When Sweet Flavors Filled the Air by Michael Kenney

When Orra L. Stone compiled his History of Massachusetts Industry in 1930, he counted no less than 29 candy-manufacturing firms in Cambridge.

There were giants like the New England Confectionary Co., whose 1,400 workers produced some 500 varieties of candy, including the iconic NECCO wafers, at its plant on Massachusetts Avenue, and small family-run firms throughout Cambridgeport and East Cambridge.

Old-timers remember that when you walked those streets you’d know, depending on which way the wind was blowing, who was making what flavor that day. Even today, you can catch the sweet, chocolatey smell of Tootsie Rolls from the Cambridge Brands plant at 810 Main St.

The confectionary industry, which at its height in the 1930s employed some 9,000 workers, is among the industries that are the subject of the Cambridge Historical Society’s Industry in Cambridge project. One aspect of that project involves interviews with the men and women who worked in the candy factories.

Carmela Cipriano LaConte, now a spry 92 who worked at the Daggett Chocolate Co. as a teenager in the 1930s, told us of her experiences. It was very much a family affair. Her father, Rocco, went to work there sometime after emigrating from Italy in 1913. In the family photograph, Carmela (in the center) is flanked by her sister Teresa (on the left) and their three Montecalvo cousins. Assorted uncles and spouses also worked there.

The Cipriano and Montecalvo sisters at Daggett’s Chocolates, ca. 1930 (Courtesy of Carmela Cipriano LaConte)

“It was a nice place to work,” Carmela recalled. “We didn’t make much, but we enjoyed it.” She said that every morning “when we came in, there was a plate of seconds for us to take.”

“I was a feeder, not a dipper,” said Carmela, explaining that as the fillings came along on a belt, the “feeders” would arrange them to get the bottoms coated with chocolate. But if they were not properly positioned, the “feeders” would have to roll them right side up –– a process she demonstrated with agility, rolling her fingers on the tabletop.

“We really had to work fast because the belt kept moving,” she said, adding that “if the belt was slow, you could take your time.”

According to Stone’s history, the firm began in 1891 as a small retail candy store in Chelsea. After outgrowing several locations in Boston, it moved to Cambridge in 1925.

“Here every working day in the week,” according to Stone, “five tons of cocoa beans are roasted and blended with cane sugar and vanilla, producing over nine tons of rich chocolate coating which is used to cover velvety creams, nuts, fruits, and specialties that are packed in 24,000 fancy boxes.”

The Daggett building at 400 Main St. was purchased and remodeled by MIT in 1964.