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date: 08 March 2021

Hershey, Milton Snavelyfree

(13 September 1857–13 October 1945)
  • Jane M. Gilliland

Hershey, Milton Snavely (13 September 1857–13 October 1945), candy manufacturer, was born at his family’s homestead in Derry Church, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, the son of Henry H. Hershey and Fannie B. Snavely. In search of elusive wealth and success, Henry Hershey moved his family numerous times, always failing at his varied business ventures, including farming, cough drop manufacturing, and sales. As a result of the instability, Milton’s formal education was haphazard, and he never went beyond the fourth grade.

At age fourteen his father apprenticed Hershey to Sam Ernst, a printer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but within months he had been fired for his poor performance. Hershey’s mother then arranged an apprenticeship with Joseph H. Royer, a confectioner in Lancaster. From 1872 to 1876 Hershey worked with Royer in his confectionery and ice cream parlor, learning many of the skills and tools that would later enable him to build his candy empire.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Hershey decided to open his own candy business. He chose Philadelphia, the site of the Great Centennial Exposition established to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. With the help of loans from his uncle, Abraham Snavely, he opened his first candy shop, M. S. Hershey, Wholesale and Retail Confectioner, in June 1876. He made candy at night and during the day sold his freshly made caramels and taffy from a pushcart to the crowds at the exposition. His mother, a frugal, hardworking Mennonite who had separated from his impractical father during Hershey’s apprenticeship, moved to Philadelphia with her sister Mattie Snavely to help in the fledgling confectioner’s store. For six years Hershey barely managed to keep his business viable. In February 1882, however, after a winter dogged by illness and mounting debts, Hershey sold the business and returned to Lancaster.

Hershey next decided to join his father in Colorado, where the elder Hershey had moved after a short stint helping in his son’s Philadelphia store. In Denver, Hershey worked briefly for a candy manufacturer where he learned that adding fresh milk to candy greatly improved its quality. This knowledge would be crucial to him in later years.

Nevertheless, failure continued to haunt Hershey. After his stay in Denver he and his father attempted to open a candy business in Chicago, but the venture fell through after his father endorsed a friend’s bad note. A trip to explore business possibilities in New Orleans proved futile, so Milton Hershey decided to try New York City, where he moved in the spring of 1883 to work for the candymaking firm of Huyler and Company while arranging to open another shop, Hershey’s Fine Candies. Despite his efforts, his lack of capital combined with high sugar prices caused his business to falter. In the fall of 1885, after failing to make payments on a $10,000 note, he lost his candymaking machinery and once again returned to Lancaster, where his persistence finally paid off.

Hershey was determined to succeed in the candymaking business. Because of his successive failures, however, both his aunt and uncle refused him further financial assistance. Consequently he joined forces with a man he had employed in Philadelphia, William Henry Lebkicher. Together they scraped up enough cash to start the Lancaster Caramel Company. As he had learned in Denver, Hershey developed a recipe using fresh milk for a candy he called “Hershey’s Crystal A” caramels. An English importer who appreciated the quality and freshness of the caramels placed the company’s first large order—£500 sterling worth of the candy—enough to provide a foundation for Hershey’s company’s growth.

This success enabled Hershey to secure a $250,000 loan from the Importers and Traders Bank of New York City. Using this capital, he quickly began to expand his candy business. By 1893 he had opened plants in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and Chicago and Geneva, Illinois, all of which joined the original Lancaster plant in producing his trademark Crystal A caramels. In 1894 a local history, The Portrait and Biographical Record of Lancaster County, claimed that Hershey’s business had “grown to wonderful proportions,” doing “over a million dollars’ worth of business in a year.” About Hershey, the volume declared that “no man stands higher in business and social circles in the city of Lancaster.”

On a business trip to Europe in 1892, Hershey learned that the Swiss were dipping caramels in chocolate and that they were using milk not only to make caramels but also in their chocolate coatings. He returned home determined to put these discoveries to use. In 1893, therefore, on a trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he ordered chocolate-rolling machinery manufactured by the J. M. Lehmann Company of Dresden, Germany. The next year he opened the Hershey Chocolate Company, which was to produce cocoa, baking chocolate, and sweet chocolate coatings for his caramels; in the spring of 1895 the new company recorded its first commercial sale of chocolate. Hershey soon expanded his new business to include many novelty items such as chocolate cigars and chocolate bicycles. Deciding to concentrate on his chocolate business, in 1900 Hershey sold the Lancaster Caramel Company for $1 million to the rival American Caramel Company, but he retained exclusive rights as its supplier of dipping chocolates.

The turn of the century yielded another landmark in the Hershey annals. In February 1900 his chocolate company began marketing its milk chocolate Hershey Bar. Previously manufactured only in Switzerland and Germany, milk chocolate was new to the United States. Hershey had experimented for several years before devising the formula that would allow him to mass produce the chocolate. Meanwhile, in 1897 he had purchased his birthplace, the Derry Church homestead. Originally planning to reunite his parents on the old farm, he realized instead, in his quest to manufacture affordable milk chocolate, that the rich dairy land surrounding his Dauphin County farm provided an ideal location for his chocolate plant. Not only did the area provide an abundant supply of the requisite fresh milk, it also offered plenty of fresh water for cooling purposes in the factory as well as surplus land for expansion. By buying adjacent properties he soon accumulated more than 1,500 acres of prime farm land. In 1903 he broke ground in the village of Derry Church for his new chocolate plant. Realizing that workers would need places to live, shop, worship, and educate their children, he also began construction of an entire community.

Both the company and the community prospered. In 1908 the Hershey Chocolate Company incorporated; by 1915 its plant covered thirty-five acres. Company sales rocketed from just $600,000 in 1901 to $20 million twenty years later. In both 1918 and 1919 stockholders earned 120 percent on their investments. The community, renamed Hershey in 1905, provided affordable housing, sewerage, electricity, schools, stores, trolley transportation, a hospital, a park, and even a zoo. Determined to keep his employees working during the lean years of the depression, Hershey launched a large-scale building project in the 1930s that included a hotel, a high school, a community building, a sports arena, and an innovative windowless, air-conditioned office building.

As the depression ended, Hershey could claim that no one working for him in Hershey had been laid off. Nevertheless, Hershey was not immune to labor organization. In 1937 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized a sit-down strike that was only ended when dairy farmers protesting the plant’s inactivity caused a near riot. By 1940 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had organized a union at the Hershey plant.

Hershey’s concern for the community did not end with his employees. He and his wife, Catherine Elizabeth “Kitty” Sweeney, a former candy shop employee from New York, whom he had married in 1898, had no children of their own. In 1909 they founded a school for orphaned boys. Originally established as the Hershey Industrial School by its deed of trust, its charge was to train “young men to useful trades and occupations.” Over time its vocational emphasis gradually shifted to include college preparatory and business curricula. In 1918, three years after the death of his wife, Hershey donated an estimated $60 million in trust to the school. By the latter part of the century the school, renamed the Milton Hershey School, annually provided housing and Kindergarten through twelfth-grade education for more than 1,000 children of both sexes whose family life had been disrupted. Through its trustee it also owned more than 40 percent of the common stock of the chocolate company’s successor, Hershey Foods, and controlled more than 75 percent of the corporation’s voting shares.

Hershey’s persistence, innovative ideas, insistence on quality, and concern for his employees and others in the community were both the reason for and the hallmark of his success. His ability to judge the market and produce a fresh, affordable taste treat were all evident in his original five-cent Hershey Bar and later successes—the Hershey Kiss (1907), Mr. Goodbar (1925), the Krackel Bar (1938), and Hershey’s Miniatures (1939). During World War II Hershey again demonstrated his inventiveness by developing the Field Ration D, a four-ounce bar that packed 600 calories. Because it did not melt, soldiers could carry it to sustain them if no other food was available. In 1942 Hershey was awarded the Army/Navy E award for this contribution to the war effort. Hershey’s concern for quality was apparent from the first when he set standards for the industry by integrating fresh milk into his candy recipes. The community and school he funded and built testify to his concern for others.

Milton Hershey died in Hershey Hospital one year after retiring as chairman of the board of Hershey Chocolate Corporation. Because he had given most of his fortune to the town and school that bore his name, a public sale of his effects after his death raised less than $20,000. Gordon Rentschler, chairman of the board of the National City Bank of New York, wrote shortly after the candy manufacturer’s death that Hershey was a man who “measured success, not in dollars, but in terms of a good product to pass on to the public, and still more in the usefulness of those dollars for the benefit of his fellow men.”


The Hershey Community Archives and the Milton S. Hershey School, both in Hershey, Pa., maintain archives of Hershey’s personal and corporate papers and effects. Biographies of Hershey tend to be popularized and often sentimental. Charles Schuyler Castner, One of a Kind (1983), contains numerous photographs. Also see Samuel F. Hinckle, Hershey (1964); Katherine B. Shippen and Paul A. W. Wallace, Milton S. Hershey (1959); and Joseph R. Snavely, An Intimate Story of Milton S. Hershey (1957). The public relations office of Hershey Foods has two concise, fact-filled booklets available, The Man behind the Chocolate Bar (1982) and Hershey’s 100 Years: The Ingredients of Our Success (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Oct. 1945.