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A personal history of salt water taffy
Hello, Snackers. My own memories of the New Jersey seashore are sweet and I was expecting the same mood when I started researching salt water taffy. But then things got weird.
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Before we get to the story, some self-promotion: Go listen to me on TWO different podcasts!
For Proof, the food-history show from America’s Test Kitchen, I reported an episode on the evolution of American dining 100 years ago, as seen through the menu at one middle-class restaurant in Brooklyn. Listen to “What’s On the Menu in 1906?”
For the brand-new podcastthe excellent food journalist Kae Lani Palmisano interviewed me about Snack Stack, including behind-the-scenes looks at some past posts and a broader discussion of why I think snacks are so interesting. Listen to “The Power of Snacks with Doug Mack.”
My children love the idea of the beach but they’ve never been to one, not really.
They’ve traipsed around the rocky shores of Lake Superior, where the water is so cold that even in late summer, swimming is an act of daredevilry. They’ve dipped their toes in the murky Mississippi and made castles in the strips of sand alongside the lakes near our house in Minneapolis. They’ve transformed our living room into a waterfront many times, replete with a plushy seagull and shells gifted by various relatives and blanket waves they surf using the plastic lid of a storage bin while warbling half-remembered bars of “Wipeout.”
But they’ve never been to a real beach, defined here as the kind along the ocean, with soft sand, crashing waves, and the sublime possibilities of an endless horizon. That’s how I understand the one I grew up with, courtesy of my mother, who spent a good portion of her youth on the beach in South Jersey. She retains bits of the accent, a fondness for Wawa hoagies, and a love of the sea. (She also reads this newsletter—Hi, Mom!)
Mom’s parents—my grandparents—lived in a ramshackle house on the beach in Ocean City and we would visit them for a week or so most summers when I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. The memories live on as a slideshow in my mind, all saturated colors and a soundtrack of carefree laughter. Towering sandcastles. Boogie boarding on four-foot-tall waves. Searching for shells on the beach. Here is my uncle taking me sailing; here are joyful cameos from various cousins running around on the sand and playing cards in that ramshackle house; here are the friends of my mom from Way Back When who always just happened to be in town.
Off the beach, my favorite spot was the town’s boardwalk, a place that existed as the most wondrous of wonderlands in my preteen perception, with its endless bright lights, spinning rides, minigolf, and sugary treats.
If there’s one easy shortcut to those memories, a simple phrase that unlocks all that nostalgia, it just might be this: salt water taffy.
There are certain foods that seem to exist primarily in tourist towns or local fairs (which are, after all, tourist towns in miniature). Cotton candy and funnel cakes, fudge and chikki. In parts of the East Coast, the big tourist spot is the boardwalk and the big tourist treat is salt water taffy.
The candy has been an essential—even stereotypical—part of the jovial landscape for more than a century. Here it is, for example, in a newspaper account of the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1890 (emphasis mine):
There are two carousels within its ample confines, an Edison phonograph, weighing, lung-testing, electric, tutti-frutti, light literature and photographing slot machines, a salt water taffy stand, a mammoth soda fountain, cut glass, fruit and news stands and a thriving peanut stand, the pretentious roaster of which is driven by a miniature electric battery.
It’s quite an inventory of Fun Things: high-tech marvels from the future, various things that spin and light up and enthrall (even the peanuts involve a fancy new contraption) … and salt water taffy. Consider how beloved it had to be just to earn a spot on this list.
Or here’s an incredible diss from 1889, showing just how common the candy was in Atlantic City:
The prevalence of salt water taffy at this point, and the strong feelings it elicited, is all the more impressive given that product—with that name and that recipe—had been around for less than a decade.
What year, exactly, did it originate? Well, it depends on who you ask and who you trust and how much you believe in the accuracy of a given person’s memories of 40 years ago.
The controversy began in 1923, decades after salt water taffy had established itself as a staple of New Jersey boardwalks, especially in Atlantic City.
On October 3, 1923, the Press of Atlantic City reported that a candymaker named John R. Edmiston had recently received a trademark for salt water taffy:
It’s a nice little human interest story: Edmiston claimed he had invented the product in 1884 when he was but a young sugarmonger on the Atlantic City boardwalk. One windy day, the sea spray blew all the way up onto his little kiosk; he feared that the batch was ruined but gave it a tentative taste and … Golly gee, that’s tasty. Edmiston also stated in his trademark application that he was the only person selling the product from 1895 to 1905, which is absolutely not true, as even a cursory check would have revealed to patent officials—Atlantic City was full of the stuff.
The very next day, October 4, the newspaper ran a rebuttal from a much more prominent candymaker, Fralinger’s:
The author, T. E. Lapres, argued that “salt water taffy” was a generic term that should be available for anyone and, anyway, Edmiston was an opportunistic punk with zero reputation in the industry:
Why should he be allowed to do this any more than John Smith should be allowed to come along, prove that he invented the names “caramels” or “marshmallows” and collect royalties from all manufacturers of these confections?
Edmiston has never made Salt Water Taffy in large quantities, he has never advertised it extensively and we venture to say that his product is absolutely unknown in Atlantic City, which is the capital of the Salt Water Taffy world.
(NB: I also found a listing for a trademark for “salt water taffy” in 1909, by an outfit called Atlantic City Candy Company, but that seems to have been forgotten by all involved by the 1920s.)
A few weeks later, on October 27, 1923, the same newspaper—surely either tiring of the conversation or perhaps eager to stir the pot—published a new take on the origin story, this one from a woman identified only as “A Sister,” who said that her brother, Dave Bradley, was the real creator of salt water taffy:
The sister claimed that her brother had obtained a recipe for something called “sea foam” during a trip to the Isle of Wight. He first tried selling it Newport, Rhode Island in 1879, but no one bought it, and he gave up after a high tide washed over his stock, destroying it. Then—her story skips four or five years—he arrived in Atlantic City in 1883 or 1884, began selling the candy under a new name inspired by the wash-out, and soon salt water taffy was the hit of the boardwalk. Dave Bradley died in 1919, his sister said, but she could verify his story.
The sister proved to be an avid defender of her brother’s claim to farm. At least three more times in the 1920s (twice in 1927 and once in 1929), she wrote in to correct local newspapers that had reported versions of other salt water taffy origin stories that omitted her brother. She wanted the record set straight: Dave Bradley was the genius behind the sweet pride of Atlantic City.
I should confess something. I don’t even like salt water taffy. It’s too chewy and the flavors never taste quite right. Give me a peanut butter cup or a handful of gummy worms or pretty much any other candy instead.
But it’s the one thing in my boardwalk memories that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else. The last time I went to Ocean City, for my cousin’s wedding in 2021, I ate giant slices of pizza (which was so good I still think about it at least once per week) and a tall cone of soft-serve frozen custard (my mom also had one and a cheeky seagull swooped down and stole a bite). But I can get both of those things in Minneapolis, just as I can play mini golf or go on rides. Even the beach, lovely as it is in South Jersey (genuinely—no jokes, please), doesn’t feel different from the other oceanfront beaches I’ve strolled along over the years. Salt water taffy, though, is a singular thing that, in my mind, belongs to one place and one place only. I dislike it as a candy, but I love the memories it conjures, the wistful slideshow it switches on.
This, I think, is the true role of vacation candies: they pull you into the environment. Fudge is kinda disgusting—there, I said it—but fudge places, crowded and touristy as they may be, are filled with wonder and delight, especially when you’re a kid.
By 1931, A Sister’s letter-writing campaign had been so effective that it entered the candy canon.
That’s a half-page ad from the Press of Atlantic City, noting that the James Brothers—another salt water taffy company—had successfully fought Edmiston’s trademark application, and laying out their reasoning for taking this legal action. It includes a shout-out to Bradley, crediting him with coming up with the name during an interaction with a little girl who was buying some of his taffy, a cute anecdote that appears to have been invented by the copywriter responsible for the ad.
The focus of the ad is authenticity. There’s a nod to product quality, sure, but the main point is that James is being forthright about where the candy started, and defending its honor from people who try to claim it as their own. The ad also noted that in 1913, the company had begun packaging its salt water taffy, ready to ship “to all parts of the world.” The treats in those boxes, the ad strongly implied, weren’t just tasty and sugary, but offered a story and vacation daydreams, “Atlantic City’s greatest romance” in edible format, delivered to your doorstep.
Versions of David Bradley’s story, as told by his sister and filtered through that ad, have become the official narrative of salt water taffy, enshrined everywhere from the Encyclopedia Britannica to taffy retailers’ websites.
It might be true, but I have my doubts. For starters, the whole thing is purely secondhand information offered 40 years after the fact. The competing my-candy-got-sprayed-by-the-ocean-and-it-was-tasty anecdotes are all a bit too similar and a bit too perfect and a bit too much of a Singular Heroic Man narrative, and those things almost always fail a fact-check. Also, 40 years is a long time to remember our own past, let alone the minute details of someone else’s personal oral history.
The salt water taffy shop that lives in my mind from the 1980s is a shiny, 1950s-looking place in a brick building right by the Flanders Hotel.
I just checked Google Maps and such a place does not exist. This is the location I was picturing—it’s a branch of Fralinger’s, but the building doesn’t look anything like my recollection.
I was probably thinking of Shriver’s, which is a bit farther north:
… Although, truthfully, I was picturing something more like this:
The problem with this last one is that See’s Candies doesn’t make taffy and has no connection to any boardwalks and, for that matter, has no shops in New Jersey. My brain mashed up three different candy stores, one of which is hundreds of miles from the other two.
We want to remember nice things, to edit the past to remove the messiness. Those summer days in Ocean City weren’t entirely perfect, from skin-peeling sunburns to the complexities of family dynamics, which could be … a lot. There’s so much I misremember, I’m sure, and even more that I can’t recall at all. My mixed-up recollections of salt water taffy are a micro-scale example of what neuroscientists like Felipe De Brigard (along with politicians, advertisers, and philosophers) have long understood: “Nostalgia doesn’t need real memories—an imagined past works too.”
This has long been what salt water taffy embodies: a symbol of a memory rather than a memory itself. It’s a stand-in for a beach vacation, a reminder to those on the boardwalk, “You are here, in this place,” and a postcard to those enjoying a box elsewhere, “Wish you were here.”
Did David Bradley really create salt water taffy, as his sister claimed 40 years later? I don’t know—but it’s clear that she wanted it to be the authentic story and the way he was remembered in the public sphere. She wanted his legacy to be an essential part of a broader experience that brings joy to so many people.
When I think of salt water taffy now and I daydream about Ocean City, the old slideshow in my mind often gives way to visions of the future, with the newly-added images just as saturated and hazy as those from the past. I see my kids finally making it to the beach and experiencing those joys of my childhood. They’re building castles and lounging on towels and finally—finally—learning how to surf. It’ll be their story, of course, and I’ll do my very best not to let my vision of Fun Things to Do interfere with the fun things they actually want to do. But we will go to the boardwalk and we will have some salt water taffy and we will create more memories.
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