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The history and mystery of Chicago’s Tootsie Rolls

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Everybody knows about Tootsie Rolls, the chewy, chocolaty logs that have been a childhood favorite for well over a century. Yet this well-known, made-in-Chicago candy is surprisingly hedged about with mystery, beginning with its very origins.

Company history from the time Tootsie Roll began manufacturing in Chicago in the 1960s is fairly solid, but the candy’s beginnings are hazy. The official line, as espoused by Tootsie Roll Industries, is that candy maker Leo Hirshfield, an Austrian immigrant, opened a New York City shop in 1896, where he sold his signature sweet — named for his 5-year-old daughter, Clara, nicknamed “Tootsie” — which he made according to a family recipe rought from Europe and wrapped by hand.

Leo Hirschfeld

Leo Hirschfeld

However, candy historian Samira Kawash has unearthed a somewhat different story. To begin with, the inventor’s surname was Hirschfeld, according to newspaper interviews and legal documents published during his lifetime. He arrived in New York from Wurttemberg in 1884, and settled in Brooklyn. He may have sold candy from his home; there’s no record of a shop.

Around 1891, Hirschfeld moved to Manhattan and evidently took a job with the Stern & Saalberg Co., where he developed several items of candymaking equipment, as well as a popular gelatin dessert mix called Broman-gelon. Promotions for the latter product featured a mascot called “Tattling Tootsie.”

It wasn’t until 1907 that Hirschfeld applied for a patent on the process of making Tootsie Rolls, describing the resulting candy: “While tough in a measure it is not unpleasantly so, and will after a reasonable length of time dissolve in the mouth.”

In 1909, Stern & Saalberg trademarked the candy’s name, stating in their application that they had been using the Tootsie brand since the previous year. Tootsie Roll’s earliest advertising dates from that period, too. Kawash reasons, therefore, that the 1896 candy-store story is a myth, and that Hirschfeld created Tootsie Rolls for Stern & Saalberg after 1900.

Wherever and whenever they began, Tootsie Rolls, supposedly the first penny candy to be individually wrapped, were a success. In the days before air-conditioning and home refrigerators, a chocolate-flavored candy that didn’t melt in hot weather proved very popular. Although the patent details Hirschfeld’s unique process, and the ingredients, which include sugar, corn syrup, soybean oil, skim milk, cocoa, whey and lecithin, are listed on the wrapper, the actual recipe for Tootsie Rolls remains a secret. The company has said, though, that one key ingredient in every batch is part of the previous day’s production.

Stern & Saalberg gradually expanded as Tootsie Roll sales increased. By 1913, Hirschfeld was vice president, and newspapers were touting him as a success story. (Interestingly enough, he seems to have been more famous at the time for Broman-gelon than Tootsie Rolls.)

The Stern & Saalberg company name was changed to Sweets Corp. of America in 1917. About 1920, Hirschfeld left, for unknown reasons, and founded another confectionery company, Mells Candy Corp. Sadly, Hirschfeld committed suicide in 1922, another mystery.

Early Tootsie Roll

Meanwhile, Tootsie Rolls were still going strong. In 1931, Sweets Corp. extended the line with the Tootsie Pop, a Tootsie Roll center coated with a hard-candy shell on a lollipop stick.

As the Great Depression continued, though, the candy company, like so many other businesses, got into financial trouble. Bernard D. Rubin of Joseph Rubin & Sons of Brooklyn, Tootsie Roll’s main supplier of paper boxes, began acquiring Tootsie Roll shares, as did other members of his family. Eventually, the Rubins seized control.

Rubin installed himself as president and began propping up the struggling firm. He opened a larger plant in Hoboken, N.J., and continued to boost sales until his death in 1948. His brother, William B. Rubin, then took over as president until 1962.

In 1966, Sweets Corp. changed its name to Tootsie Roll Industries and opened the Chicago plant at 7401 S. Cicero Ave. that is now its headquarters. The company also operates factories in four other states, plus Mexico and Canada. The manufacturer claims to produce more than 64 million Tootsie Rolls daily.

Along with Tootsie Rolls, the firm makes other old-fashioned candies, including Charleston Chew, Dots, Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, Charms Blow Pops, Cella’s Chocolate Covered Cherries and Wack-O-Wax, brands acquired by buying up other candy companies since the 1970s. Although the Rubins were Jewish, the brand did not invite kosher supervision until 2009, when Tootsie Rolls received certification from the Orthodox Union. Tootsie Pops were certified two years later.

For the past five decades, the firm has been run by its principal stockholders, 93-year-old Melvin Gordon, reportedly the oldest chairman of any business on New York Stock Exchange or the Nasdaq Stock Market, and his 81-year-old wife, Ellen, William Rubin’s daughter. Ellen Gordon has served as president and chief executive officer since 1978. All the other members of Tootsie Roll’s board of directors, and some of its executives and other employees, are over 65.

It seems likely, therefore, that there will be a change of management within a few years. The Gordons have four daughters, but none are known to be involved in the candy company, and no succession plan has been publicly released.

Tootsie Roll has been mysterious not only about its recipe and history, but also about its finances, granting no interviews to the business press and releasing only the bare minimum reports required of public companies by law. Earlier this year, an investor, Cadillac Partners, filed a lawsuit charging that the Tootsie Roll “Board has not so much as considered whether management’s failure to share company information with analysts or to have a succession plan has had a negative effect on the company’s stock price.”

Of course, there’s one more Tootsie mystery. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Tootsie Roll does little advertising today, but its 1970 animated commercial asking that question became an advertising classic. Since the commercial was released, the company says, several scientific studies have tried to find the answer, and more than 20,000 children have written in with guesses. The firm acknowledges each letter.