Hershey, PA: Too sweet to be true?

Since the founding of The Hershey Company 124 years ago, the Hershey brand has influenced and infiltrated places all around the globe. Yet, since 1903, the company’s physical and symbolic base has remained in the exact same location ― the town of Hershey, PA. The creation of an entire town from the ground up reflected the power and success of The Hershey Company and seemingly served as a manifestation of Milton Hershey’s progressive impulses. As this town came to represent how far the company had grown up to that point, it was also a tool to craft a better brand image for the future. The utopian vision of the Hershey town created by Milton Hershey connected the production of chocolate to quintessential American ideals and aspirations of happiness, efficiency, equality, and nature. However, the happy appearance of Hershey, PA disguised less than savory truths about the outsized power and control of Milton Hershey.

The services offered by the town characterized The Hershey Company as a benevolent corporation that promoted personal growth and the pursuit of happiness for employees. Michael D’Antonio notes in his book  Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams that Milton “saw the town and the factory as a single project” (D’Antonio 120). Since town residents were workers in the factory, whatever services were provided to the residents were essentially employee benefits. The town included “men’s and women’s clubs, five churches, the free library, the Volunteer Fire Department, [and] two schools” (Coe and Coe 235) All of these services and institutions were grounded in education, community, and security, all ultimately facilitating personal enrichment. The characterization of Hershey, PA as a place of growth and happiness, is illustrated by this promotional video:

The video includes scenes of a child riding a bicycle, the busy streetfront of a school, the factory, and a water park. Important lines include “Happy, younger generation”, “Keep up the community spirit”, and “Pleasant place in which to live.” Thus, in the outward imagery and promotion of the town, youth, leisure, happy families, and quality of life become defining images while the factory holds an almost secondary role.

Furthermore, when the factory is mentioned, it is often characterized as highly efficient, organized, and clean; essentially, it is portrayed in a similar utopian light as the town and as representing the epitome of American manufacturing. Milton Hershey has been compared to the great Henry Ford as the new Hershey factory in Hershey, PA was “Hygienically spotless…Everything was mechanized, with machines and conveyor belts organized into a true assembly-line operation” (Coe and Coe 237). With the use of advanced technology and sophisticated organization, Milton Hershey and the Hershey factory appeared to embody the success and dominance of American entrepreneurship and manufacturing.

In fact, the efficiency in production (enabled by the new factory in Hershey, PA) further boosted the benevolent image of Milton Hershey, as it sufficiently lowered the cost of chocolate candy and therefore promoted its mass appeal and a sense of equality. While chocolate was for a long time considered a luxury treat, the increase in efficiency stemming from mechanization and assembly-line techniques at factories like Hershey’s turned it into an affordable five-cent confection (D’Antonio 114). Due to this fact, Milton Hershey was widely seen as “a kind of Santa Claus, distributing happiness in a wrapper” (D’Antonio 114). As chocolate was associated with happiness, by enabling lower classes to afford chocolate, The Hershey Company seemed to further promote equality and joy simply through constructing an advanced manufacturing plant.

Despite this focus on industrialism, Milton Hershey was still able to tie his town and company to nature and to the American idealization of an agrarian society. One New York reporter wrote that Hershey, PA was “a civic perfection that would return mankind to ‘Nature’ and promote the social, physical, and moral well-being of its people” (D’Antonio 116). Hershey was located in the Lebanon Valley, relatively far away from large cities. Its parks further contributed to its identity as a ‘natural’ place. The town was so separated from major urban areas that its residents and workers were even described as “Provincial” (D’Antonio 124). Even though the factory was certainly a centralized production center, the company purchased 60,000 gallons of fresh grass-fed cow milk from local farmers every day (Coe and Coe 236). Therefore, there were many aspects of Hershey, PA that connected to the agrarian ideal argued for by Thomas Jefferson, as residents lived in a relatively natural environment working at a company that supported local, individual farmers.

Although all of these features of the town and the factory seemed to embody greater American ideals and benefit workers, they ultimately supported Milton Hershey’s selfishness and greed. In fact, one story in particular that was frequently told by Hershey is indicative his character.

“He met [a man] on the street who didn’t have the fare to ride the trolley, [Milton Hershey] gave the man the nickel, knowing that the fare box was, essentially, his own pocket. Once the man got on board the car, Hershey had his money back. The tale, which Milton told with pride, revealed the genius in the system he had built. It was a businessman’s version of a perpetual motion machine” (D’Antonio 120)

The story of this interaction characterizes Hershey’s true motive behind what outwardly seemed like benevolence and generosity: personal gain. Since Milton Hershey ultimately held a monopoly on services and owned many buildings in the town, residents were essentially forced to play into his system. Even when he appeared to selflessly help a resident, Hershey evidently knew that helping others would ultimately benefit himself in a society where he essentially acted as ruler.



Hershey Family’s High Point Mansion


Source: http://www.hersheyarchives.org/essay/details.aspx?EssayId=19&Rurl=%2Fresources%2Fsearch-results.aspx

The Hershey’s house also symbolizes Milton Hershey’s status and relationship with the rest of the town. Quite fittingly, their large mansion was named High Point, located at higher elevation looking down on the rest of the town; it has been described as imposing (D’Antonio 124, Coe and Coe 235). Due to their growing wealth, the Hershey family frequently traveled, going to New York in particular to purchase fine furnishings and decorations for their mansion (D’Antonio 124). The globetrotting Hersheys stand in stark contrast with their employees who as previously mentioned, were described as provincial.

hershey strike
The sit-down strike at the Hershey factory in 1937 eventually became violent

Source: http://collections.hersheyarchives.org/search?utf8=✓&q=strike

A key moment that illustrates the length Milton Hershey went to deceive people and maintain his positive persona, while actually serving his own agenda, was his handling of a factory strike in 1937 (Blakemore). During the Great Depression, Hershey began cutting bonuses and limiting work hours in order to reduce costs. Combined with layoffs and a growing distaste for Hershey’s paternalistic attitude, workers initiated a sit-down strike on April 2, 1937. On the 5th day, “Thousands of farmers, joined by loyal employees, stormed the factory and assaulted the strikers with fists, shoes, clubs, improvised weapons and even ice picks” (Blakemore). Although the violence against strikers was initially reported to be a spontaneous event orchestrated by individual farmers, in reality, the Hershey Company hired strikebreakers and coerced farmers to participate (Blakemore, New York Times). Thus, under the rouse of a grassroots, independently organized backlash to the strike, Hershey used his manipulative power to quell the dissent against him.

While so much of Hershey, PA from the services, to the new factory, to the connection to nature painted a picture of a near-utopian community, they hid the true power and greed of Milton Hershey who ultimately created a town and society that primarily benefitted his own interests.


Works Cited

Blakemore, Erin. “Hershey’s Once Violently Suppressed a Strike by Chocolate Workers.” History.com. July 28, 2017. Accessed March 17, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/hersheys-once-violently-suppressed-a-strike-by-chocolate-workers.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey Milton S. Hersheys Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

“SCORE HURT IN RIOT; C. I. O. Strikers, Cut and Bones Broken, March Out in Surrender.” The New York Times. Accessed March 17, 2018. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1937/04/08/94350214.html?pageNumber=1.


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