Pittsburgh’s Candyland

“I want a Clark Bar!”

Though usually heard coming from the mouth of a cartoon giraffe or camel in 1960s television commercials, that declaration was just as common in Pittsburgh grocery stores at any point throughout the last century.

With a history that stretches back to 1884, the Clark Bar is as connected to Pittsburgh as Heinz ketchup or Iron City beer. It would easily be Pennsylvania’s biggest contribution to the candy world, if not for one little-known operation just east of Harrisburg.

When we at The Digs realized June was national candy month, we decided to celebrate by dipping into Pittsburgh’s long confectionery history. And at the core of that history are the products of the D.L. Clark Company. From Clark Bars to Teaberry Gum, Clark treats traveled all over the world from the company’s seven-story North Side factory, and it all began with a young Irish immigrant who was short on change.

Born in 1864, David Clark went to work early. He found a job as a newsboy and soap salesman when he was 6 years old, knocking on doors for pennies. Two years later, he would immigrate to the United States with his family and settle in the City of Allegheny, which Pittsburgh later absorbed as the North Side.

Clark supposedly had an intense sweet tooth as a child and was often scolded by his parents for spending money on candy. He didn’t listen. When he was 16, Clark hired a friend to make batches of candy, which Clark would sell from the two back rooms he rented at a local shop. Despite limited resources, Clark’s chocolate business earned a loyal following, and the small operation steadily expanded.

Clark’s Teaberry gum debuted in 1900 after the company secured a patent for “easy-chewing” gum, inspired by the wintergreen flavor of mountain teaberry leaves Clark chewed as a child. The gum reached its top popularity during the 1960s, largely due to a Herb Alpert commercial featuring “The Teaberry Shuffle.”

Clark purchased the James McClung Candy and Cracker factory in 1911 and soon found success with a much larger production capacity, bringing his gum and candy operations under one roof for the first time.

“In our plant on the Northside [sic] we make of chocolate drops alone 50,000 pails, or 1,500,000 pounds, or approximately 97,500,000 chocolate drops a year,” a 1921 ad run in The Pittsburgh Press claims. “This is only one of fifty kinds of fine quality ‘pound’ candy.” 

Business picked up significantly in 1917, when the U.S. first joined World War I. By this time, Clark was making about 150 varieties of candy, and he immediately offered to help feed the Americans stationed overseas. But his company’s signature chocolate drops proved too cumbersome to ship overseas, and military officials asked Clark to devise a product that would be easier to transport.

The result was the Clark Bar, a 4 inch, 5 cent chocolate bar with a crunchy peanut butter core. The Clark Bar, and its iconic blue and red wrapper, was a massive success and remained popular well after the war ended. By 1929, the factory was churning out more than 900,000 candy bars every day.

“This would be equivalent to more than 17,000 miles [of Clark Bars laid end-to-end] in a year of 300 working days, more than two-thirds of the distance around the earth and almost a tenth of the distance to the moon,” The Pittsburgh Press estimated in 1929.

David Clark died in 1939, but the factory continued under the direction of his six sons and six daughters. Just as World War I yielded Clark’s flagship product and a financial boost, the years surrounding World War II would prove to be the company’s best.

Clark Bars were such a staple of military diets during the war that when a strike halted production twice in 1942 and 1943, the federal government intervened and officially deemed the candy an “essential wartime product.” One letter the Post-Gazette quoted in 1999 came from an observer at Guadalcanal, who said the candy bars served as an unmatched source of comfort for the men fighting.

“They could take the bombings and the sniping, and they could get along without vegetables and fresh meat,” the observer wrote. “They wouldn’t yearn so much for the bright lights and the movies and the girlfriends — if only they had some [candy]. Candy — just candy. And there isn’t any.”

The Clark family sold the company and factory to Beatrice Foods in the mid-1950s, which in turn sold the company to Leaf Inc. in 1983. By this time, the firm had fallen on hard times and shrank considerably. Clark products struggled to find a national foothold as competitors such as Hershey and Nestle grew, despite consistently high sales in Pittsburgh and the midwest.

Leaf, one of the largest candy companies in the world when it purchased Clark, announced in 1985 that it would close the Pittsburgh plant and move all operations to Chicago. Fearing the loss of more than 100 jobs, Mayor Richard Caliguiri negotiated a package of financial incentives and workers agreed to wage concessions. As part of the agreement, the city purchased Leaf a new facility in O’Hara to replace the outdated North Side plant.

Six years later, the same scenario played out. This time, a new buyer came to the rescue when local entrepreneur Michael Carlow purchased the D.L. Clark Company from Leaf in May 1991.

“All the Clark Bar needs is special attention, and it will do fine,” Carlow told the Post-Gazette in 1992. “There is, after all, a certain magic about candy.”

But Carlow was unable to turn the struggling confectionery around, and the Clark company went through several more owners without much progress. The old company’s holdings were independently reorganized and renamed to Clark Bar America in 1995, and it was bought again by New England Confectionary Company, also known as Necco, in 1999.

Necco moved operations to Massachusetts and continues to produce the Clark Bar on a limited scale. Its coconut-coated sibling, the Zagnut Bar, was sold to Hershey, which currently produces it. Today, the historic D.L. Clark Company building houses the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and the old Clark Candy sign sits at the end of a parking lot.

Pitt dental student Mark Grebosky, a “taffy puller,” wrestles with an armload of taffy. Working in the Clark factory was a summer job for Grebosky, who is currently a dentist in Maryland. He’s aware of the irony that he made sugary taffy while studying oral health but says he “wasn’t psychologically damaged” by the experience. This picture currently hangs in his living room and Grebosky says his family still teases him about it. Picture published July 25, 1982. (Pittsburgh Press)

The Clark Bar may now be more novelty candy than Halloween staple, but since NECC returned to the candy’s original formula, its appeal remains the same. Guido Ferrari, who worked in the original factory for 44 years and spoke to the Post-Gazette when it finally closed, did his best to sum up what many of those outside Pittsburgh never quite seemed to grasp.

“[The Clark Bar] is nice and crispy. You can sink your teeth into it.”

 

— Matt Moret

6 Comments

  1. hguy
    6/23/2017
    Reply

    Awesome story. Thank you! Loved the Teaberry Commercial. Herb Alpert’s music was everywhere int he late 1960s. A magical time. Zagnut is still the best candy bar ever.

  2. Janice Emerson
    6/23/2017
    Reply

    I recently bought a box of Clark Bites. I’m from W. Pa. and thought it would be a piece of the past. Instead, the chocolate was bitter and the filling was nothing like I remembered. I miss Clark Bars and Zagnuts!

  3. Pat Altenhof
    6/23/2017
    Reply

    I remember in the late 40’s when a Clark Bar was a rare treat – – it was different then – – there was a center core – – a strip of caramel, which was surrounded by the peanut butter crisp mixture… It was dipped in milk chocolate, then had a squiggle of milk chocolate that ran the length of the bar… It did become a bar of the crisp, dipped in milk chocolate… It became a dollar store staple – – and I found it in dark, milk and white chocolate varieties, as well as several different sized bars, including a sack of what would have been penny priced when I was a kid…. Butterfingers are a poor cousin, but are found all over the place… Clark commercials made stars of several of the Zoo’s inhabitants – – the Ostrich and the Camel were my favorites, “I want a Clark Bar”….. Now I am off to Amazon, because I really do want a Clark Bar now……

  4. Tom Garvin
    6/23/2017
    Reply

    The mansion in the Fairhaven Plan in North Versailles Twp supposedly was the Clark Mansion on the Clark Farm. I was told that that was owned by the founder of the Clark Bar.

  5. Dr Tom Shultz
    6/25/2017
    Reply

    Excellent article and this is from someone who attended Hershey Medical Center!

  6. Bob Ramsey
    7/14/2017
    Reply

    My grandfather and my father worked at Clark. My father and mother met there. I worked there every summer while I was going to college. Clark bars were a big part of my diet. Thank you for the wonderful memories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *