‘Oh, Sugar!’ shows the sweet side of Philadelphia’s candy history

The owners of Shane Confectionary and Franklin Fountain curated an exhibit.

“Oh Sugar!” tells Philadelphia’s candy history story through artifacts and exhibits. | Aja Espinosa TTN
“Oh Sugar!” tells Philadelphia’s candy history story through artifacts and exhibits. | Aja Espinosa TTN

Philly’s got a sweet history.

In a new exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum, “Oh, Sugar!” tells Philadelphia’s history in the business and details sugar’s journey from cane to candy.

The exhibit features more than 100 objects from the collection of brothers Ryan and Eric Berley, owners of Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionary in Old City, including machinery, molds and other candy making tools.

Ryan and Eric Berley were inspired to showcase the vast collection of candy making artifacts that they have amassed, and the Independence Seaport Museum became the perfect place to do it.

“Two things really drove us to curate this: one, the objects we have collected over nine to 10 years dealing with candy and sugar history, and two, a curator at the museum was a customer at the [Franklin] Fountain,” Ryan said.

The Berley brothers began to talk with the curator about their collection of artifacts and their interest in the history of candy making.

Philadelphia has a rich history of candy making from the sugar trade. This exhibit explains how sugar begins its life as the plant of sugar cane, and its growth in India, China and the Caribbean. In Philadelphia in the 18th century, sugar was a treat for the wealthy because of the expensive process it took to produce it. It was originally refined in Europe or Great Britain, and then shipped to seaports in Philadelphia and other colonies. However, because of the expense, small sugarhouses began to process the cane as a way to gain independence from trade.

The exhibit also talks about the influence of sugar during wartime in the United States. In the decades after the Civil War, Philadelphia held some of the largest sugar refineries in the world. Sugar was an ingredient in gunpowder and dynamite, and was therefore rationed during World War I. During World War II, it was again rationed, in part because the attack on Pearl Harbor cut off sugar cane supplies from the west.

Aja Espinosa TTN
Aja Espinosa TTN

To tie the exhibit closer together with their ownership of Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionary, the Berley brothers featured the story of candy making in Philadelphia. Due to the large population of immigrants from France, Germany and Italy who were trained in confectionary, they found places to begin working in candy shops near the Delaware River front.

By 1900, the city was home to 117 large-scale confectionary manufacturers, 418 retail confectioners and 1,011 candy stores. The large-scale production of candy now made it affordable to more than just the elite. These shops were often decorated just as elaborately as the candy they sold, and these details can be seen today in Shane Confectionary and Franklin Fountain.

Shane Confectionary began as a wholesale confectionary supply house in 1863, and is the oldest continuously run confectionary in the United States. The Shane family took over the establishment in 1911, and it became a retail candy location. The Berley brothers bought the location in 2010, and began restoring the building to reflect what it was in 1911.

The brothers were able to collect most of their artifacts for the exhibit from candy shops here in the Philadelphia area. A majority comes from three shops that went out of business, as well as objects and tools they obtained when they purchased Shane Confectionary. Other pieces have come from antique shopping. The tools on display in the museum and others in the brothers’ collection are still used to make candy at their shop today.

The exhibit displays many different pieces of equipment for viewers to take a closer look at. Examples of the candy made were on display, featuring the popular clear toy candy. To make it, boiling sugar was poured into molds of animals and toys. Children could play with the candy and eventually eat it. The exhibit also includes an apron and cape for visitors so they can try on what a real candy maker wears.

Ryan, who has had experience curating in the past, found similarities and differences between this and running his ice cream shop and soda fountain.

“The challenges are similar in building a store or building a museum exhibit to accommodate a wide variety of people who want to visit,” he said. “Once you build the exhibit, you hope they come, but most of the work is behind you. In the store there is constant daily work.”

“Oh, Sugar!” runs until Feb. 17. The Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit will hold events throughout its run, some of which will be presented by the Berley brothers.

Admission with a college ID is $10.

Sarae Gdovin can be reached at sarae.gdovin@temple.edu.

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