Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Innovation on Tap #8: Mary Elizabeth (Evans) Sharpe, Candy Entrepreneur & Earth Day Hero

Born in 1884, Mary Elizabeth was an
established merchant by 1900
The main eatery at Brown University is affectionately known as "the Ratty," but its official name is the Sharpe Refectory (or "Rat-factory") Dining Hall, named for Chancellor Henry Dexter Sharpe 1894. During my time at Brown in the 1970s, the portrait of a mysterious woman hung on one of the walls of the Ratty. It would be forty years--and the writing of Innovation on Tap--before I came to know the name and story of this enigmatic lady. 

Mary Elizabeth Evans married Henry Sharpe in 1920.  Her incredible entrepreneurial story--from making candy in her family's kitchen in Syracuse to running a large-scale confectionery and hospitality organization throughout the East--is featured in chapter 5 of my book (excerpted below). But it also seems appropriate on this Earth Day 2020 to remember her other gifts. 

At the invitation of Brown's President Henry Wriston (1937-1955), Sharpe became the University's unofficial, enormously talented landscape architect.  She is responsible for the design and planting of many of the trees that still beautify the Brown campus.  Mary Elizabeth was also instrumental in the creation of the Japanese Gardens at Roger Williams Park. And her pledge of more than $150,000 in 1970--along with her historical research and "determined efforts"--helped to reclaim and beautify Providence's India Point Park.  Were she alive today, she would surely be celebrating Earth Day with us.

Another of her legacies is the beautiful Rochambeau House and Gardens that she and Henry built on the East Side of Providence.  Today it is the home of Brown's French Studies.  

Mary Elizabeth lived to see her 100th birthday in 1985 and recorded her life's story a few years earlier for the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, which made her incredible interview available to me. 

Mary Elizabeth's early days as a candy merchant in Syracuse involved an untended, serve-yourself "kiosk" that made
money--in part because customers were honest, and in part because nearby merchants made sure customers were honest
Also supportive of my research was Greg Tripoli, executive director of the Onondaga Historical Association, who treated me to my first Mary Elizabeth chocolate (made by his organization from one of her original recipes).  Mary Elizabeth's son and daughter-in-law, Henry Jr and Peggy, have also been gracious with their time and support--and their willingness to share these wonderful images.  

The "Mary Elizabeth" logo
The excerpt below from Innovation on Tap involves Mary Elizabeth's meeting with a future President of the United States.  At this point in her career, she is running tea houses in New York (where she had just taken on a new lease), Boston, and Newport, and has a thriving candy business that is so successful that some of her competitors believe she is fronting a giant trust.  This passage suggests how she negotiated not just the hard times during World War I, but all of life's obstacles.


“We began to be limited with sugar, and in a very direct sort of way I decided I would go down to Washington and talk to Mr. Hoover [Herbert Hoover, head of the US Food Administration during World War I] and ask him what this really meant for people like us,” Mary Elizabeth recalled.

Some of Mary Elizabeth's storefronts in New York City.  A note reads: "chairs borrowed from local undertaker, hoping
that no funeral occurred. . . ."
"I don't know why it is with me, but I always have the instinct to do. Go to the top . . . Well, anyway, I managed to get an appointment with him. We were supposed to save wheat and beef and sugar and they were to be rationed. I told him that I had this $50,000 a year lease and I had just begun to get established, but I didn't come down to plead for any extra. I said, "I want suggestions. What can I do? Can I make candy out of honey? Is honey going to be on the list? Are dried fruits and nuts and things like that going to be available?" And I said, "I sell cakes, and I sell tea. If I can't have flour, can I use rice flour or other things of that kind?"

Hoover was impressed, saying, “You’re the only person who has come down here with any constructive ideas. I will see to it that you get your full allotment.” 

Patrons at a Mary Elizabeth Tea Room
But Evans knew that allotments and actual deliveries were two different things, so she experimented with recipes that used the raw materials at hand, and when successful, gave them to customers and friends. “So I got a big editorial in the New York Times on having done this. Without seeking it . . . That, of course, gave extra publicity and extra income as well.”

One of two Mary Elizabeth tea rooms in Boston was located in the basement of the Park Street Church
In the summer of 1918, Hoover sent Evans to Paris to oversee the US Central Diet Kitchen. Full of energy and ideas, she published two books during the war, one that explained her candy-making techniques, and one with a collection of wartime recipes that became so popular it was reprinted during World War II to help homemakers faced with rationing. Her gift for “making do,” which had served her family so well, was now obvious to the general public. . . .

Mary Elizabeth and team at the Red Cross Diet Kitchen in Paris, 1918


Excerpt #1, about Buddy Bolden and the birth of jazz, is here.  Excerpt #2, about Jason Jacobs and the growth of Runkeeper, is here.  Excerpt #3, about Jean Brownhill and Sweeten, is here.  Excerpt #4, about Elizabeth Arden and "the right to be beautiful," is here.  Excerpt #5, about GM's Alfred Sloan (the most successful American entrepreneur ever?), is here.  Excerpt #6, about Evertrue’s Brent Grinna, is here. Excerpt #7, about Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton, is here.

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