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H.B. Reese, Inventor of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Worked At Hershey's First

Weird History | March 9, 2021

Candy has a bit of a complicated history to it because a lot of the same people were doing the same things at around the same time and you can even kind of track how one borrowed from the one before it once the industrial revolution hit. One great example is a man named Harry Burnett Reese (or "H.B. Reese"), who happened to work at a factory run by a young Milton S. Hershey, looking for a job to support his growing family. If you know your candy, then you know where this story is going. H.B. Reese, inventor of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, is by far responsible for more childhood smiles than anyone that comes to mind.

H.B. Reese started his career in 1903 when he was helping his father-in-law manage his cannery business in Virginia until 1912, when he took over a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and then took a factory job, as many did in that era, in 1915. The story goes that in 1916, H.B. Reese was looking for a job and found an ad put out in the York Daily Record by Milton S. Hershey, of Hershey's Chocolate, looking to expand his dairy farms across the country, primarily those located in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Reese worked in Hershey's experimental dairy farm named The Round Barn, where he used the at-the-time new milking machines, which were much more efficient than milking cows by hand, but far less humane. Though Hershey never shut the farm down for moral reasons, he did shut it down for financial reasons, finally closing it in 1919, leaving Reese out of the job.

So, in 1919, dead in the middle of that pandemic, a man with a love for candy formed himself a company called The R&R Candy Company that he operated out of a canning company using his previous experience running his father-in-law's canneries with him. At this point, Reese had been trusted by one of the world's foremost chocolatiers (regardless of taste, you can't deny that Hershey's is one of the most popular and internationally well-known candy names in the world) with innovation technology, exposing him to some trade secrets, but also giving him a well-rounded place from which to know how to own, operate, manufacture, and ship out candy himself. What did he originally sell? Milk chocolate covered raisins and almonds, which he sold to stores individually at the local level. He knew he needed the absolute best there was in machinery at the time and he knew how to do that, by offering stock in the company and raising today's equivalent of about a quarter million dollars, he brought in a board of four people under the new name The Superior Chocolate and Confectionery Company. The business failed, largely in part due to the fact that Reese had other jobs trying to support his ten children, with a baby on the way, at which point he took on another job as a butcher, and a third job where he was, again, canning (but this time it was vegetables, at least).

Hershey Community Archives

So his father-in-law then came in for the rescue in 1921, buying the relatively-normal-sized 12-person family at the time a home in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Now that Reese was finally back in Hershey, it was high time for him to start working at The Hershey Company's shipping department, being quickly promoted to foreman, since he had the experience in doing everything from shipping to canning to dairy. 

And then, also, on the side, from his brand new basement on Areba Avenue, he started to tinker and toy with an assortment of candy, confections, hard candy, nuts, raisins, mint candy, and chocolate bars. 

His first two "big name" candy bars were The Lizzie Bar, which was named for his eldest daughter Mary Elizabeth, and The Johnny Bar for his son, John, who worked in the same shipping department as his dad. The Johnny Bar had nuts in it, which was the difference between the candy bars; do with that information what you will. Both bars were caramel-coconut candy covered in Hershey's milk chocolate. Always Hershey's milk chocolate. Reese had an affinity for his employer and paid respect to them by supporting the business where he started with the one he would eventually create. The business was perfectly symbiotic.

Hershey Community Archives

Eventually, Reese made it in the candy business to the point of quitting his job at The Hershey Company and setting out to make it in the candy business. He incorporated the H.B. Reese Candy Company in 1923, selling a large variety of candy, chocolates, and other assortments that he would pour into marble slabs for molding. He had specially-made displays for pouring available in department store windows, which helped sell candy, and helped get people into the stores.  

His original roster of confections included: butter cream, marshmallow, butterscotch, marshmallow-nut, chocolate jets, nougat, coated dates, nuttees, coconut caramel, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, coconut cream, peanut clusters, cream caramel, peppermint cream, honey dew coconut, and raisin clusters, to start. These were sold in five pound boxes during the holiday season. In 1926, he had finally amassed enough wealth to borrow enough to build himself a brand new factory and home, which were right next to each other in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In 1935, he had 62 employees, six of his sons working for him, he'd paid off all his mortgages, and he and his wife Blanche were up to 16 children.

Hershey Community Archives

Somewhat unceremoniously, H.B. Reese invented Reese's Peanut Butter Cups because a customer reported supply problems with another company who made a chocolate-covered peanut butter candy, so Reese developed a machine to automate the process and the very very popular candy became part of his normal line.

Keep in mind that he did all of this through the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, a world war, and the Great Depression, during which chocolate was a luxury, being sold at a-penny-per-individually-wrapped-peanut-butter-cup.

This is what H.B. Reese's house looks like today (Hershey Community Archives)

Before his death in 1956 of a myocardial infarction (which is not a typo), Reese set out to build a new, second factory on Reese Avenue, Hershey, Pennsylvania. He died having spearheaded new technology and food at the cost of about $6.9 million at a time when the company he started was making the equivalent of about $125 million in today's money.

Once the company was worth about a quarter million dollars, Reese's sons merged the H.B. Reese Candy Company with the ever-present and trusty Hershey Company with a tax free stock-for-stock merger. In 1969, only over half a decade after the merger, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups became the number one selling candy brand in the United States, which allowed the company to add more space to begin production on Kit Kat, which is currently the number four top-selling candy in the United States.

Tags: 1900s | candy | chocolate | food

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.