Monday, May 11, 2015

A Cabinet for Chocolates

QUESTION: We recently purchased a Vassar Display Cabinet. It’s in perfect condition with all original glass, shelving, doors, etc. The top was to contain blocks of ice, and there’s a small door at the very bottom where the ice would drain when melting. Is there anything you can tell me about it? I've found very little on the Internet.

ANSWER: You’re the proud owner of a commercial refrigerated chocolate cabinet that would have been used in candy and chocolate shops. At the turn of the 20th century, Vassar Chocolates was one of the top brands of gift-boxed chocolates, similar to Whitman’s today.

But to fully understand your cabinet and the contents it held, we have to look at the background of two companies–the company that made the cabinet and the company that made the chocolates.

The O.D. Royer Manufacturing Company began making refrigerated display cabinets in 1901—a patent date of March 26, 1901 appears on the brass handles on the box doors. They were unique because of their see-through sides. These enabled store and shop owners to display a variety of perishable goods, including chocolates and cheeses. The company moved from Downing, Wisconsin, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, before 1900. However, your cabinet has “Vassar Chocolates” painted on the front. And since Vassar Chocolates weren’t made until 1912, this dates your cabinet to that time.

The iceboxes that Royer Manufacturing made had double panes of glass about one inch apart, something that’s quite common today in double-pane insulated windows. Royer used flax straw to insulate the top ice compartment. It included a beveled mirror on the side opposite the doors. As in today’s pastry and deli display cabinets, the door side probably faced the store clerk for easy access from the back of the cabinet, while the mirror side faced the customer, making it seem as if there were more goods on display than were in the cabinet. As with other iceboxes of the time, the framework and exterior paneling are of oak.

Vassar Chocolates, a type of fudge bon-bon, sold loosely and also packaged in gift tins, were a hot item when they appeared in 1912. The Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company of Kansas City made them along with a variety of other candies and crackers. 

Established in 1902 by Joseph Loose, his brother Jacob, and John. H. Wiles, the company became the second largest manufacturer of crackers in the country by 1912. It had factories in Kansas City, Missouri, Boston, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, Omaha, Nebraska, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, employing nearly 2,000 workers and competed successfully with the National Biscuit Company until the 1930s.

Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company produced not only Sunshine Biscuits, but Vassar Chocolates and a general line of crackers, cakes and fine confectionery, and sold them within a 15-state area surrounding Kansas City. By 1912, it had become the largest combination cracker and candy factory in America, and its facilities for handling business, and also looking out for the welfare of its employees were second to none.

Joseph Loose envisioned a factory which would be filled with sunlight, and Loose-Wiles adopted the name Sunshine for their products. Soon they began expanding and opened new plants in Boston and then New York. In 1912 Loose-Wiles opened their "Thousand Window" bakery on Long Island, which remained the largest bakery building in the world until 1955. When sales began to slump in the 1940s, Loose petitioned the company’s board of directors to change the name to the Sunshine Biscuit Company in 1946, and in 1996, Keebler purchased it. In 2000, Kellogg purchased Keebler. The product it’s best known for is Cheeze-It Crackers.

So how did the chocolates get the name Vassar? It’s no small coincidence that the Vassar Girls, as the students of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, were commonly known, began making chocolate fudge in the late 1880s.

“Nearly every night at college,” said the Vassar girl in a newspaper ad, “some girl may be found somewhere who is making ‘fudges’ or giving a fudge party.” These fudges became known in fashionable circles as Vassar chocolates. Though mystery shrouds their origin, students at Vassar handed down the recipe from year to year. It’s most likely that the recipe, which would have become well known by the turn of the 20th century, would have been easy for Joseph Loose to procure. He added the Vassar name to his chocolate fudge bon-bons to give them class. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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