Salt water taffy in a vintage green tin

Salt Water Taffy: The Unstretched Truth

When you visit The Old Mill Candy Kitchen, you may notice a throng of children and adults standing outside a particular window, watching the action within as if it were a play or movie. Move closer, and you’ll hear the thrum of light machinery and see the focus of their attention: two antique mechanical marvels, rhythmically working away. One busies itself pulling and stretching salt water taffy, while the other slices the stretched taffy into individual pieces, wraps them, and drops them in a bucket.

All of this happens under the watchful eye of our “Taffy Guru,” Kip Lane, who periodically dips into the bucket to offer fresh taffy to enchanted onlookers. “When a kid takes a bite and breaks into a great big smile, I know I’m doing my job right,” Lane says.

A Classic American Candy

Soft, sweet, delightfully chewy and bursting with flavor, salt water taffy is—like the boy at the candy store window—an American classic. And like many classics, it is surrounded by myth and mystery. Some people believe that taffy was invented in New Jersey in the 1870s. But taffy’s roots can be traced all the way back to boiled-and-stretched candies that originated in the Middle East more than a thousand years ago.

Taffy came to the United States from England in the 1840s. After the Civil War, the candy became a hit with vacationers visiting the seaside resorts that dotted the east coast, many of which were located in New Jersey. The greatest taffy legend of all sprang to life in America’s most-famous boardwalk town, Atlantic City. It is the tale of a candy stand owner whose stock was splashed by a giant wave. Or submerged in a storm tide. After his taffy dried, the proprietor tasted it and found it delicious. Or he gave some to a little girl who found it delicious. When he joked that it was “salt water taffy,” a neighboring shopkeeper overheard, and urged him to stick with the catchy name. Or the eavesdropper borrowed the name and began selling “salt water taffy” himself.

Though the term “salt water taffy” spread quickly, these sea-soaked stories should be taken with a grain of salt, and then some. Boardwalk pitchmen have long been famous for their tall tales, and the salt water yarn and its many variations had a lot more to do with hawking taffy to tourists than telling the truth.

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A Fresh Take On An Old Favorite

The truth? Salt water taffy is not made with sea water, and although some recipes include salt, others do not. Ingredients vary by maker, but typically include sugar, corn syrup, milk and butter or vegetable oil. And while some candy makers argue that salt water taffy is a unique variety, others insist there is no real difference between salt water and any other taffy.

Of course, all that really matters is the salt water taffy we make at The Old Mill Candy Kitchen is absolutely delicious. Kip Lane cooks up every batch fresh on-site, using all-natural ingredients, including a little bit of salt. It takes Kip two hours to cook the ingredients for an 80-lb. batch of taffy. Once the mixture reaches a specified temperature, Kip pours the boiling liquid onto a clever early 19-century invention, the cooling table. Cold water is piped through the table, chilling its metal work surface. The candy mixture hits the table top at around 245° F, but cools to a workable temperature in ten minutes or so, yielding a large, thin layer of pliable candy. 

It’s fitting that folks have stretched the truth about taffy over the years, since stretching is an essential step in the taffy-making process. Stretching or “pulling” the cooked mixture aerates the candy, creating the tiny bubbles that give taffy its magnificently chewy consistency. Pulling taffy is also hard work. The cooked mixture is dense and heavy, and it takes a great deal of repetitious stretching and folding to create the ideal texture of the finished product.

Pulling Through History

Throughout the 1800s, pulling taffy meant draping a batch of fresh-cooked candy over a huge hook and tugging and folding with all your might. In the nineteenth century, “candy pulls” were popular social events, often sponsored by local churches. Gathering with your fellow citizens to pull taffy certainly sounds like fun, provided you can ignore the sanitary implications of an entire town having its hands on your candy.

Meanwhile, commercial candy makers employed men with plenty of stamina and upper body strength to get the job done. If you couldn’t hang a 25-to-85-pound batch of warm candy and stretch it at least six feet, you weren’t going to make it as a professional puller.

At The Old Mill Candy Kitchen, our salt water taffy is pulled to perfection, creating a taffy that is lighter, softer, chewier and silkier than others. As previously mentioned, that particular task is performed by an old-fashioned, newfangled technological wonder.

Toward the end of the 1800s, American inventors were creating machines that automated a variety of repetitive tasks, from the simple to the surprisingly complex. As candy sales skyrocketed, a mechanical puller seemed like a surefire winner.

Timely Technology

The first patent for a candy-pulling machine was issued in 1893. The patent describes a device with two metal rods, or “arms,” that might have provided a brief stretch, but could not have repeatedly pulled and folded a batch taffy. There is no evidence the machine was ever built.

A practical, three-armed mechanical taffy puller appeared in 1900, and the first patent for a four-armed model was issued in 1903. By then, Massachusetts-based Hebert Louis Hildreth had already made a fortune with his Velvet brand molasses candies. Hildreth also manufactured and sold candy-making equipment to other confectioners.

Hildreth knew that a reliable pulling machine could streamline his own operations and serve as the star of his equipment line. He began acquiring patents for pullers and marketing models under the H.L. Hildreth’s brand. By 1919, an ad in Confectioners Journal proudly proclaimed that “Three-fourths of the candy pulled in the United States to-day is done by Hildreth’s machines.”

Hildreth guarded his patents fiercely, and not one but two landmark supreme court decisions involve Hildreth’s puller patents. Both were decided during the tenure of William Howard Taft, the only individual to serve as both a U.S. president and chief justice of the supreme court. It seems appropriate that a man who weighed 350 pounds and retains a reputation for getting stuck in bathtubs weighed in on cases concerning taffy-making machinery. Especially since, like those seawater taffy stories, the Taft-in-a-tub tales don’t hold up under serious scholarly scrutiny.

The Home Stretch

After his thin sheet of candy reaches a workable temperature, Kip Lane folds and rolls it into a bulky, loaf-like shape. He divides it into smaller batches, and loads one onto  a four-armed H.L. Hildreth’s taffy pulling machine from the 1920s. As soon as Kip switches it on, the hypnotic, repetitive motions of the arms and the stretching candy draw a crowd.

The candy grows firmer and lighter in color as the machine works its magic. Kip adds natural flavors to the working taffy to create one of 17 specific product flavors (banana, blueberry, chocolate, cherry, etc.). The flavors also color the candy. If the taffy is one of our striped offerings, Kip will return some of the candy to the cooling table, add natural food coloring, and stretch it into long strips.

When the pulling is done, Kip takes the candy back to the cooling table, where he forms it into a large, log shape. Stripes are added as needed, and the taffy is loaded into the roller. The hand-operated roller spins the candy, stretching and shaping it into something less like a log and more like a giant boa constrictor.

Like our cooling table, the Candy Kitchen’s roller is an antique. Both were made in Philadelphia by Thomas Mills & Brothers, a longtime manufacturer of candy-making equipment. The Mills company was best known for its hard candy molds. These were used to create novelty hard candies with holiday or event-based themes. Hard candies were tremendously popular from the end of the Civil War until the start of World War I. Newly-elected presidents were routinely rendered in hard candy form. This means that even though Big Bill Taft was never really pried out of a tub, he was popped out of more molds than we would care to count.

The Wrap Up

Having rolled the candy, Kip feeds the elongated taffy into the last of our vintage mechanical marvels, a 1918 Ferguson & Haas candy cutting and wrapping machine. The Brooklyn-based duo of Milton B. Ferguson and Edward Haas won at least a dozen patents for their pioneering wrapping equipment designs. Our Model K-H machine was built in Springfield, Massachusetts, and originally sold by the Package Machine Company.

The cutter-wrapper slices the taffy into two-inch sticks and wraps them in wax paper by spinning the candy to twist the ends of the wrapper. This varies from other machines, which spin the wrapper to twist the ends. The Model K-H wraps at a rate of 65 pieces a minute. That’s nowhere near as fast as modern machines, but far faster than wrapping by hand. What’s more, our Ferguson & Haas works with a marvelous “chugga-chugga” rhythm and motion that makes it as much fun to watch as our taffy puller.

Salt water taffy was once among America’s most popular sweets. But today, examples of taffy-making equipment from the candy’s golden era are few and far between. The opportunity to observe a meticulously maintained collection of them in action is truly a rare treat. Be sure to stop in and see our extraordinary machines at work in our Candy Kitchen when you visit The Old Mill.

“All the equipment I work with was built to last,” Lane says. “I mean, how many new machines will still be working 100 years from now?”

Growing up, Kip had a knack for machinery, and he has come to know his taffy-making machines well. “If you understand them and treat them right, they’ll treat you right,” he muses. “Some folks can’t make our taffy, because they don’t get along with the machines. But you love them and they’ll love you back.”

And there you have the final ingredient in Old Mill salt water taffy: love. Once you put that in a candy, it’s sure to put a smile on everyone’s face. And that’s the unstretched truth.

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