One of the highlights of going to the shore, as a child, was to seek out any brightly colored candy stores. These candy stores had walls and barrels overfilled with pieces of candy ready to be hand picked with great care. Among the most common classics at these stores was salt water taffy. In what seemed like a million different flavors, selecting the right salt water taffy was time consuming and exciting.
The name and the candy hail from the famed boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The quirky name, perhaps, comes from a confectionary stand owner named David Bradley. In 1883, a coastal storm hit the boardwalk, flooding all the stands including Bradley’s, which was near St. James Place. The seawater destroyed Bradley’s entire inventory of taffy. Story has it that Bradley was accessing the damage when a doe-eyed little girl pranced up asking him if he had any taffy left. The somewhat annoyed Bradley snipped, “of course… have some of our salt watered taffy”. The childs mother encouraged Bradley to name his taffy after the salt water. You don’t say! Though the term “salt water taffy” was never officially trademarked, it is clear that going forward this would be the name used.
By the late 1880s, salt water taffy was sold in seaside communities and Midwestern country fairs. Bradley, and many proprietors lead to the popularity of this treat. Though one could say taffy owed it all to a man named Alexander Boardman. Boardman was a railroad conductor that had a solution for a growing concern for the railways, and the small quaint hotels of Atlantic City. Up until this point, Atlantic City was a seashore village visited by daring vacationers who were willing to walk through the sand and dunes to get to their hotels. The railcars from Camden, NJ, stopped on the landside of the thoroughfare, requiring the vacationers to take a footbridge over to the community. Boardman devised a walkway, in 1870, otherwise known as the “Boardwalk” to solve that issue. Boardman’s invention was so successful that Atlantic City would become the Queen of the American Resorts. The success of the boardwalk allowed for business owner Joseph Fralinger to launch his own idea, encouraging visitors to take home a box of salt water taffy as a souvenir of their trip. Fralinger purchased 200- 1 pound boxes of salt water taffy and on a Saturday night he launched his campaign. By the dawn of the next day, he sold all 200 boxes. Fralinger began making his own taffy, starting with a molasses flavor. As time went by, and the sales grew, Fralinger made more flavors for the tourists and had his own store front, Fralinger’s Merry-Go-Round Store. The store boasted to have the largest carousel of its day, blaring dozens of different music selections from an Orchestration Organ to draw in the curious. Fralinger would later be known as the King of Salt Water Taffy. Imagine living in that kingdom, which I believe would resemble something between Willy Wonka’s factory and a real life Candy Land board game.
Fralinger’s success lead to the great “taffy war”, well more like a fiery competition among confectioners. Around 1905, Enoch James moved east from the Midwest, where he and his sons had been selling salt water taffy at State Fairs. James also brought his snazzy new machine, which was a mechanical taffy puller, that increased taffy production from 25 pounds to 250 pounds. James created the James Salt Water Taffy Company close to Fralinger’s and the two confectioners became taffy’s biggest rivals. James also boasted that he had refined the recipe, making it less sticky, easier to unwrap and bite sized. By the 1920s, the taffy was at the height of popularity. More than 450 manufactures were making and peddling the candy to seashore visitors. There was a brief truce between the Fralinger’s and the James’. In World War II, the confectioners joined forces to send salt water taffy to the armed forces oversees, as well as local hospitals that serviced wounded soldiers. The two companies later became a part of the Glaser Family in 1947. They are now one of the largest suppliers of salt water taffy, even some 100 years later. You can catch a glimpse of what the old James store looked like in its heyday on the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
Sometime in the early 1920's, A very perceptive Atlantic City businessman named John R. Edmiston, who liked to be called Professor, realized that no one had ever trademarked the term “original salt water taffy”. Edmiston jumped on the opportunity, secured the name, and obtained trademark #172,016. The Professor went to each confectioner and demanded a share of the profits for using his trademarked name. James Salt Water Taffy Company not only refused to pay, they sued Edmiston for taking a name of a candy that had been around for over 30 years. The Supreme Court agreed. In 1923, the Court ruled in favor of James stating that the name, specifically the term “original”, was used for too long, by too many other businesses, and Edmiston would not be entitled to any royalties. The quote from the hearing was ““Salt Water Taffy is born of the ocean and summer resorts and other ingredients that are the common property of all men everywhere.”
So, what is salt water taffy? For those not familiar with the candy, let me tell you this… ocean water is not used as an ingredient in the taffy; though salt and water are often added. The common recipes contain corn syrup, butter, water, salt, and sugar with flavoring like vanilla, lemon, maple and banana (my favorite). The ingredients were melted down in large copper kettles, over open coal fires, reaching temperatures around 250 degrees. The low temperature allowed for a chewier candy. The sticky and heavy results were placed on marble slabs to cool. The original processing of the candy required skilled workers to pull the taffy over and over, to incorporate air, and then they would hang large amounts of the taffy on hooks until it reached 6 feet in length. A good sign that it was ready for the next step would be when the taffy would fall off the hooks. For good measure, the taffy would be folded and hung once more. The harden and stretched taffy would then be cut into little pieces and stored in airtight containers to prevent moisture from damaging the final product. All done in sight of the boardwalk tourists. The cost for the bag of “torpedo’s” was around 5 cents. The line of the day was “Don’t go home and say, ‘I wish I hadda gotta box”. Of course, modern techniques have now been applied to create more taffy in a shorter time. Machines replaced the skilled workers, allowing the candy companies to product 1000 pieces of taffy in 1 minute. We hear that in one hour, enough pieces of taffy are made to cover 1.3 miles of Atlantic City.
Taffy has remained popular all over the US, except if you are a dentist. Taffy has often referred to as the worst candy for your teeth as not only does the sugar stick inside the grooves between your teeth, it does have the potential to pull out a filling or crown. Sometimes.... its worth the risk.