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The Life Of Milton Hershey
The revolutionary captain of industry made the world sweeter
The life of Milton Hershey
The words “captain of industry” evoke images of America’s great titans: steel giant Andrew Carnegie, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. They likely wouldn’t bring to mind the inventor of the Hershey Kiss. Yet Milton Hershey, born 166 years ago this September 13th, deserves his place with these legendary entrepreneurs. He didn’t deal in steel or oil like the Gilded Age industrialists, but his achievements are no less extraordinary.
Born to a small family on a farm in Derry Township, Pennsylvania—a place that would one day house the famous town bearing his name—Hershey’s early life was modest. He moved schools frequently and never graduated past the fourth grade. But these simple beginnings were the starting point of one of America’s greatest rags-to-riches stories.
Hershey started his career with a newspaper apprenticeship, a path he quickly found not to his liking. His next step, however, kindled his lifelong passion: candy.
In 1872, aged only fourteen, Hershey apprenticed with a confectioner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he spent four years learning the ropes. Inspired by this experience, Hershey launched several candy businesses, but his path was difficult: each of them failed.
Hershey's Milk Chocolate wrapper 1903-1906. Hershey Archives/Wikipedia.
But Hershey was undeterred. In 1886, still under the age of 30, he founded the Lancaster Caramel Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with the help of his family. A significant overseas order for the new “melt in your mouth” caramels gave Hershey’s new candy company a boost that eventually launched its success.
But Lancaster Caramel Company was just the beginning.
On a visit to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a legendary event marking the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, Hershey “became fascinated by an exhibit of German chocolate-making machinery.” He bought pieces of this equipment for his Lancaster factory, founded the new Hershey Chocolate Company, and sold his caramel business for $1 million (today, more than $36 million) so he could fully invest himself in this promising yet risky new venture.
Hershey decided to expand his business, and by 1905 he returned to his roots, building a new chocolate factory in his native Derry Township. This middle-of-nowhere spot was ideally suited to provide a steady supply of a key ingredient his chocolate business needed: milk.
Postcard photo of the Hersheypark swimming pool, 1920s. Public Domain/Wikipedia.
Milk chocolate already existed when Hershey arrived on the scene, but only as a “Swiss luxury product” rather than something that could be commonly seen in shops. Hershey not only made his own unique milk chocolate formula using fresh milk—as opposed to the Swiss method of using powdered milk—he also applied mass production, often with input from his own employees, to mass produce this special new product. What Henry Ford did for automobile production, Milton Hershey did for America’s milk chocolate.
Milk chocolate became a national sensation, and Hershey became famous, not just for his new product, but also for the kindness he showed his workers. In Derry Township, he built the new town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, as a model company town for his workers, making for them “homes, parks, schools, public transportation and infrastructure,” as well as iconic buildings, including The Hotel Hershey, the Hersheypark Arena, and the Hershey Community Theatre. These buildings, the fruit of his “Great Building Campaign,” kept his workers gainfully employed even during the Great Depression. In fact, Hershey took pride in the fact that he didn’t lay off any workers during the economic crisis.
Hershey Chocolate Factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Antarctic96, Wikipedia.
His greatest philanthropic legacy was the Hershey Industrial School, known today as the Milton Hershey School, which he founded to provide “a school for low-income, orphaned boys to help them lead successful and happy lives.” Hershey died in 1945, leaving the school all of his wealth The school offers more than 2,000 children each year to this day an excellent education and a stable home life.
Milton Hershey is a prime success story of the benefits of free markets. A capitalist who made a fortune out of nothing by relying on his inventiveness and determination, he was also humane to his workers, and revolutionized the production of milk chocolate, making it affordable for all. The town, school, buildings, institutions, and (of course) chocolate that bear his name are a testament to his legacy of achievement and kindheartedness.