A whiff of MIT’s past
Not so long ago, Cambridge was considered a capital of candy making. In 1901, three venerable Boston candy firms joined forces to form the New England Confectionery Company (Necco), now famous for its pastel Necco Wafers and Sweethearts, the heart-shaped candies imprinted with mottoes like “Be Mine” and “True Love.” The company moved into its 500,000-square-foot space at 254 Massachusetts Avenue, near Albany Street, in 1927; it was the world’s largest factory devoted entirely to candy making. For three quarters of a century, it sat on the fringe of MIT’s campus, flavoring the wind with hints of mint and chocolate.
“The olfactory imprint of the Necco factory is as clear as if it were just yesterday,” says Glenn Boley ‘77. “The Necco factory filled the air with luscious odors. Those odors are an integral part of my memories of Cambridge.”
Inside Necco, factory workers toiled alongside vats and conveyor belts, dipping, molding, and shaping taffy and toffee rolls, Sky Bars, candy hearts, and, of course, Necco Wafers. For MIT students who lived nearby, this corner of Cambridge was characterized not only by the scent but also by the water tower on top of the factory, which was painted to look like a roll of Necco Wafers and could be seen from across the city. “Both the water tower and the factory were city landmarks,” says Charles Broderick ‘99, MEng ‘00. “For me, it showed the way home.”
Broderick lived across from Necco in the Zeta Psi house at 233 Mass. Ave. for many years, one of which he spent in a room overlooking the factory entrance. Some mornings, he would wake to the sound of idling delivery trucks. The Necco factory “was much like Willy Wonka’s,” he says. “I never saw anyone inside, the windows never opened, and I swear I never once saw anyone come in or out of the front gate on Mass. Ave. It gave the place a certain creepy mystique.”
The factory also figured into Broderick’s MIT identity. A room door in the Zeta Psi house, he says, was painted to match the water tower. “Our fraternity’s party flyers always included the phrase ‘across from the Necco factory,’” he says. “It was also an easy way to direct a cab back to the house after a night out on the town. The Haitian, French Creole-speaking cab drivers didn’t always know where Windsor Street was, but they usually knew where Necco was.”
Rafal Mickiewicz, SM ‘01, PhD ‘09, arrived at MIT in 1998 and moved into a dorm room at Edgerton that faced the loading dock and railroad tracks leading past Necco. “The sugar train used to come by about once a month, late at night, about 10 feet from my bedroom window,” he says.
Bob Bates ‘59, PhD ‘66, worked at Necco’s quality control lab in the summer of 1958, between his junior and senior years in MIT’s Food Technology course. His job was to inspect and troubleshoot many of the manufacturing operations. Among other things, he had to ensure that Necco Wafers, stamped from sheets of colored and flavored dough, had the appropriate moisture content. (“Snap ‘em in the dark and they’ll spark,” he says.) He also paid frequent non-job-related visits to the reject store at Necco. “My favorites were the various fudge recipes and especially Sky Bars–difficult to make, since four different centers must be deposited in each chocolate shell, then enrobed, hardened, and packaged,” says Bates, who conveniently does not recall whether he gained weight that summer.
In 2003, Necco workers packed up the company’s conveyor belts, pulverizers, and pumps and moved out of Cambridge to a larger facility in Revere, Massachusetts. Walls once gummy with layer upon layer of sticky sugar were torn down, and chocolate vats and conveyor belts were replaced by clean countertops, lab equipment, and bench space for the Cambridge offices of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.
Though the familiar roll of Necco Wafers vanished from the city skyline when Novartis repainted the water tower, the memory of the candy factory remains fresh in the minds of MIT alumni. Caitlyn L. Antrim ‘71, Eng ‘77, EnvEng ‘77, still remembers being welcomed by the smell of chocolate every time she returned to Cambridge after a vacation. “It’s strange to walk by those buildings on my return visits to MIT and not have those aromas wafting in the air,” she says. “Do you suppose we could get Novartis to install one of those devices to give off those aromas as an homage to Cambridge history?”