Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"We Wuz Robbed": A Tale of Innovation, Genealogy, and Taffy-Pulling Machines

Hildreth Velvet candy is
essential to our tale.
Thanks to
Barbara Cain Froman,
the great-granddaughter
of Nelson Hildreth,
for sharing her wonderful
collection of cards
and pictures with me,
and allowing me to
share them
with you on this blog.

When it became apparent last year that the COVID lockdown was going to last not days or weeks but months, I committed to three goals. 

First, I wanted to give Innovation on Tap a fighting chance, so I did as many Zoom presentations and podcasts as I could, casting my fate to the wind (and face to the web), from Boston and Florida to California and the Philippines.

Second, I wanted to survive open-heart surgery, which I’d put off until my cardiologist at Beth Israel made me an offer I couldn't refuse. As I wrote about here, in January 2021, I got a pig.

And finally, I decided it was time to read my grandmother’s journals, more than thirty years of daily entries beginning in the late 1950s through her death in 1993. I’m pretty sure I was the first, and almost certain I will be the last person ever to take on this task.

And therein--goal number three--lies my tale.

“Wuz I Robbed?”

If I was expecting to read all about me in those journals, I was sorely disappointed. Oh, I showed up now and then with a broken leg or maybe a new job, but I was one of a flock of grand, great and great-great grandchildren, and more or less, in literary terms, an appendage to my mother. Her generation got all the love.

In reading the journals, I was committed, as the biographer Robert Caro advised, to “turn every page” on the off-chance that Nana, as we called my maternal grandmother Baker, would drop her guard and really let loose. This reading strategy was tedious and yielded many school committee meetings and trips to the supermarket, but also an occasional juicy tidbit.

For example, I learned some things about my grandfather I. did. not. need. to. know. And then there was the relative who abandoned his wife and then returned, all while I was trying to master long division in second grade. (Who knew?) There were also the elderly great-relatives, always nice to me, maybe because, most days, they were three sheets to the wind by noontime.

My grandmother's journals. Robert Caro said, "read every page," so I did.
But the entry that caught my attention, and soon had me powering up my Family Tree Maker software along with Ancestry.com and American Ancestors websites, was this:

"Eva’s brother was Lester. He lived in Needham. He was a stockbroker. He married Myrtle Hildreth. Her father and her uncle invented the machine that made saltwater taffy. Someone gave them a big story and talked them out of it. Then he turned around and sold it.  Aunt Myrtle used to cry over it."

What? Invented the machine that made saltwater taffy? Aunt Myrtle? Who was Aunt Myrtle?

Had I been denied my rightful inheritance and life fortune by some skullduggery that happened long before my birth?

Wuz I robbed?

This required an investigation.

A Little Genealogy

I am a genealogist. Amateur, for sure, especially compared to the talented folks at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. But I’ve been at it a long time, read more than my share of 1900 Census pages, inscrutable Polish baptism certificates, and WWI draft cards, and I’ve spent months over 50 years gathering and inputting thousands of my ancestors into a database.

I know stuff.

And it didn’t take me long to find Aunt Myrtle, who was actually Edna Myrtle Hildreth (1885-1979)—my grandmother’s aunt by her husband, and the wife of my second great uncle. She was not in my direct line but close, and someone I probably met and whose mansion I would have visited if she’d been rich from building taffy-making machines.

Edna's father, Nelson Hezekiah Hildreth, died in 1906 when Edna was 22 years old. Her uncle, Herbert, lived another 16 years, dying in 1922, when Edna was 37.

These were the gentleman who, the family story went, wuz robbed.

The Hildreth family from my Family Tree Maker software. Ten children.
Nelson and Herbert are the two siblings who got mixed up in taffy.
H.L. Hildreth, Entrepreneur

Herbert “H.L.” Hildreth (1858-1922) turned out to be a fascinating guy.

His obituary, which appeared in the June 1922 edition of The Soda Fountain, a trade magazine, reported that he was “identified with the manufacture of candy for many years and inventor of the Hildreth candy pulling machine,” before his sudden death at his summer home in Raymond, Maine.

So far, Aunt Myrtle’s story checked out.

Herbert was an entrepreneur who started life on the family farm in North Grafton, Massachusetts, before working as a plumber’s assistant and then hitting the road “canvassing for a picture concern.”

He began making candy in Lewiston, Maine, around 1888 and then opened a candy kitchen on Old Orchard Beach that featured the Velvet line of pulled molasses candy, sold in distinctive yellow boxes. He eventually built and operated the Hotel Velvet on the pier at Old Orchard.

This and the ads below are from Barbara Froman's collection.








Herbert established the H. L. Hildreth Company, moving the manufacture of candy to several locations around Boston. In 1920, he built an enormous factory in the South End at 549-559 Albany Street.

Until his death in 1906, Edna’s father, Nelson (1853-1906), was associated with his brother’s candy enterprise as a book-keeper and manager. None of Herbert and Nelson’s eight other siblings appeared to be involved in the candy business.

This ad appeared in 1893, and my guess is that H.L. was its author. It provides a good indication of how he saw himself:

“H. L. Hildreth is a hustler and no mistake. Commencing life with a dollar, he has worked his way up until he is proprietor of the elegant store,1083 Washington street, where he manufactures the “Velvet” Molasses Candy, of which he is the originator. Mr. Hildreth is proprietor of the beautiful cafĂ© at Old Orchard Beach, which has been the talk of all who have seen it. He also has conducted business in various cities, and in Lowell he is especially well and favorably known. The “Velvet” candy enjoys world-wide fame, and Mr. Hildreth has hard work to keep the demand supplied. A number of men are travelling on the road selling the “Velvet” candy and it is in constant demand. If you want a pure and wholesome article of confectionery, one which you can eat without feeling that you are partaking of a deep and wonderful mystery, try some of the ‘Velvet’ candy, whose ingredients are pure.”[1]

Years later, a 1923 ad in The Bangor Daily News claimed that Velvet had been a “favorite in every home” for 35 years, which gives us a first date of manufacture around 1888.[2] We don’t know what, beyond opportunity, attracted Herbert to the candy industry in the first place.

For a genealogist, H.L. left a pretty good trail of documentation about his life and activities.
In the 1900 U.S. Census for Old Orchard Beach, in York, Maine, Herbert (age 42) was the proprietor of a hotel, living with his wife, Amanda A. (age 38), and son, Herbert A. (age 16), along with hotel manager Roland O. Hammond (age 38) and a staff of 13 people. This was the Hotel Velvet, constructed in 1898 and described by Boston Globe travel writer Willard deLue as, “the climax of hotel building,” a palatial, five-story structure built by Hildreth “and named for the famous candy kisses he manufactured in Boston.” Directly connected to the famous Ocean Pier built that same year, The Velvet boasted the first elevator in Old Orchard, appropriate for the wealthy and fashionable that summered at the resort.

The Hotel Velvet (Barbara Cain Froman)
“That era ended with the great fire of August 15, 1907,” deLue added, “which leveled everything on the north side of Old Orchard st. It started in an annex of the Velvet (then named the Emerson) when a maid tipped over an oil lamp . . . Seventeen hotels large and small were destroyed, and more than 50 cottages.”[3]

Since the Velvet had been renamed the Emerson in 1907, it’s likely that Hildreth had already moved to Boston full-time and was devoted exclusively to the manufacture of candy—and to candy pulling machines. In the 1910 U.S. Census, for example, Herbert (age 52) was a confectioner, living with his wife, Amanda (age 50), and his son’s family: Herbert A. (age 28, confectioner), Alta (age 26) and son Herbert A. (age 8) at 20 Tremlett Street in Dorchester.

Patented and Tenacious

Herbert was a tenacious competitor.

I found one of his distinctive yellow boxes for sale on eBay. The box, probably printed in the 1890s, was as much legal warning as marketing. The front panel announced, “The Largest Molasses Candy Factory In The World.” The accompanying illustration showed the five-story, “Original and Only Molasses Candy” building at 46-48 Batterymarch Street in Boston.

"It Has No Equal" (Barbara Cain Froman)
The inside cover gave the ten reasons why Hildreth’s Original and Only Velvet Molasses Candy “Should Be Eaten by Everybody,” among them: it is perfectly clean and fresh-made, it will not stick to your teeth, you can chew it without teeth, It stops quarrels in the household, It is nutritious, healthful and satisfying, for indigestion it is superior, try it for your cough or cold, and it is endorsed by the medical profession.

“Velvet” was trademarked. On the top panel, the company warned customer to “Beware Of Imitations.”

On one flap of the bright yellow box, H.L. Hildreth announced, “I am the sole owner and manufacturer of this Patent Box. Patented April 20, 1897. I warn all against manufacturing or using any Box similar to this Box, as I will protect it to the full extent of the law.”

Another panel described in some detail the candy, both as product and as warning against imitations:

“Remember, the Genuine Velvet Molasses Candy is wrapped and sold only in lumps resembling the facsimile on this box, having the word Velvet printed in the centre in red ink. No matter if the dealer tells you that something else is just as good, don’t believe him, for he is trying to sell you an article that he buys for less money and is an imitation and of poor quality, otherwise he would or could not cut the price.  The price of the Velvet is held up and maintained, therefore insuring you a standard quality that has never been equaled. You can depend on the Velvet, it is guaranteed strictly pure and contains nothing harmful. It is endorsed by the Medical Profession. / In the cold weather the Velvet when exposed to the cold will turn hard while it is in a cold state, but put it in a moderately warm room, and it will soften back to its delicious chewing softness and delicate flavor. The Velvet is not intended to compete in price with the vile stuff that is on the market selling at a price that is way below what a first-class article can be made for, so when you want the best molasses candy that is made on earth, call for the Velvet and be sure that you get the genuine.”

Hildreth was not afraid to use legal means to protect his brand. In 1895, for example, he was handed a victory by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts against the D. S. McDonald Candy Co. of Boston, which tried to sell molasses candy in a package similar to that of Hildreth’s Velvet line. McDonald was forbidden to print “in red on yellow wrappers used in putting up molasses candy.”[4]

Where’s the Fortune?

When Herbert died suddenly in 1922, his son took over ownership and management of the family business. It appears that Herbert Jr. ran the company until 1952 when Deran Confectionery Company acquired H.L. Hildreth. Deran Hintlian had begun purchasing candy companies in 1929, being named the “dean” of the confectionery manufacturing industry by the National Candy Wholesalers Association in 1964. Deran died in 1966 and Borden bought the company in 1970, which was acquired by Great American Brands in 1993, and finally by NECCO in 1994. It's unclear when the Velvet kiss line of candy was ended.[5]

Herbert Jr.’s obituary reports that he retired as a salesman for a lumber/hardware store, so he must have cut ties with the family candy business after its sale to Deran in 1952.

Innovation and Taffy-Pulling Machines

As for Aunt Myrtle’s tale about saltwater taffy machines, here’s what I able to learn.

Taffy is made by heating sugar, cooling the mixture on a slab, and then pulling and folding the mixture thousands of times to introduce air bubbles. This pulling gives the candy a smooth finish and a soft, chewy texture. Until the early twentieth century, taffy was pulled by hand, a grueling, unsanitary, inefficient process.

First produced in Europe, saltwater taffy appeared in the U.S. about 1880 on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Taffy is a good summer candy because it resists melting, especially important in the days before refrigeration.

In April 1900, Herbert M. Dickinson published an article in the candy industry trade magazine, Confectioner, which offered for sale a machine for pulling candy. Herbert Hildreth ordered Dickinson’s machine, tested it, and was disappointed. One of Hildreth’s employees, Thibodeau, saw the Dickinson device, understood its weaknesses, and devised an improved machine. Hildreth had his own ideas on how to improve on Dickinson. Both he and Thibodeau filed competing patents. To protect his position, Thibodeau then acquired Dickinson’s patent.

By the close of 1901, the U.S. Patent Office had six competing “candy pulling machine” patents, a controversy that would last for years.[6]

Modern rules governing corporate conduct would make it difficult for an employee like Thibodeau to use or profit from the intellectual capital acquired or developed by his employer. But times were different, and in 1906, Hildreth was forced to acquire the Dickinson patent from Thibodeau for $75,000.

This must be the transaction about which Aunt Myrtle cries. In today’s dollars, Hildreth would pay a former employee about $2.4 million for a device that Hildreth had identified, acquired, tested, and attempted himself to improve upon.

This also put H.L. in the position, which the court later noted, of arguing at first that the Dickinson patent should be overturned, and then (once he owned it) arguing that it should be endorsed by the courts.

As someone who was involved in patent litigation at Sensitech, I know that such strange turnabouts are not uncommon.

The introduction of taffy pulling machines meant a spectacular jump in productivity, increasing the amount of candy that a single person could pull in one day from 300 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. Modern machines can produce about 50,000 lbs. every day.[7]

Herbert clearly saw an enormous potential, prompting him to purchase the Dickinson patent in 1906, perhaps from the proceeds of selling his hotel on Old Orchard Beach. From 1906 on, he was involved exclusively in selling his Velvet candy line and expanding his manufacture and leasing of candy pulling machines.

“It Pulls Anything That Is Pulled By Hand”

Hildreth described his line of candy-pulling machines as a “revolution.” A 1919 ad in the Confectioners Journal claimed that three-quarters of the candy pulled in the U.S. was done by a Hildreth machine. The machine could pull hard-boiled candy (stick, chips, buttercups), molasses candy, caramels, chewing candy, and chewing gum. “In fact,” the ad said, “it pulls anything that is pulled by hand,” including shoemaker’s wax and white varnish.

Confectioners could use a lower grade of sugar and recycle waste with a device “ready to work at all times, day or night, without getting sick, tired, lazy or going on a strike.”[8]  

These wonderful images of the Hildreth Pulling Machine--never sold, always leased--are also 
courtesy of Barbara Cain Froman, with my thanks!




That ad appeared in the same issue that announced that H.L. Hildreth had acquired a brick building at 549-569 Albany Street in Boston to build a new candy factory. It’s unclear if, by 1919, Hildreth was making more money from candy or from the lease of his pulling machines.

The “taffy machine patent wars” worked their way up through the courts and were finally resolved in 1921 by the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion delivered by Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft. In Hildreth v. Mastoras, decided on November 7, 1921, Taft ruled in favor of Hildreth and his Dickinson patent.

Taft framed the question as to whether Dickinson’s invention was a “primary or generic” invention, or a narrow one limited solely to the device described in the original filing.[9]

Hildreth published a summary of Taft’s decision in a full-page ad in the Confectioners Journal, saying that the Chief Justice had concluded that Dickinson was a “pioneer” in making candy pulling more sanitary, cheaper, and available to more producers. Taft noted that not until the Dickinson patent was candy pulled commercially by a machine. And, Taft said, the Dickson patent was generic and, therefore, the “doctrine of broad equivalents applies here.”

In other words, every element in the competing machine could be traced to Dickinson.[10] The fact that the original Dickinson machine was not as efficient as its competitors, nor a commercial success, was irrelevant. All the invention need do, even crudely, was to embody the principles of the patent.

An early ad when Nelson was alive, the brothers were partners, and the production of
Hildreth candy hadn't yet migrated to Boston.
We Wuzn’t Robbed, Probably

So, Aunt Myrtle’s Uncle Herbert won. Even if he hadn’t prevailed in court, he already controlled three-quarters of the market for candy pulling machines in the U.S. It would have been better not to have paid $75,000 to an employee, but the story seems to end well.

I wonder, too, if the sale of the hotel on Old Orchard Beach was required to raise $75,000 to purchase the patent—a hotel that burned to the ground the following year. Had H.L. not luckily sold when he did, would he have lost his capital?

Maybe fortune really did swing the right way, after all.

Herbert died the following May so had only a few months to enjoy his legal good fortune and relative peace that brought the taffy-pulling patent wars to an end. A patent granted in 1906 would expire in 1923.

One version of the story within the Hildreth family is that Nelson had the original idea, or perhaps identified the original patent, and H.L. stole the idea from his brother. While not impossible, I’d have to find a descendant of H.L. who would admit that his ancestor was a thief in order to support that story.

If you’ve dabbled in genealogy at all, you’ll know that descendants admitting to flawed ancestors is about as common as, well—I’ll tell you the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the fun we had when I chaired the New England Historic Genealogical Society. But not today.

Whether Herbert Jr. continued his father’s success and earned a fortune for the sale of the company in 1952, and where that fortune may have gone, I don’t know. It would take more digging, perhaps finding the company’s archives.

There are lots of questions I’d like to ask my grandmother, and a few I would ask Aunt Myrtle, but all I’ve got is a heart that still works and a box of journals, and that’s going to have to be enough for now.

Special thanks to Sally (Reed) and Gretchen Dietrich, and to Barbara (Caine) Froman, for their help with this genealogical investigation. Spending time with them was the real treasure in my story.





[1] Boston Post, Sun., 29 Oct 1893

[2] “Always Enjoyable—all ways Delicious,” ad, The Bangor Daily News, July 20, 1923.

[3] “Willard deLue in Maine,” The Boston Sunday Globe, September 9, 1951.

[4] “Another Decision in Favor of Hildreth’s Velvet Molasses Candy,” ad, The Boston Globe, January 12, 1895, page 2.

[5] "Deran Hintlian Rites Friday; Candy Maker," The Boston Globe, Boston, MA, Thu, Feb 3, 1966)

[6] Hildreth v. Mastoras, Supreme Court, 257 U.S. 27, argued Oct. 21, 1921, decided Nov. 7, 1921, Legal Information Institute.

[7] Alexandra Owens, “What Makes Salt Water Taffy the Perfect Summer Candy?”, Smithsonian Magazine, July/August 2017.

[8] Confectioners Journal, c. 1, v. 45, Jul-Dec 1919, page 154.

[9] Hildreth v. Mastoras, Supreme Court, 257 U.S. 27, argued Oct. 21, 1921, decided Nov. 7, 1921, Legal Information Institute.

[10] “United States Supreme Court Sustains Hildreth’s Candy Pulling Machine Patent,” ad, Confectioners Journal, December 1921, page 147.

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