Whitman's Sampler celebrates 150 years of chocolate goodness

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

He was in the business 15 years before Milton Hershey was even born and he virtually invented the concept of prepackaged chocolates. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his first boxed assortment, an elegant pink and gilt affair decorated with rosebuds and curlicues with lettering proclaiming "Sugar Plums from Stephen F. Whitman."

Though the company he founded has been bought out by Missouri's own Russell Stover Candies Inc., the Whitman name lives on in the form of the Whitman's Sampler. The Sampler has even been honored by the Smithsonian Institution. And little wonder. The Whitman story is a typically American one.

Stephen F. Whitman got into the candy business in Philadelphia back in 1842, when he was only 19. He set up a little shop on Market Street near the waterfront and went into competition with European importers. Relying on sailors who brought him the rare imported fruits, nuts, cocoa and flavorings he needed to make his confections, his reputation soon spread as far west as Chicago.

Whitman's enterprise thrived, due as much to his high quality products as his innovative marketing practices. By 1907 the company had begun to distribute its chocolates nationally, targeting "better drugstores" by awarding them exclusive franchises. Soon it was offering a "money-back guarantee" on its products, a novelty at the time.

The company was also responsible for two innovations in packaging which are commonplace today. The first was cellophane, which Whitman's son, Horace, brought back with him from France in 1912. The second was refrigeration. Teaming up with General Electric, Whitman's became the first to peddle chocolates out of refrigerated display cases.

Whitman's was also a pioneer in advertising, even as early as Civil War days. For years it touted celebrity endorsements from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart in ads in the Saturday Evening Post, and it was one of the first companies to use television.

But the Sampler is clearly the company's most noteworthy innovation. It was the first box of chocolates with a diagram on the lid identifying each candy. Sporting a design inspired by an old needle-worked sampler stitched by the company president's grandmother, within three years of its introduction in 1912 it was the best-selling box of candy in the country -- and has been ever since.

The Sampler hasn't changed much in all those years, though now it contains just 16 varieties, not the original 37. There's also a sugar-free version and one with low carbs. The company also makes a Presidential Tin exclusively for the White House. The Sampler box has changed a bit too. It has a tall cover that slides off instead of the old hinged one. Alas, that will make it far more difficult for me to sneak a piece of candy from the box I'm giving my wife for Valentine's Day.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Friday on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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