Tag Archives: american history

Abolitionists, Resistance, and the Nation’s First Candy – Part 3

The Author’s Illuminating (for her) Experience

I recently had an experience in my hometown of Shepherdstown, WV. It was about racism, not against African Americans but Muslims, and it did not directly involve me. Still, I felt strongly about it and got involved. The situation, which is still ongoing, gave me new insight into how Mrs. Spencer and, dare I say, the escaped slaves, felt.

Here’s how it started: I found, among other things, an anti-Muslim meme on the Facebook page of the town’s police chief, who is also a star in the hit show Ghosts of Shepherdstown which reaches tens of thousands of people. Someone had shared the meme and it stayed there for ten days until I called it out. Through Facebook I revealed the post and said the community needed to make decisions about how the town could prevent such posts in the future.

Here’s what happened: At the prompting of a town council member, the chief took the meme down. Once he did, the town council member told me the matter would not be discussed any further. The chief soon weighed in on Facebook, saying he too had rights to freedom of speech and could express what he wanted.*  The town’s people rallied behind him and were among hundreds who testified on his behalf , volunteering that he was “nice guy” and a “good, honest man”  although that was never the question. Some castigated me for calling him out in the first place. I did contact a number of attorneys and local political figures about the matter. The response was minimal. The chief never apologized for the meme.

Insights into Mrs. Spencer:  From my experience I could imagine with greater clarity the loneliness Mrs. Spencer must have felt. She was part of a community of decent people. Still, the overwhelming population were not abolitionists. They may have addressed issues in the safety of a group, at church, for example, but were unwilling to confront them in the immediacy of their communities. To stand out from the crowd in protest is difficult –to be an activist abolitionist in the early 1800s must have been remarkably isolating.

Mrs. Spencer was also up against those with the greatest power: the police, attorneys, political figures. Even more to the point, she was standing up to an unjust law which, if broken, would have profound consequences on her and her son’s lives, including fines, imprisonment, and physical punishment. Whatever supports that were available, were few and too hard-pressed to devote time to any one person.

As for the slaves – it’s hard to grasp their perspectives in this regard, many existential in nature. How could they fathom why a mass of people could subject them to such inhumane treatment?  And how could they make sense of a universe where their very children were stolen from them? We can only focus on their actions, their songs and words, and their many modes of resistance.

And in Conclusion…

The issues regarding the meme were existentially jolting. I wake up in the morning asking how my neighbors could fail to confront that sinister form of racism. These are people who vote, join marches, comment on the news. What does this say about their ability to act on their convictions? To take a stand outside of the group? Work against their best interests for something of consequence? I wake up in the morning and confront the community that I love. The meme is somewhere in cyberspace. But Mrs. Spencer, and other abolitionists of the early 19th century, and above all, those who were enslaved, did not have that escape.

*The reality behind the chief’s claim to freedom of speech was untrue: the courts make provisions for law enforcement officers. Punishments range from fines to firings.

Abolitionists, Resistance, and the Nation’s First Candy – Part 2

Resisters Under the Seat

Salem Waterfront 1770-1780

Salem Waterfront 1770-1780
At the time Mrs. Spencer landed in Salem, slavery had been part of the New England landscape. The first slaves were brought to Boston in 1634 and by the mid-1700s, 2.2% of the population were enslaved. All told, the total population of African Americans was 10% yet even those who were “free” did not have the same rights as whites. While slavery was less common in the early 19th century, it still existed and remained legal until the ratification of the 13th amendment.
Some of the most impressive symbols of Boston were constructed from the “blood and sweat of slaves” as abolitionists called it. Faneuil Hall was built by wealthy slave trader Peter Faneuil and Harvard Law School, financed by a donation from slaveholder and plantation owner, Isaac Royall Jr. to name only two.

It’s hard to know where the enslaved people in Mrs. Spencer’s buggy started. Slaves labored at the ports of Salem and many other nearby places in the 18th and 19th centuries. Likely, they didn’t come from the South, as freedom was too far for escape. Regardless, they traveled on inconspicuous roads and paths, with little food, drink, or chance to rest.

The escaped slaves fled for many reasons, among them the harsh reprisals of slaveholders; starvation and brutality where they worked; and the need to seek out family members who were sold away from them. How they found Mrs. Spencer is also unknown: possibly through a formal network of abolitionists or through informal contacts. They waited out the hours as the buggy rocked on gutted roads, moving slowly forward then stopping when Mrs. Spencer sold her candy, keeping up the guise of normality.

Within the buggy, they were certainly cramped and hungry, whiffs of sea air filtering through the wooden buggy skin, penetrating the suffocating air. There they encountered icy loneliness: outside was a world of strangers where even the sympathetic ones could turn them in or silently let them be caught. Should the worst happen, they could be flogged, branded, imprisoned, returned to slavery, or killed.

Mrs. Spencer resisted enslavement by transporting slaves toward their freedom. The enslaved people resisted, too, by escaping. Some succeeded.

…Stay tuned for the Final Chapter

Abolitionists, Resistance, and the Nation’s First Candy – Part 1

Mrs. Spencer: The Nation’s First Candy Store and Abolitionist

Salem, Massachuesetts - Home of our Nation's 1st Candy

Map of Salem 1820

The fascinating and revealing story of the nation’s first candy begins in 1800 when Mrs. Mary Spencer and her son Thomas were shipwrecked in Salem, Massachusetts, after sailing over from England. As you can imagine, Mary Spencer was destitute, having lost everything she owned in the wreck. The town’s women felt bad for her, and learning she was an excellent cook, raised money to buy her a barrel of sugar.  Cane sugar was expensive at that time, and women didn’t have the means to make money. It’s likely they had to raise the funds through church functions and other means.

Gilbrater - sugar confection created by Mary Spencer

Gibralters

With the sugar, Mary Spencer made what she called the “Gibraltar,” the British name for a family of confections. The ingredients—cream of tartar, sugar, lemon or peppermint flavoring, and corn starch—were standard in many sweets and medicines, and similar to an after-dinner mint. She sold the candy from a pail on the steps of the First Church in Salem.

It’s important to remember that at that time women couldn’t vote, rarely owned property, and certainly weren’t entrepreneurs. Regardless, Mary Spencer took the money from her candy and bought a horse and buggy which she used to travel from town to town selling the Gibraltar. She was so successful that, in 1806, she bought a house on Buffum Street in Salem. She lived on the second floor of the house and opened the first candy store on the ground floor. There she sold the nation’s first commercial candy – the Gibralter.

Mrs. Spencer’s success was partly due to her shop’s seaside location and the steady flow of seafaring customers: in war time, sailors and seamen; in peacetime, seamen, traders, merchants, and pirates. The Gibraltar was sturdy enough to withstand humidity from the sea and was cut and wrapped in triangular pieces that easily fit in small spaces on board, where it was carried to China, the Far East, Africa, and the East Indies. But something else was at hand.

As Mary Spencer went from town to town selling the nation’s first commercial candy, she secretly transported escaped slaves who hid in a false bottom beneath her seat. As for her son Thomas: he was a soap box abolitionist, who challenged passers-by to join the resistance movement.

When Mary Spencer died around 1828, Thomas put her body in an easily transportable cooper coffin. After running the company for a few years, he returned to England, where a large sum of money and possibly a title, awaited him. He buried his mother there. George Pepper bought the business from Thomas Spencer and his employee, George Berkinshaw, bought it from him. The Berkinshaw family still owns it today. As for the buggy: it’s housed in the Peabody Essex Museum.

“Jonathan Walker, a sea captain from Maine, was caught transporting escaped slaves to freedom in the Bahamas. He was arrested, imprisoned and branded with the letter “S.S.” on his hand which stood for slave stealer.”

…Stay tuned for Part II

Candy in the Classroom?

Civil War Candy HistoryYesterday, I gave a talk at the D.G. Cooley Elementary School in Berryville, Virginia, about the history of candy with plenty of samples as we went. Skeptics, such as health professionals or parents who fastidiously limit their children’s intake of sugar, may cringe. Candy? In the classroom? Seriously? No worries – I’m on their side.

But first, a little background. Candy is uniquely qualified for teaching children. They can relate to it directly – it’s not abstract, difficult, or about grown-up achievements. It’s about something in their realm and so, about them, complete with positive associations of candy bags at birthday parties and salt water taffy on family vacations. Just as important, candy gives them a visceral learning experience that touches all their senses- they see, smell, taste, touch, and even hear the sound of candy crunching.

The best part of candy in the classroom, though, is the multi-faceted education that the young students literally consume. The early history of our nation, for example, is interwoven with cane sugar, the primary reason for slavery and a central component of the American Revolution. The stories through time are fascinating and the experience immediate: the children taste the chocolate Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ate, the candy bars the World War I soldiers relied on for health and nourishment, and the 10th century medicine used in Arabic apothecaries, now known as the Turkish Delight.

Other lessons relate to the Industrial Revolution and what it reveals about the foods we eat. Students sample the licorice root – yes, a real root – then travel through time to the licorice and the red twist. They try the cacao bean then the industrialized milk chocolate. They discover that all through history people ate what came from the ground and tree as well as the fish, birds, and livestock that lived. Today our experience of food frequently begins in the supermarket, with a range of ingredients, revealed on the all-important label. In the process, they also learn about marketing from branding to market-driven ingredients in such favorites as the Pixy Stix, which has colors and smells specially added to the actual ingredients to enhance the eating experience.

And those lessons are only the beginning! No matter what the content, though, the children leave better informed and more able to make wise decisions about the foods they love. All this in an hour or so of fun.

If you’re a teacher and want to know more about True Treats’ programs, please contact us. If you want to use candy in the classroom yourself, feel free to call or e-mail us for advice.

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