that makes an acrid plea for recognition. . .

The man who keeps the little candy shop on the Avenue near Thirtieth Street maintains that the chocolate scent is a stronger sales promotor [sic] for his business than a ten-foot high electric sign would be. “Even some of the brakemen on the trains,” he said, “get a whiff off sweet chocolate from the factories and come to my store to buy the finished product.”

The City’s Aromas, New York Times, January 9, 1927

The neighborhood’s chocolate industry peaked in the early 20th century. Claude Poyet operated a large factory at 454 Tenth Avenue at West 35th Street; nearly 300 employees worked 60-hour weeks at the plant according to 1898 labor reports. A few blocks south, Knickerbocker Chocolate (previously known as the J.H. Barker Co. at 328 Cherry Street in the 1890s) opened their five-story factory at 455 West 31st Street in the early 1900s and operated through the 1920s. Further north, the Auerbach Chocolate factory, active through the 1930s, still stands at 636 Eleventh Avenue and is now home of the high-profile advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather.

And for a short time in the 1920s, Hershey maintained limited chocolate manufacturing in the city, leasing space in the former J.N. Adam department store at 675 Sixth Avenue, between West 21st and 22nd Streets. The factory comprised six floors, equipped with roasters and other machinery built by Jabez Burns and Sons, also located in this unofficial ‘chocolate district’, at West 43rd Street and Eleventh Avenue.

A Famous Family in Chocolate

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The 1767 Ratzer Map of New York (detail)

When I set out in search of chocolate in the oldest part of the city, I assumed it had already found its place in Dutch-era New Amsterdam. Though hard evidence of its appearance in those early years has yet to reveal itself, we know it was being traded and processed by the turn of the 18th century. One famous family of Dutch roots, however, was likely among the first in New York to grind cacao.

 

Johannes Roosevelt (1689-1750) operated a mill on the lower end of Maiden Lane near the neighborhood known as ‘Golden Hill’ and the busy ‘Fly Market’ – home to butchers, fishmongers, and various ‘hucksters’ crowding the street. Roosevelt and his partner Johannes van der Huel processed linseed oil and flour in addition to chocolate; multi-purpose milling was a common practice during the colonial period. We know the mill was active in the 1730s: the January 10, 1736 edition of the New York Weekly Journal  reports a fire affecting his “Oil-Mill, Chocolate-Mill and Bolting-Mill… ” Roosevelt also served as city alderman during this period.

 

After his death, Johannes’ sons Oliver and Cornelius also worked in chocolate, and nephew Isaac Roosevelt was one of the first large-scale sugar refiners in the city, at 159 Queen Street. And Johannes was an early ancestor of what is referred to as the ‘Oyster Bay’ branch of Roosevelt family, that of descendants Theodore and Eleanor. Chocolate would play a role in Teddy’s rise to political fame – sort of –  150 years after his third great-grandfather processed it in Manhattan’s early days.

 

Though historians argue whether the 1898 quote should be attributed to Roosevelt or a political ally, the notion that President William McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair” would remain associated with Teddy in popular culture for decades.

The Year in Chocolate: 1847

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By 1850 Eugene Mendes left his William Street address for Fulton at Church Street – at that time part of the Washington Market district, and today the site of the Millennium Hilton near the World Trade Center complex.

 

New York City in 1847 sees a surge of Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine, and with it, an outbreak of typhus fever. Madison Square Park opens to the public – its location at that time is considered the outskirts of the city. New York City’s population is about to surpass 500,000 residents.

 

Meanwhile, in Bristol, England the chocolate manufacturers Joseph Fry & Son create what many consider the first ‘modern’ chocolate bar to be eaten out of hand. Among the first to employ steam engines for grinding cacao beans, the company also built upon developments made by Casparus Van Houten years earlier by adding pressed cocoa butter back to the chocolate. This would pave the way for a myriad of new applications for chocolate and cocoa beyond the familiar beverage.

 

Seven chocolate-makers are listed in Doggett’s New York City Directory published in 1847:

 

Richard Bent, 162 Elm Street

John Clark, 121 Grand Street

John Corell, 174 Rivington Street

Felix Effray, 457 Broadway

Eugene Mendes, 248 William Street

Peter Poillon, 92 Elizabeth Street

John B. Rey, 31 Burling Slip

 

Within five years the number of manufacturers would double, along with a growing legion of confectioners who would further incorporate chocolate into their products.

Frederick Bischoff: A Brooklyn Brand

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Frederick Bischoff, 1890s – Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Special Collections

 

German-born Frederick Bischoff (1857-1942) arrived in New York in the 1870s and entered the chocolate business by way of the pharmacy trade. He began manufacturing at 227 West 29th Street in the 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century Bischoff had expanded operations to 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, followed by factories on Ashland Place, then Sands Street, and ultimately moving upstate to Ballston Spa, New York in the 1920s. Frederick passed away in 1942 and by 1945 the company folded, purportedly after low sales and limited supplies of cocoa and sugar during the war years.

In Search of Chocolate-Makers Past

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Maillard Chocolate, ca. 1880 – Boston Public Library (https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:gq67k286f)

Small independent producers were grinding cocoa beans in the city since the mid-1700s, likely limited to serving the local or regional consumer. In contrast, larger companies with broader reach emerged a century later in what I have come to think of as New York’s ‘golden age’ of chocolate manufacturing, whose larger factories no doubt employed the latest in confectionery machinery. Henry Maillard emigrated to New York in the 1840s, and built an empire that culminated in a massive factory along Sixth Avenue and a flagship retail store that stood nearby at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue across from Madison Square Park (the current site of Eataly).

 

Check this space for more anecdotes, images, and insights  into NYC’s chocolate history…