Life in the Chocolate Factory: Occupational Hazards


‘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

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