Milton Hershey’s Philadelphia Failure
Growing up in Lebanon County, I could see Milton Hershey’s massive success in a literal way – the sprawling Milton Hershey School campus, the park and hotel, the chocolate factory, and of course the eponymous town that contains it all.
Hershey’s empire all around us, the man titanic.
I live in Philly now, a few blocks south of Spring Garden Street, where this Pennsylvania Historical Marker sits outside a phone repair store:
How about that! Hershey lived here at one time, too, a stint that ended in failure. I had to learn more…
We’ll zero into Milton’s teenage years, just after a failed try as a printer’s apprentice for a pacifist paper, Der Waffenlose Waechter (translates to ‘The Weaponless Watcher’). Milton’s mother found him a new apprenticeship with a Lancaster candyman who began teaching him the trade.
By the summer of 1876, at nineteen years of age, Milton was sent off by his family to try business for himself in Philadelphia, funding the venture with $150 and an escort down (presumably) the Lancaster toll road.
One can only imagine how exciting Philly would have been in 1876. More than a decade after the great civil war had ended, the city was gearing up for the Centennial International Exposition, the first world’s fair, and by the time Milton had arrived, Fairmount Park had been transformed into a pleasuredome. I really want to pause a minute and emphasize what a fantastic time this was – America’s economy roaring into its postbellum industrial glory with machinery and inventions and apothecaries and all types of new innovations.
I mean, there was a friggin’ monorail in Fairmount Park. (The track was not long enough to be useful as a transportation system, but there was also a railroad built through the park to support the fair.)
This spectacle hardly escaped Milton’s gaze, as he used an engraving of the fair’s Machinery Hall on the card for his first storefront at 935 Spring Garden St.
The Hershey Archives offer the best description of his business affairs in Philadelphia – at first we find our hero doing quite well through hard work and ingenuity.
At first, the candy shop did turn a small profit. As his business expanded, the shop became too small and a few years later Hershey moved down the street to larger quarters at 925 & 927 Spring Garden Street for his retail business. He also established a separate wholesale business located at 532 Linden Street. Milton worked long hours. Many nights he did not go home, but slept at the store under the counter.
Instead of concentrating on one product, Hershey produced a variety of goods in an effort to appeal to everybody. Besides candy, he sold fruit and nuts. He made ice cream. On the Fourth of July one year he paid a German Band to play in front of the store while he served ice cream at five cents a plate to the crowd that had gathered to listen to the music.
It’s said that Milton also sold caramels and taffy via pushcart to the crowds at the exposition.
As the Pennsylvania German Society notes, the neighborhood was known around that time as the heart of Philadelphia’s German Community.
Hunky-dory though the story seems so far, Milton’s fortunes were not quite as good as they appeared – with thick competition and razor-thin margins, Hershey found himself chronically flirting with late payment and credit issues. His father arrived in 1881 but a scheme to sell a new style of candy cabinets pushed the effort further into debt, and he found his family members less willing to fund further loans.
Hershey’s first business ended six years after it started, with Milton no better off financially for the time he put in. Over time those lessons began to coalesce into principles, but it’s not even the case that Milton was now ready to realize his dreams. After a detour in Denver, Milton would have two more business failures in Chicago and then New York City. He returned to Lancaster where he went back to caramel making, applying an insight he picked up in Colorado that milk made for more delicious and fresh tasting candy.
Hershey had finally reached some level of stable success, a local business leader who had expended into Illinois and other parts of the state. A business trip to Europe in 1892 sowed the seeds for the Hershey Company we know today, wherein Milton learned the Swiss were using milk for chocolate. The next year at the world’s fair in Chicago, he was impressed by new chocolate making machinery and found himself swept up in enthusiasm – “Caramels are only a fad,” he declared – and ordered equipment to be sent back to central PA.
As we know today, “it’s the milk chocolate”. Hershey kept his chocolate business separate from the Lancaster Caramel Company, sold the legacy effort to a competitor, and relocated his homestead from Lancaster to a plot of 1,500 acres in a quiet village then known as “Derry Church”. From these cow pastures would rise one of America’s most iconic brands.
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