One evening last month, Jack Lees could be found telling tales of his Casani Candy Co., its roots dating to the Civil War, its most notable customer Milton Hershey, who in 1903 signed up the wholesale distributor to haul his new chocolate bars to every corner of the city. It was days before Lees' 86th birthday, and the occasion of his remarks was a banquet for the 150th anniversary of Casani, still in the candy-jobbing business, still going strong, though not as strong as in the days when Wanamakers and Strawbridges and Spains, the card chain - all gone now - were among its biggest accounts. His Irish charm, though, was undimmed. And his own accounts of life in the trenches offer an inside look at how shifting tastes, players, and, at times, prejudices have shaped the come-hither terrain of the candy counter.
You joined up with Casani as a 17-year-old fresh out of Northeast Catholic High. Your mother must have been proud.
I answered an ad for the job. They were looking for an office boy or gofer to assist Mr. Casani. When I got home, my uncles said, "Your mother's been worried." I said I was out looking for a job. She said, "You told the monsignor you were going into the seminary." She said, "This is terrible, you'd at least have been a cardinal."
What kind of candy were you selling back then in 1947?
The kind of candy we sold, you could sell anywhere - drugstores, card shops, grocery stores and delis, anything that had a counter. And, of course, we sold it to the schools, and they sold it as penny candy. There was Turkish Taffy, Grade A, spearmint leaves and orange slices, anise bears [they were called something else], Kraft caramels. We probably had 100 kinds the kids would buy.
What did you get as a youngster?
They made Irish potatoes [filled with coconut fondant]. They'd cost a penny, and in the box they often had a penny stuck in one. When the weather got cooler, the two-cent candy would come out.
Almost a century ago, Philadelphia was a candy dynamo, and all candy-making was local. Casani was one of the first jobbers to sell candy from out side the city. Now, half the candy is imported. Swedish fish from Canada, hard candies from Argentina.
The business is not like it was. Years ago, you didn't have Sam's or BJ's, either, and everybody and his brother selling candy. But the seashore business is excellent. We have customers that we've serviced for years. We'd start in Millville. It was a three-day round-trip by horse and wagon back in the 1800s to candy stores we had in Cape May.
What changes have you witnessed personally?
There's been a lot of [consolidation]. Heide, a German family, sold out to Hershey in the mid-1980s. They'd been making a Gummi bear and selling it to one of the cereal makers . . .. and they'd put the Gummi bear in the box for kids. Hershey bought them for that Gummi bear, and got rid of its other brands: Red Hot Dollars, Mexican Hats, Jujubes, and Diamond licorice drops.
Any other takeovers?
Well, Hershey also bought Luden's in downtown Reading, mostly for the cough drops and York [Peppermint] Patties. It used to be one of the biggest makers of spearmint leaves, jelly beans, and Easter novelties, but not any more.
Before the Goldenberg family sold to Just Born, the Bethlehem company, one family member told me that its distinctively Jewish name probably limited its national reach. What's been your experience with the city's most popular peanut chew?
It's true, the chew doesn't sell much 300 miles from Philadelphia, west of Pittsburgh or south of Washington, D.C. I've never been able to figure it out. But you know who the three biggest customers for it are? China, South Korea, and Japan.
I know it was before your time, but how did it come to pass that Milton Hershey chose to team up with the Casani company in the first place?
Milton Hershey had one of his [first, small] factories in 300 N. Second Street in Old City. He was making caramels. Joe Casani [the company's founder] was at 317. They were great friends.
I heard that Hershey's mother - a devout Mennonite - was appalled when her confirmed-bachelor son wanted to marry Kitty Sweeney, a much younger Irish Catholic beauty. Didn't Casani quietly help arrange that marriage?