You might call it a Christmas miracle: how, in an age of Purell dispensers and high-tech drone toys, hard candy Santas and trains meant to be played with, then eaten, could be a local holiday hit.
But fact is that these toys that double as candy account for nearly a fifth of all holiday sales at Shane Confectionery, Philadelphia's candy store that doubles as a museum. Rarity is part of the reason.
Shane's is the only candy store in Philly, and only one of about a half dozen shops in the country, to still make the so-called clear toy candy, says Ryan Berley, the shop's co-owner and its clear toy candy guru.
This candy/toy hybrid has its origins in a simpler and less-germ-phobic time – Germany by way of the Amish who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1720s. Their kids woke up on Christmas morning – not to a tree surrounded by a trailer-full of wrapped presents – but a plate adorned with an orange, nuts, dried fruit and a colorful clear toy. The tradition morphed over time into German-American tots throughout the Northeastern finding clear toys or lollipops from local candy stores in their Christmas stockings.
At least that's the way it was for most of these kids.
"We never grew up with that tradition," admits Berley, who has German ancestors on his mother's side. In fact, he didn't know anything about toy candy until "I walked into Young's on Girard Avenue in the early 2000's," the only Philadelphia store still making the candy in-house, and bought some as holiday gifts. When candy maker Harry Young Jr. died in 2006, Berley bought 200 of his store's toy candy molds.
When asked why, Berley stares at the clear toy rabbit he's holding and says, "They're very compelling objects. They're art, history, food and a local tradition." Plus Berley and his brother/business partner, Eric, were already experimenting with antique ice cream molds at their old-fashioned Franklin Fountain soda shop.
The Berleys' clear toy-making operation began in the Fountain's basement later that year but grew exponentially after 2010, when the brothers bought and lovingly restored the nearby Shane Candy. In all its nearly century-and-a-half of candy business, Shane's had sold but never before made clear toys. The shop makes toy candies in its second-floor kitchen between Halloween and Easter with a sales peak of several hundred a week at Christmas. The candy won't dry to its namesake transparency in the warm and humid summer months or during Philly's unseasonably warm recent weeks.
Which explains why Berley greeted his chief toy candy maker, Pavia Burroughs, last week with an urgent, "We need more Santas!"
Almost everything Burroughs does to meet that demand is circa 1870. This includes swabbing the molds with olive oil, then joining them together with large rubber bands. The process really begins when she mixes sugar, water, corn syrup and food coloring (in the case of the red or green toys – the yellow ones are just caramelized sugar and none of the candy is flavored). The brew is boiled over a direct flame in a long-handled copper pot before Burroughs begins pouring. Set-up time is several minutes to an hour (for the largest molds). Open the molds up too soon and the structure will collapse; too late and she'll have to wrestle the toys out, risking breakage. (Berley says even experienced clear toy makers break 10 to 20 percent of what they make.)
Burroughs fetches the molds from a collection of 1,200 stored in wooden drawers that line one kitchen wall and bear labels like "People: Named: Saint Nicholas with Chimney" and "People: Named: Santa Laughing" (though they've recently also been cataloged on a 21st-century spreadsheet).
Most molds depict animals, boats and trains but there is also a blacksmith's anvil, dollhouse-sized oil and vinegar cruets, a replica of City Hall's William Penn statute and a perplexing goat-standing-on-a-child tableau. Burroughs says reindeer are by far the most popular Christmas clear toys, likely because, "they're delicate and look more impressive" than the Santas. One online customer who ordered a Santa called to complain that she had been sent a wizard by mistake, and Berley had to explain that that's what Victorian Santas looked like. "Today's Santas are cartoonish. These molds are more realistic," he says.
Shane's also makes clear toy nativity scenes, clear Christmas trees, even a clear version of the evil Santa Krampus, but no snowmen. "Most of our ideas about Christmas came from the Victorians. But Frosty's part of the whole other set of holiday images from Christmas songs written from the 1940s to the 1960s," Burroughs notes.
Most of Shane's clear toy candy sales are to adults, who remember them from when they were kids and now put them on their windowsills as decorations. But Berley says young children are still captivated by their sweet taste, sparkling color and detailed forms. Parents of slightly older kids might want to make like the mid-19th-century Eighth Street carnival side show huckster Berley has read about and take a bite out of a clear toy while claiming to eat glass.